The Vuelta – Ugly Duckilng of the Grand Tours


Attacks? On a Mountain?! What is this madness?!

As many have sardonically noted, there was more attacking in the five and half kilometres of the final climb on stage three of the Vuelta then in the entirety of the mountains of the Tour de France. Only four days in, and the Vuelta has had time trial mishaps, miscalculated times, photo finishes, crosswinds, echelons and ethical debates on waiting for leaders. If only the Tour had had some of that eh? It’s notable that the Vuelta has certainly grown in stature over the past couple of years, helped mainly by the fact ASO, the Tour de France organiser, bought a controlling stake in the race a couple of years ago and ended the long, dull parades through endless dry swathes of Spanish desert that meant you were never really sure if you were watching repeats or not. Instead, the Vuelta now has big names competing again, and fitting arenas on which for them to perform.

The Vuelta still has a long way to go before it gains the stature of the other two Grand Tours however. It is perplexing that it was the Giro d’Italia that was said to be under threat as a Grand Tour from the ‘fourth Grand Tour’, the Tour of California, when the Vuelta seems the weak link. After all, the Vuelta doesn’t have the big name winners on it’s roster, has had to change not only its place in the calender for reasons varying from competition with the Giro to avoiding becoming a World Championships training race but also the colour of its leaders jersey to help establish its identity better. It is also notable that the ‘Triple Crown of Cycling’ is usually referred to as the Giro/Tour/Worlds triple – whether a Giro/Vuelta/Worlds triple would be allowed is interesting. So where does the Vuelta stand compared to its more illustrious cousins?

The Giro d’Italia

Expect to see a lot of sudden knowledge on this race from British fans desperate to differentiate themselves from the hoards of new fans who will only know the Tour. The Giro is becoming increasingly popular, which may soon force those same hipster fans to move to the Vuelta, but has continued to try and maintain its romantic appeal: after all, the race is a ‘strong-hold of romanticism besieged by gloomy forces of progress and it refuses to surrender’ according to journalist and novelist Dino Buzzati, who would write an epic account of the 1949 Tour de France duel between Bartali and Coppi. Indeed, the race is one for riders looking to ensure everyone knows they’re in touch with the sports history to ride these days. The Giro works primarily thanks to a combinations of its location in both the world and the calender – besides being ‘the greatest race in the world’s most beautiful place’ as they like to claim these days, the May date ensures that the weather is not just the sun and occasional thunderstorms of the Tour, but a mixture of the elements as if the Gods themselves have decided to shed every concoction they have created upon the slopes of the country in its three weeks. Thus, riders climb roads cleared of banks of snow, and soar up the Gavia in blizzards before being battered by hail and coated in mud by the dirt roads. The Giro is beautiful because of this rich and varied colour palate, which ensures that not only are the proceedings given a sense of epicness, but that the viewer is always entertained.

The race is becoming increasingly international however. Once a bastion for the Italians and their tifosi, so named as their screaming fandom was so similar to the ravings of typus sufferers, as Laurent Fignon found out when the organisers used helicopters and lies about the route to ensure Moser defeated him, the race is now welcoming outside intrusion, with English spoken over the loudspeakers for instance. Ryder Hesjedal’s win in 2012 didn’t go down very well with the press however, who will be hoping that Vincenzo Nibali returns to win the race next year and restore an Italian to the podium – something that didn’t happen in 2012 for the first time since 1988, when Andy Hampsten took the win. The Giro has at least stopped trying to ‘challenge’ the Tour, which was detrimental for both races, and instead forged forward with producing its own, secular identity.

The Tour de France

If the Giro is a hotbed of nationalism and unpredictability, the Tour is a caricature of itself and a race that is almost no longer French – it is The international race, the one everyone knows, and the one everyone wants to win. As such, it has become subject to forces of great control and science, as teams ensure that the vast amounts of money they pour in to garner equally large amounts of publicity will be well rewarded. Thus, the race is always subject to huge hype that it can rarely deliver on to the same extent, although to be fair, it is still always interesting with the vast amounts going on thanks to the layers of stories a Grand Tour provides. The race is however in danger of becoming a caricature of itself – self-knowledge of what it should be means routes that aren’t as experimental as other Grand Tours are often created, with the crowd pleasing climbs inserted because they ‘have to be’. Not that I’m saying they shouldn’t be – I just think there’s better ways of including the Tourmalet then just having people riding over it every year just so that it’s a ‘classic’ tour. As you can see from me, the Tour is the race everyone moans about, but secretly loves – it’s what got them into cycling and what they’ll forever follow no matter how much interest they lose. The Tour will likely never lose its popularity compared with the other Tours, for instance, as the perma-summer tourist shots of the mixed French scenery is enough to mantain people for three weeks even before we get onto the racing itself.

The Vuelta a Espana

The Vuelta is the younger brother the parents never really wanted –  a stop start historical mess that began in 1935 but has only been run annually since 1955, having been interupted by the second World War as well as the Spanish Civil War. Formed by a newspaper, Informaciones, like its other Grand Tours, it was held in April til 1995, and now occupies the August-September slot that makes up the twilight of the season. It is the most frequently changed, having had countless variations on its leader’s jersey’s, from the leader having Orange, White, Red Stripes, Orange again, Yellow, Gold and now Red. The race still suffers for various reasons depsite the constant attempts at reinvigoration however. Part of this is its calender position – after the Giro and Tour, people are cycled out, and with football seasons etc beginning, the race can find itself relegated in interest regardless. The second part of the problem is its lack of legend – many would be hard pressed to name ten classic climbs of the Vuelta in the same manner that they could reel off lists of those that feature in the Giro (For the record, Stelvio, Mortitolo, Gavia, Blockhaus, Agnello, Finestre, Sestriere, Zoncolan, Cime di Lavaredo, Fedaia) or the Tour (Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, Galibier, Tourmalet, I’Izoard, Madeleine, Aubisque, Hautcam, Luz Ardiden, Plateau de Beille), with only the recently ‘discovered’ Angrilu really vying for such a claim. Hopefully it will still grow with help from ASO, and start looking to Malljorca and so on for some Grand Departs…

2 thoughts on “The Vuelta – Ugly Duckilng of the Grand Tours

  1. Really interesting comparison, and pretty fun brief history lesson. What do you think the chances of a GT being established in the US are? Especially given the big names that are already turning up to the ToC or the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and the great racing there has been there.

    1. Thanks, apologies for the delay in replying! A US grand tour has been talked about for a while, the Tour of California looked likely to be ‘the one’ for a couple of years, but putting it up against the Giro in the calendar just as the Giro had a couple of storming editions never really worked.
      Even now it’s tricky to see it replacing any of the Grand Tours – they really need to try and attract the top Euro racers to get the event some prestige, it’s arguable that the US races have been propped up by the ‘old guard’ riders who are all in their late thirties. Attracting some classy European racers as well as the young Americans who must be just around the corner if Armstrong had any effect in producing an American cycling legacy seems like the way forward for the races instead of just being time trialling competitions between Leipheimer/Zabriske/Horner/Vandevelde.
      Of course, there was that ‘Tour of America’ idea that was produced a couple of years ago that was going to be a 4 week race across the country that visited every state every 4 years, which was quickly reduced to 3 weeks, then disappeared from the radar. I’ll have to find out what happened to that and write it up on here, it’ll probably be more coherent and useful then this rambling comment!

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