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Gallery: Why the Vuelta a Espana is the most exciting of the Grand Tours

In-depth
4 Nov 2019
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Words Peter Stuart Photography Chris Auld

‘I remember the day when I got the last mountain stage over with and I just had the time-trial to go. I can remember very clearly how that entire day went,’ recalls Sean Kelly, Eurosport commentator and winner of the Vuelta a España in 1988.

‘At that point I was pretty sure I could win it. Ever since then, this has been the race I’ve had the most respect for.’

More of a Classics rider than a climber, Kelly had fought his way over the mountain stages of the Spanish Grand Tour, doing his best to follow the attacks of the climbing specialists.

He won the individual time-trial the next day to take the overall race lead and the amarillo jersey (in the days before it was red). One day later he was the first Irishman to win the Vuelta. It was a career-defining moment for him, having beaten pure-bred Spanish climber Anselmo Fuerte and a host of other local stars.

It was Kelly’s time-trialling strength that helped him to overcome the mountain goats, and so it proved this year when Slovenian Primož Roglič put in an equally dominant performance in the individual time-trial to overthrow climbing specialists Nairo Quintana, Miguel Ángel López and Alejandro Valverde.

Almost every year, though, the race leader will likely breathe the same sigh of relief when he makes sight of Madrid, as the race has traditionally proven to be unpredictable until the last minute.

Fans of Robert Millar will remember all too well how the Brit lost his lead of six minutes over Pedro Delgado, when the Spaniard found himself in a break far ahead of the main pack in his home mountains.

Millar continued in the main group, totally unaware Delgado was out ahead, and lost his lead. He later called it a Spanish conspiracy.

History almost repeated itself this year when Roglič came close to losing his lead at a most unexpected point of the race. A break in the pack on a windswept Stage 17 saw Quintana gain more than five minutes on his rivals and nearly take the red jersey late in the race.

‘Those 100km in the echelons this year nearly changed the race completely,’ says Kelly. ‘That was an unbelievable day, with 40 riders in front and the race leader missing the move. It looked like a moment where the race could totally change. The front group could have pulled out maybe four or five more minutes.’

The Vuelta can also claim to be one of very few races to have ever caught Team Sky off guard. In what has since become known as the ‘Ambush at Formigal’, on Stage 15 of the 2016 race, the Spanish race leaders worked in unison, instead of in-fighting, to attack Chris Froome.

It delivered an overall win for Quintana off the back of a two-man break with Alberto Contador, who was himself fighting for a place on the podium.

The underdog

If the Vuelta now seems like an unshakable fixture in WorldTour racing, the reality is that it struggled for a long time to establish itself as an elite event. At one point its status was so lowly that it failed even to lure Spanish champions Miguel Indurain and Pedro Delgado to the race.

Such a snub from leading Spanish riders would seem inconceivable today, and that’s testament to just how much the event has evolved since its inception.

Indeed the Vuelta struggled right from the outset. The split between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain and Catalonia, seemed too great to allow one single bike race to unite both regions.

Adrian Bell, co-author of Viva La Vuelta!, explains the race’s beginnings: ‘What spurred it initially was Narcisse Masferrer, president of Unión Velocipedia Española, who thought, “We need a national tour like France and Italy.” In 1913 he got the support of a newspaper called El Mundo Deportivo, which was a Barcelona paper devoted entirely to sport.

‘What he came up against – and it’s a perennial thing in Spain – was the rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish cycling authorities said, “That’s a nice idea but we’re damned if we’re going to have it organised and run by Barcelona and Catalonia.” So the whole thing collapsed and Masferrer ended up setting up the Tour of Catalunya instead. It wasn’t until 1935 that it was revived.’

Initially the Vuelta was backed by a nationalistic right-wing newspaper, Informaciones, with the aim of celebrating Spain’s greatness. However, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and then the Second World War, the race didn’t enjoy either the public acclaim or commercial success that the organisers had hoped for.

After disappearing from the calendar altogether for four years, the Vuelta reappeared in the mid-1950s, but against a backdrop of national poverty it again struggled to gain recognition.

‘For that they needed top international riders competing, and the organisers in the 1950s and 60s would bend over backwards to attract them,’ Bell says. ‘So if you want Jacques Anquetil you can get him, but only if you make the race as flat as you can and put in lots of time-trials.’

While today’s Vueltas are famous for the amount of climbing they pack in, the organisers of the earlier iterations seemed almost embarrassed that Spain had no mountains to rival Italy and France.

‘Even as late as the late 1960s you had the organiser apologising for the race not having the grandeur of the Tour de France,’ says Bell. ‘He said, “I can’t import the Tourmalet to Spain.” They really suffered from a great inferiority complex. That started to change when the race moved dates in 1995.’

Before then the Vuelta was run in late April, meaning it clashed with the Giro d’Italia. ‘You had three Grand Tours in quick succession,’ says Bell. ‘It was daft, and it wasn’t good for sponsors who wanted exposure to be spread out over a longer period.

‘So the UCI went to the Giro and asked them to change their date. The organisers said, “No, get the Spaniards to move.” And with great reluctance, they did.’

