Now in its 74th year, the Vuelta is the youngest of the three Grand Tours by almost three decades and it often suffers from a sort of inferiority complex. However, many believe that the Vuelta is actually the best and most exciting of the lot and I am one of them. From the aggressive stage profiles to the fiery team politics, the exhaustive and unpredictable racing to a certain smiling South American, here are 21 reasons why the Vuelta is the best Grand Tour:
The Vuelta is the one Grand Tour that we expect to be innovative, creative, a little different to the rest. Never-before-seen climbs, multiple summit finishes, complicated (a.k.a. hilly) sprint stages, gravel roads – you name it, the organisers will probably try it.
While the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia usually keep the majority of the big climbs for the latter half of the race, the Vuelta does away with the unwritten rules and saturates all three weeks with climbs. The 2019 Vuelta has already seen the GC riders show their colours – as early as stage 2 – and the first summit finish comes as early as stage 5.
There might be a whole heck of a lot of categorised climbs – and dozens more that don’t get a scary little number – but even so, the mountain stages do not come in a sensible order like they might at the Tour and feature unusual finishes that come after descents or end up a short sharp ramp. Each day is different enough that there’s a good chance that every sort of rider will get their chance and that no two stages will conclude in the same way.
Even stages billed as sprint stages bear closer resemblance to a Toblerone than a pancake. Of the road stages, all but the Madrid finale and stage 17 to Guadalajara are without categorised climbs and the latter is far from flat.
Despite technically coming under the same umbrella as the Tour de France, the organisation of the Vuelta is infamous. Let’s just say, it often leaves rather a lot to be desired. Disappearing roundabouts and controversial finish line crashes are just a couple of recent examples…
Most big teams have ticked off this year’s targets already while others have some catching up to do, whether they’re a whole team low on success, an individual who is yet to sign a contract for next season or a general classification rider who faltered in the earlier Grand Tours…
…there are always a large handful of under-performing favourites who add the Vuelta to their programmes at the last minute, returning to retake the exam and salvage something from their season.
Some teams turn up with as much intent and focus as they would to the Tour de France –Jumbo-Visma, Movistar and Astana, for instance – but for many, there is a distinct last-week-of-term vibe and the start list reflects that.
The Champs-Élysées stage of the Tour de France is often equated to the sprinters’ World Championship but none of the (regrettably few) Vuelta sprint stages have the same prestige. This means that the Spanish race is an opportunity for B team sprinters come off the bench and enjoy some success.
Another group of riders who get their chance at the Vuelta is the neo pros. Those youngest of pro riders, those who have demonstrated an ability to cope with the mental and physical strain of racing at the highest level, get their debut Grand Tour experience.
The Vuelta has gained a reputation of sorts – certainly in recent history – of being a stage on which many general classification riders have come of age. Chris Froome won his first professional victory on stage 17 in 2011 and this summer was declared overall winner after Juan José Cobo was retrospectively banned.
Others who have poured concrete over their reputations at the Vuelta include Tom Dumoulin, Enric Mas, Esteban Chaves…
Speaking of Chaves, that big smile, the ‘Colombian Kangaroo’, he always performs well at the Vuelta and, really, what’s not to like?
It is not unusual to see one team all over the front of the peloton throughout the Tour de France, day by day tightening their grip on the yellow jersey. Such a sight is rare at the Vuelta, partly because it comes so late in the season that it’s difficult to tell how the legs are going to hold up after varied racing programmes. It helps that the Vuelta is low (apparently) on Team Skineos’ list of priorities…
There is rarely a single all out favourite. There’s always a good selection who could compete for the podium, but the order is up for debate.
The terrain in Spain and the parcours laid by the organisers are the perfect playground for breakaway success. ProConti teams in particular enjoy taking full advantage of this.
All the above makes the Vuelta the least predictable Grand Tour of the year, and that, by extension, makes it the most exciting.
Not knowing the outcome, not knowing when a favourite might succumb to Tour de France-heavy legs, not knowing what a team’s dual leadership might entail – all this makes for truly edge of your seat viewing.
Another endearing characteristic of the Vuelta has been its enigmatic classifications, specifically the riddle of the white combined jersey. It is now sadly defunct, allowing the best young rider to enjoy his own jersey, but it provided plenty of material for confused debate while it was still in circulation.
At the Tour and to some extent the Giro the pressure is so high that anything but a win is a bad result. At the Vuelta, however, there’s nearly always something positive to take away, even if that’s just a domestic team who is happy to be represented in the breakaway or a neo pro who is delighted to be at the race at all.
Love him or loathe him, Valverde always brings something to a race and the Vuelta a España is his stomping ground. A stage win is very much on the cards for the reigning world champion, and while we’re here, the intra-team dynamics at Movistar team are always compelling to watch.
There are some fantastic stories in recent Vuelta history and each year brings the promise of many more – new protagonists (and antagonists, depending where you stand), breakout stars, moving and unlikely triumphs, the Vuelta has it all.
Words by Emma Nicholson