Friday Group Ride #80

What is wrong with the Vuelta a España? No. Seriously. What is wrong with this race? It’s a grand tour for crying out loud. It takes in some of the most beautiful roads in Europe, in a country with a rich cycling culture, passionate fans, great food, etc., etc.  And yet, the Vuelta is a second tier race.

You know this is true because you’ve read the previews that highlight guys like Bradley Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali, Igor Anton and Joaquim Rodriguez as potential winners. None of those guys is a world beater. Nibali is defending champion, but this year’s Giro showed just where the young Italian is in the grand tour pecking order, close but not quite at the top. The top Spanish rider, Alberto Contador, prioritized the Giro and Tour ahead of his home country’s race. What does that say?

Perhaps the Vuelta’s diminished shine has something to do with its timing. We’ve already had two grand tours, and most of the big riders are thinking about the world championship now. Would a move back to the beginning of the racing season return the Vuelta to its previous stature?

The proliferation of shorter stage races (e.g. California, USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Romandie, Eneco) also clearly has an effect on our appetite for more stage racing this time of year.

Finally, there seems to be a finite amount of oxygen for grand tours, and the bigger the Tour and Giro get, the less air remains for the Vuelta. Say what you will about Angelo Zomegnan’s recent Giri (the man just lost his job), but that race has been fantastic in recent years, and the Tour remains the Tour, the ne plus ultra of the cycling year.

So, tell me, what is wrong with the Vuelta a España? Is it timing? Is it organization? Do we even need three grand tours? Would more prize money ensure more big name participants? If you were Javier Guillen, the director, what would you do differently?

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Jay T

    RKP, love the blog and your often very insightful/interesting posts, but with this post re: The Vuelta, I kind of feel that you are beating a dead horse. Every year around August there seems to be a proliferation of the same kind of article, e.g. “Why does no one seem to care about the Vuelta as much as the Giro/Tour?” Around April it happens with the Giro, to a lesser extent. There are tons of races in the calendar that are “second-tier” that we still get plenty excited about. The Vuelta is just another race and has its interests. Yes, it’s second-tier and always has been since it started.

    To answer your question, though, I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head in your post. It’s definitely a combo of timing, exhaustion from a year’s worth of racing, a post-Tour hangover, and the knowledge that the results in this race just aren’t quite as important. That said, the results in the Tour of the Basque Country aren’t as important as the Tour, but are still interesting.

    I say, take the Vuelta on its own terms and it can be an exciting three-week odyssey. There will be plenty of good racing and no one can accuse the contenders of not being hungry for victory.

  2. Jay T

    And I’m sure many RKP readers no doubt read The Inner Ring as well, but he had a nice post this week on the various leader’s jerseys for this year: Of course, the leader’s jersey has only last year changed color again, but I really like the red. I think it’s very distinctive and Spanish and serves to represent the race well.

  3. mattio

    i’m psyched for this year’s Vuelta. Giro was a Contabore snoozefest. Lot of heavy-hitters this year. And last year’s was a stunning battle, too. Anybody who thinks the Vuelta is boring isn’t paying attention; I can, however, understand a bit of GT fatigue.

    But keeping an eye on the Vuelta will make Worlds and the Fall Classics that much more exciting – you know who’s going hard.

  4. GrizzlyAdam

    I think timing plays a big role. By now riders are fatigued, distracted, or focusing on other events. The same might be said of the fans. I think the Tour also has an effect. Leading up to July, every event, including the Giro, is a chance to tune-up for France. And so everything is hyped a such. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana switched places on the calendar.

  5. Elliott @ Austin on Two Wheels

    I think the timing is probably its biggest problem. Rightly or wrongly, the TdF is held up as the pinnacle of the sport so there is serious let down afterwards. Consider almost every other sport ends the season with the big game or series showdown to define who is the best in the sport. In cycling, that happens in the middle of the season. The Giro would be in the same boat if it were not part of the TdF build up that starts in the Classics.

    On a personal note, I’ve not found the course as compelling in the past. I’ll admit its been a few years since I watched the Vuelta, but the ones I did watch seemed to go out of the way to find the least attractive roads in Spain.

  6. Adam

    I think a lot has to do with marketing. The Tour has worked hard to make certain moutains part of a cyclists vocabulary. I couldn’t find the Galibier or Alpe D’Huez on a map to save my life, but tell me they’re tackling it in the third week and I can start imagining the scene, who will do well there and how it will affect the race.
    Zomegnan managed to do same to the Giro, we all now know what Zoncolan or Strade Biachi are. Heck, even the short lived Tour of Georgia brought us the feared Brasstown Bald. Arenberg, Capel Murr, Poggio – a race needs iconic elements to have a sesne of identity. While I like to think of myself as well informed I struggle to think of a singular image/mountain/finish that defines the Vuelta other than that steep climb that upset David Millar one year.

  7. Ben

    Anything following TDF is going to have that feel. Nothing is as important, but races prior to are a build up to the TDF…which is what everyone’s gunning for. The Worlds are cool, but even they pale in comparison to the TDF.
    That sId, I like the Vuelta…it’s the last GT of the season and a chance to see some others shine.

  8. Chris

    I think the Vuelta is a great race, and a great opportunity to see some less prominent riders shine. As for improving the races stature, I think only decay of the Giro can move the Vuelta to #2. In the meantime, focus on making it a great race for Spain and for up and coming GC guys and it will continue to capture some interest.

  9. Souleur

    Ah…the Vuelta. I love it, and we all seem to agree, its much like a sweet little gal you meet on the rebound. She may or may not really be attractive but dangit whatever it is…you find yourself with her; wondering and comparing yourself to the other gal that dresses like the french landscape in july w/sunflowers, she just has class…and there simply is no equal to the fun you once shared eating cheese and drinking fine wines.

