Despite coming in third in a recent poll containing just three options, La Vuelta a Espana has always held a peculiar charm. From over 600 respondents, a loyal minority of 22% picked the Spanish Grand Tour as their favourite, and I’m happy to count myself among them.
It’s understandable that it didn’t rate as highly for cycling purists as the number one option, the Giro d’Italia (40%) or the crowd pleaser, the biggest race of them all and proven gateway tour for cycling fans, the Tour de France (38%). Let’s look at the evidence.
First up in the season, cycling fans are foaming at the mouth for a three-week stage race come May, which must surely account for at least a proportion of the rose-tinted light in which the Giro is viewed. Or perhaps it’s the breath-taking scenery, the brutal climbing, or the chaotic unpredictability of the Italian weather and infrastructure that throws many a spanner in the works of the best-laid plans.
The Tour of course is, and will always remain, a steady contender for everyone’s favourite race. It’s the Tour de France; the summit of achievement within our sport. The highest stakes, the hardest fought, the greatest cost for the most prestigious prize. A race for true all rounders and for teams with strength in depth, with significant amounts of time trialling, iconic climbs, and plenty of chances for sprinters too.
It’s no wonder that by the time we reach the end of the summer, some of us are feeling the same fatigue as the riders. Another three week grand tour, and one that doesn’t boast the drama of the Giro or the prestige and history of the Tour, is always going to have its work cut out for it.
However, the Spanish race has a vibe unlike the others. It’s the hipster tour, somehow more laid back than the rest despite its rigours, and with scenery to rival France and Italy, it’s a spectacle for the fans too. So why should you overcome that race fatigue and tune in, commit yourself to another three weeks of disrupted schedules and emotional ups and downs? Read on, and I’ll tell you.
La Vuelta a Espana is unpredictable; but where the Giro suffers from extraneous factors which often combine to affect the riders’ progress, at la Vuelta, the unpredictability comes almost always from within. Factors that combine to create this effect include, but probably aren’t limited to, the following:
- It’s the final shot at glory in the pro cycling season. GC contenders who have missed out, crashed out, or just not come to form at the right time, have one last chance for success. Sprinters or punchers without a stage victory can potentially retrieve something to add to their palmares before they run out of opportunities
- It’s a shop window. With the transfer season in full swing, it’s a fantastic platform for riders to present themselves to teams for new or renewed contracts
- It’s a mixed bag of strong riders and new talent. Although it’s often seen as a last resort, a case of ‘just send whoever’s still fit’, the rigours of the season that may have taken their toll on the peloton gives young, lesser-known riders the opportunities they have been waiting for to have a crack on one of the greatest stages of them all
- As a result, you never know what – or who – to expect, when it comes to stage wins, or even GC podium challenges, and dark horses often emerge who you then go on to notice the following season. And where did they have their breakthrough? You’ve got it – the Vuelta.
La Vuelta is by no means an easy ride, though. With so many conflicting goals in this last chance saloon, the racing overall can be chaotic, with individual ambitions often taking precedence over team aspirations. And although it may not have quite the number of iconic climbs as the Tour or the Giro, la Vuelta is often a ‘climbier’ race overall. Where the Tour usually has more opportunities for sprinters and time triallists, and the Giro usually saves the gruelling ascents for its final week, la Vuelta has categorised and uncategorised climbs popping up from the early stages right through to the close. As a result there are less days of resting in the peloton in la Vuelta, and in recent years at least the GC battle is has been combative from the get-go. And of course it isn’t short of monster summits – who can forget the titanic battle up the Angliru in 2020, with Hugh Carthy rising above the rest to take the stage win.
The final question is – if you’re not already watching La Vuelta a Espana, why not? It’s not only the last chance for the riders, but it’s out last chance too, to claim a delicious slice of juicy Grand Tour action. If the last few years are anything to go by, guaranteed you’ll still be talking about it come Christmas.