Five years ago, the Vuelta was languishing at the bottom of the pile of grand tours, being overshadowed not only by the Giro and Tour, but also by young, upstart American races that threatened to take the place of the third Grand Tour. Years of racing through endless desert landscapes indistinguishable from the previous day severely dented the Vuelta’s credibility, as did its winners list, as Roberto Heras, Alejandro Valverde and Alexandre Vinokourov put a bit of a cloud over the race. The race, it seemed, was dying.
Even when the route of the 2012 race was annonced, people gave a depressed sigh – sure, the race has picked up in its previous couple of editions, but surely these were the exceptions to the rule. With 10 summit finishes, and the race starting just days after Alberto Contador’s suspension ended, it would be a walk over for ol’ Pistolero, who would simply waltz away from his rivals, we all thought. Even when it looked like Andy Schleck might be riding, no one really thought he would put up much fight. No, it would be a Contador procession, more boring the Tour, and the Vuelta would be once again banished to the back of the minds of fans.
A day after the race ended, the result everyone predicted has indeed happened. The difference however, is that the story of that result was inherently different from what anyone could have forseen. This year’s Vuelta was a rare perfect synergy of route and riders, with continual excitement, twists and turns, ensuring that even when we thought victory was certain for riders, it would never transpire to be so. It was without a doubt the best Grand Tour of the year.
We of course have two main groups to praise – firstly, the organisers, who produced a route that whilst on paper looked like a platform for the strongest rider to gain 5 minutes every day whilst leaving scraps for everyone else, actually created an incredibly well balanced route that gave us a tightly packed podium and decided two of the four classifications on the final day, with the other two only certain the day before. There was something for everyone: a team time trial that was anything but typical thanks to its uphill finish (and drama added by the fiasco of Rabobank not actually finishing second), a long time trial that broke with convention, and even six sprint stages, which balanced the route nicely with the mix of steep uphills and long mountains. The route was a masterclass, and showed simply how it looks on a map (I’ll be first to admit mocking the ‘Tour of North of Madrid’) is irrelevant.
That said, as is mentioned every year, the riders make the race, not the route, and we were blessed with three riders in particular that had los cajones to attack and race aggressively in Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez. The first uphill climb produced more attacks in its few short kilometres then in the entirety of the Tour de France it seemed, and quickly made everyone fall in love with Contador all over again. Happily, the race seemed exquistely poised at all stages – the first week seemed to suggest a Froome-Contador duel, especially after Sky hammered Valverde with unsportsmanlike attack that caused a crash, but the second week left us with Rodriguez-Contador as Froome suffered, only for the third week to make it Contador-Valverde until the penultimate day, where Rodriguez made the epic last ditch bid on the Bola del Mundo to try and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It was an absorbingly epic contest between three to four evenly matched, optimistic riders who attacked every day, rather then the defensive Tour tactics that killed off much of the excitement.
The race also benefited from its comparative lack of ‘Mythical’ climbs that the other Grand Tour’s have. Fans havent really known about the Fuente De climb, for instance, or even the climb they managed to find in Andora, with the Arcalis climb more known. Clearly Contador didn’t know that one either, which is why, on my favorite finish of the year, he somehow got caught on the line despite having a seemingly unassailable lead in the last 500m. Spain only really has a couple of well known climbs: the Lagos de Covadonga was discovered in the 80s as Spain’s answer to Alpe d’Huez, and the Angrilu, famed for its 25% average sloped and the fact it more often then not doesnt get shown in TV because the camera bikes either stall or fall over on the slopes. This meant that all the climbs had an air of freshness and mysticism about them precisely because they had no history to many, and were not burdened by the weight of past reputations and results. Thus, finally, we had a Grand Tour that was creating history rather then being obsessed with it.
The Vuelta finally broke away from its image of being a very fast race through a 40 degree desert lined with rocks and shrubs as well, by showing off some truely beautiful scenery. The Aqueduct in the last couple of says was astonishing, and the move to more coastal terrain as well as the vistas produced by the wickedly steep ascents through sleepy towns made the race not just beautiful sportingly, but aesthetically.
And so the Vuelta has managed to supersede its continental rivals for a year at least. Sure, there were issues: Euskatel didn’t turn up, the sprints were dominated by one man, and there was early signs that the race might be officiated in an iffy manner after various results were altered, but the negatives for the other Tours were much greater, and the positives for the Vuelta more numerous. What other race can boast photo finishes, constant attacks, all four main contenders cracking at some point, closely fought classifications all battled out over a stunning parcours? The Tour was, as well known, a procession led by a team in black, whilst the Giro spluttered and stuttered towards it final exciting couple of days, but struggled to burn bright in its opening week. Time bonuses, which now must surely return to the Tour, were helpful in making the race, and made it all the better that riders would be doubling their gains if they attacked. But overall, we must be thankful that at least one tour was brimful of attacking riding all the way through, for that is what made and won the Vuelta in the end.
Viva la Vuelta indeed.