At first the Vuelta saw the move to September as a huge loss, clashing as it did with riders’ preparations for the World Championships and falling outside the main part of the season, but it was arguably for the best. It began the great shift in the character of the Vuelta that turned it into the race we see today.

Brave and the bold

With the Vuelta now falling towards the end of the season, it provides a different racing environment compared to the Giro and Tour. ‘Riders go to the Vuelta with freedom. They have no more commitments for the year so they ride more bravely,’ says Laura Meseguer, Eurosport presenter and author of a forthcoming book on the greatest Spanish riders.

‘That makes it unpredictable. They have nothing to lose. Often they’ve achieved what they wanted to achieve that year, so they are more aggressive.’

However, timing is not the only ingredient that has changed the flavour of the Spanish cocktail. The other is the terrain.

‘When I rode, we didn’t have those steep, crazy climbs like we’ve had in the last couple of years,’ recalls Kelly. ‘The likes of the Angliru – we didn’t have that gradient at all. We had the likes of the Covadonga and the mountains around Madrid. Those got to 10% or 12%, but nothing up to 20%.’

Those steep climbs have become a regular feature of the race, allowing punchy riders such as Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde to out-perform Tour champions like Froome, who are simply not built for inclines over 15%.

Much of the credit – or blame – for these climbs lies at the feet of the race’s current director, Javier Guillén.

‘Guillén has absolutely no inferiority complex,’ says Bell. ‘He’s full of it. He takes a very commercial view. Racing wouldn’t exist without the sponsors, who want people to watch on television and at the roadside. So we’ve got to give the people what they want, and what they want is exciting racing.’

In Kelly’s day, many of the stages in the Vuelta centred on long, flat parades through brown arid landscapes with barely a spectator in sight. Guillén changed all that.

‘The stages will be short and explosive, because that’s what spectators want,’ he said when unveiling the 2012 course. At the time, Spaniard and top-ranked UCI rider Joaquim Rodriguez responded, ‘I like it.’

One of the Vuelta’s advantages is its ability to experiment with different formats and introduce new elements because of the fact that it’s so much smaller than its cousin over the border in France.

‘If the Tour is 100 on a scale, the Vuelta is 10,’ says Meseguer. ‘At the finish line you maybe find a platform for Eurosport and Televisión Española, but that’s it. Sometimes the podium has to be downtown in a small square because of how tiny the towns are.’

However, the race’s size can also be its weakness. Meseguer recalls the 2008 edition, which was marred by severe financial difficulty: ‘The race and the sport were very poor. There were not many sponsors.

‘It was a time of crisis for the Vuelta, especially after [doping scandal] Operacion Puerto, and it’s great to see that it has grown and improved so much over the last few years.’ 

Back with a bang

‘I think the era with Alejandro Valverde, Purito Rodriguez and Alberto Contador – that was like a new start for the Vuelta,’ says Meseguer. ‘We had these three Spaniards and Froome, and he was trying to win the race but just couldn’t. They competed over every single kilometre, which made the race super-exciting.’

This new era for Spanish cycling reached its peak in 2012, when that Spanish trio took all three places on the Vuelta podium, with Froome fourth. It saw one of the great solo attacks from Contador on Stage 17, when he dropped race leader Rodriguez on the shallow slopes of the final climb to Fuente Dé.

Contador would go on to win the race, followed by Valverde and Rodriguez, both less than two minutes behind. Froome seemed to be in a different race, finishing more than eight minutes off the podium.

The era of Contador and Rodriguez may have inspired a new generation of Spanish and Colombian climbers, yet there are some riders who argue that the downside of their legacy is that the race has simply become too tough.

‘I remember when the Vuelta started in Galicia in 2016,’ says Meseguer. ‘The peloton was exhausted after five or six days because the terrain was so tough and the mountains were so steep and punishing. In the same way, this year the second week of the Vuelta was really tough, and it just means there’s no chance for the sprinters.’

The Vuelta’s hilly character means the sprinters are often unable to compete for the green jersey competition. In 2012, German sprinter John Degenkolb won five stages of the race, yet ended up in fourth place for the green jersey behind the three Spaniards on the overall podium.

That was because of the sheer number of summit finishes, and therefore the number of points available only to the best climbers and GC riders, and it made a minor mockery of a classification designed primarily for sprinters.

A race full of climbs can, of course, spark the interest of many. For some in the sport, however, it can make the race a little two-dimensional and uninviting. ‘There are a lot of people who see it as working and there are a lot of people who don’t like it,’ says Bell.

‘Mark Cavendish said the race “has just become stupid now” and declared the Tour of Britain as the best preparation for the World Championships. And there are a lot of riders who think like that these days.’

There are even those who argue that the modern-day Vuelta has become like the early days of the Tour de France, when in 1910 Octave Lapize pushed his bike past race organisers and accused them of being ‘assassins’ over the severity of the course.

The chances are, race director Javier Guillén would be happy with the comparison. That means his Grand Tour is now a world away from the event that was once considered a dull version of the Tour.

In a sport of conservative tactics and all-dominating teams, the modern Vuelta remains a refuge for dramatic, chaotic and unpredictable racing.

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