    Thats the Vuelta, and timing is everything. Love on the ropes and on the rebound is hardly ever memorable, but fun at the time and so goes the Vuelta.

  10. LD

    As said by most everyone else it seems timing is the issue. Having the most important race in July makes everything prior to that a buildup race and everything post that is not going to be important.(Unless its a Fall Classic or Worlds) Not that it would ever happen what if Le Tour was moved to later in the season? Does every Grand Tour have to top the next one? I wish more one week races would expand to Grand Tour status. What would it be like if it was run like F1 and every race was as important as the next. Monza is as important as Monaco which is as important as Silverstone, etc, etc. They all remain iconic despite equal billing. Its also based on a scoring system whereby each race counts for equal points. Good, bad, indifferent, it’ll probably not happen in cycling but it would certainly change the game.

  11. randomactsofcycling

    I agree it is mostly in the timing than any other single factor. Not just that it is wedged into the hangover from the Tour and the build-up to the Worlds but also it is in the middle of the ‘transfer season’ and it also coincides with the beginning of the European Football season. There’s just too much going on to give this race the kind of attention it deserves.
    There is one other issue I have with la Vuelta and it has to do with the inability of Spanish Cycling administrators to clean house. Even the Italians are making a fist of it these days. I can’t watch a ‘National’ race in the knowledge that it will be dominated by riders that will, if recent history serves true, have their names linked with one shady operation or another. Witness the lead rider in the photo…..

    1. Padraig

      Thanks for all the comments everyone. For me it comes down to one simple detail: Priority. Not ours, but the riders. When treated as a consolation prize, the Vuelta is a snooze-fest. When it’s the top priority of a still-developing riders, it’s terrific. I was in France in ’95 when Jalabert destroyed the field in the first-ever August Vuelta. It was as thrilling as many Tours, more so than that’s year’s race won by the ever-placid Indurain. That edition had a somnambulant quality to it.

      Ultimately, the winner of the Vuelta can still seem to have come second. If they began the season claiming the Giro or the Tour was their focus, the Vuelta becomes plan B. So even if you win, you’re still not top dog, unless you never targeted the first two. That’s what’s wrong.

      Until top-caliber riders (who aren’t Spanish) make the Vuelta their first priority, it’s going to be a consolation prize.

  12. Sophrosune

    I suggest the problem is not with the Vuelta but with the audience. Honestly, how many American cycling fans have actually watched the Vuelta? If you don’t know much about it, it’s hard to be passionate about it.

    When I lived in the US (last time was 2004) I don’t recall any coverage of it. For most US cycling fans it’s not cycling unless the Armstrong-apologist Paul Sherwen and Phil Ligget make a hash out of announcing it.

    That said, there are things that the race organizers can do to improve the race. Merchandising would be a start. On my visits to the Vuelta there was not one place to buy a t-shirt, cycling cap or water bottle. That’s just ignorant to today’s sport’s marketing realities.

    They could also shorten the stages make 150km the longest stage and keep mountain stages to 90-100km. They might as well make the guys preparing for the World’s happy and who knows maybe they’ll attract a few TdF riders who feel like they still have the legs for an easier race.

    I think also if the sport had a different business model in which teams shared in TV revenue then you might see teams put less focus on the one race that promises the biggest bang for sponsorship buck: the TdF.

    But I think over the last five years the Vuelta has attracted the top echelon riders, including the Schlecks, Contador, Evans. To say that it only attracts second-tier riders seems harsh.

  13. Jim

    The Giro owns the racers, and the hardcore fans. It’s the kind of grand tour that sick sick sick Northern Classics fans can respect and even love. Uphill dirt TT’s? Sure! Bring it. Most legendary win in a blizzard? Why not!

    The TdF owns the casual fans, and the racers and hardcore fans pay close attention for the pretty pictures, and for the last 20 minutes of flat stages, and the last hour of hilly stages. Or in good years like this one, they pay attention though all stages with any elevation due to unpredictable attacks and capricious weather and roads. Either way, the Tour is all things to all people. A moveable feast.

    The Vuelta… well… it’s nice but it doesn’t have a distinct flavor, other than Spanish fans who are really, really crazy about riders who can hammer it up mountains. It’s essentially a really good national race, perhaps an awesome seven day race, posing as a grand tour, a developmental grand tour of sorts. Tour du Pont with better scenery and more protour riders. ATOC stretched out. Tour de Suisse if it had to fill up an extra week. Nice bike racing, but lacking an identity.

  14. Casey

    My guess is that the internationalisation of pro cycling (the sport and the business) is simply trying to re-fit the Vuelta to a natural place(?) in the taxonomy of pro cycling.

    The US in particular, and the Americas more broadly, need a lot of that air and season – and deserve it, when you think of the riders, teams, manufacturers and money they contribute. Africa, Asia also, as emerging cycling continents.

  15. Paul

    A race is good when it is highly competitive. Watching Nibali, Rodriguez, Anton (before his crash) and Mosquera fighting it out last year was thrilling, more so than watching Contador dominate the Giro this year. This year has the potential to be even better, with three of those guys plus JvdB, Wiggins, Kloden, Menchov, Scarponi and others. Perhaps the top 4 or 5 stage racers in the world are missing, but this is a hell of a good field. Not to mention that riders like Cavendish and Cancellara are there too. I say just enjoy it, and don’t worry too much about who is not there.

  16. Ron

    Double Tour hangover for me. I watched nearly every stage of the Giro and Le Tour. Just can’t summon the same energy for a third one. Plus, my own road cycling season is kind of winding down, as CX season picks up.

    I’m kind of following the Vuelta, same with U.S. Pro Challenge.

    I will watch the WC live for sure.

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