It’s a sad fact of the cycling calendar that of the three Grand Tours, La Vuelta gets the least of the love. It’s not even in doubt – every year, consistently, La Vuleta is cited as the third favourite of the trio, and it’s understandable in some senses: the Tour de France is the Tour de France. It’s the flagship race of the sport, the all-singing, all-dancing, travelling circus that draws the biggest names and sees the most dramatic showdowns play out on the most iconic of outdoor arenas. Fair enough.
The hipster choice is of course the Giro d’Italia. It’s a flighty, unpredictable beast, in terms of weather and line-up and television coverage, yet it has a romance, and of course, as the first of the three, we're all thirst monsters desperate for our fix by the time May rolls around. And though it’s almost always heavily backloaded meaning the early stages have a tendency towards the dull, recency bias will always leave you feeling like you’ve had a full plate of Grand Tour action, as the ever-stunning, ever-gruelling Dolomites lead to a stunning finale, almost every time.
Why NOT La Vuelta, though? Well, for the committed cycling fan, it’s often a race too far. Many of the faithful have reached saturation point by this stage in the year, with a full Spring Classics season, two Grand Tours, and a bunch of other stage racing already under the belt, and with the long summer days drawing people out into the wild themselves, family plans and holidays and LIFE just takes precedence, often leaving La Vuelta languishing somewhat in the shade.
Not that there’s much of that to speak of. No, the dry, barren nature of much of the country is another reason cited as to why the third Grand Tour is less of a spectacle. Granted, Spain in late August is on the whole a dry, dry place to be. But there are exceptions. Forays into the Pyrenees, and the mountains of the Asturias in the North, offer contrast, and lets face it, there are plenty of flat transition stages across Italy and France that don’t exactly set the pulse racing with their beauty.
Sit down, and let me tell you why you're wrong
No, but, hear me out. La Vuelta is the best Grand Tour of the year. Here's why.
Spain has a mythos and a drama that doesn’t need to wait around to unfold. It packs punches from the start, with a ‘flat’ stage in Spain the least likely of the three to actually BE flat, repeatedly making sprinters cry and run away to the low countries, and uncategorised climbs that would be classed as positively gargantuan if they were anywhere else. False flats aplenty and ups and downs galore, there’s rarely a dull moment in La Vuelta, and it’s not just because of the parcours.
The line-up is almost always exciting. Not necessarily the strongest that the peloton can muster across the board, but definitely always with enough talent to bring about both an exciting GC race, and great hopes for fun breakaway stages. The Vuelta inspires a different mentality in the peloton. The Giro is tentative, the Tour all-out, but La Vuelta is last chance saloon, one for the risk-takers, rule-breakers and trend-makers.
It’s a chance to spot next year’s talents, with young riders being given the nod, many of them starting their first Grand Tours, and it’s a last roll of the dice for riders who have missed out on goals earlier in the season to go for glory. Michael Storer, Jay Vine, Hugh Carthy, David Gaudu, Sam Bennett – all names who have either established themselves, or retrieved something from a less than stellar season, within the past few editions of the race.
And it’s unpredictable – most riders time their form to peak for the Classics OR the Tour, AND Worlds if they can manage it; La Vuelta sits in a sweet spot where it’s really hard to predict how bodies are going to react. Fatigue, heat and relentless ups and downs will combine to produce some surprises, regardless of what anyone expects.
And don’t forget, the shop window is still very much open for browsing. The transfer market is in full swing and for riders whose contracts expire at the end of the season, it could be their last chance to show their best form to team bosses looking to add to their rosters. There is a sense of opportunity, combined with just a smidge of desperation, that can lead to a devilish melting pot of ANYTHING can happen.
As for the GC race, it's often a second roll of the dice for those who have under-performed or been forced to withdraw through injury or illness, leading to a regularly stacked field where many could triumph under the right conditions.
And did I mention Angliru? Lagos de Covadonga? That other massive thing they went up once that was in the same place? Yes, Asturias is a stunning green utopia of hideous hell-climbs, and you get at least one every year, what’s not to love. And a return of late to the team time trial. Brilliant. So quit your complaining and watch La Vuelta because it's the best Grand Tour of the whole goddamn year. MIC DROP.