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Vuelta skelter

Vuelta skelter
Felix Lowe
9 Sep 2015

With calls for the Vuelta to be shortened to two weeks, Felix Lowe makes a plea to resist the emasculation of cycling's third Grand Tour.

Last year’s Vuelta a Espana was terrific. Hands down and on the drops, it was the best Grand Tour of the year by a bike length. Even after Nairo Quintana crashed out in the red jersey we were treated to an espectáculo masivo as Chris Froome went head-to-head with Alberto Contador – the matador and bull match-up we’d hoped to see one month earlier in France. Chop off the Vuelta’s final week – as many want to do – and we’d have been deprived of Froome’s defiance of the Spanish Armada, plus stage wins from señors Niemiec, Contador (dos veces!), Degenkolb, Aru, Hansen and Malori.

Before the race, Vuelta director Javier Guillén said he’d only ever consider shortening the race if he could bank on cycling’s galacticos making it a regular fixture in their calendar, and not simply as a season-saver or World Championships leg-stretcher. I hear you, Javier. Forcing one of the Grand Tours to reduce its length by a third is like demoting one of the Three Kings to the role of shepherd in the school nativity play. We have to make a stand, because that’s what the cigar-smoking, Aperol spritz-chinking sports marketing suits are talking about – the twenty-twentification of cycling. 

You can imagine the ideas being bandied about in their ‘creative zones’: ‘let’s have power-play intervals in each race; let’s rebrand the teams as the Tinkov Tigers, the Hollywood Movistars and the Sky Robots; we’ll have no more than five riders from the same team leading the peloton at any time; and introduce a special Wigginsworth-Schleck method for deciding the outcome of a race in case of rain.’

The same people who rebranded Mark Cavendish as will no doubt suggest the Grand Tours should become the GRDTL, TRDFRNC and VLTSPN, and allow the public at home to vote off riders by pushing the red button.

I jest, of course. Cycling could certainly learn a lot from other sports’ attempts at rejuvenation, but here’s the thing: rugby sevens, five-a-side football and T20 cricket have all worked because they complement rather than replace their parent sports, and none of us wants to see cycling changed so much that it becomes a circus act. Quite simply because it doesn’t need to be. Take the Vuelta. It’s been in rude health in recent years precisely because the organisers have shown themselves amenable to innovation.

Long gone are the 250km stages through the barren La Mancha where fans would pray for a sighting of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza just to spice up a two-man break of Spanish pro-conti riders. We no longer have six sprint stages on the bounce, nor does Roberto Heras still triumph every year. 

The result has been some exciting racing. In 2011 the winning margin was 13 seconds. Last year, the field was described as the strongest in recent Grand Tour memory – even despite the absence of reigning Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali. So I find these calls to rebrand and reinvigorate the Vuelta daft. After all, we’ve just witnessed a Tour de France with a creative, challenging route that was the very product of ‘Vueltisation’. But would you ever see a Tour featuring nine summit finishes that have never featured in the race before? There’s more chance of spotting Christian Prudhomme in a mankini on the Tour’s umpteenth visit to Alpe d’Huez. Yet that’s what the Vuelta is dishing up this month (those unprecedented climbs, that is, not a naked French race organiser). And ironically enough, those ascents were all before the second rest day.

So bring in caps on stage length by all means; reduce teams to six riders; allow developing riders to go out on loan; force the top riders to treat every Grand Tour as if it were a Grand Slam in tennis or an Open in golf. But please, let’s keep the third week in the Vuelta. The two other kings don’t need a shepherd when they’re already proving themselves to be the sheep.

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