When folks ask how far away from a good US or UK domestic race is the Tour de France? I usually say; ‘about a day on board the Starship Enterprise.’ If they ask the same question about the Vuelta, I’ll say; ‘maybe a ten minute walk.’
There are less janitors, less fuss and nothing that a good chat and a few shrugged shoulders can’t sort out. Many riders prefer the Vuelta to the other Grand Tours for that very reason – it’s much more relaxed and much more of a bike race than a circus.
69. And Counting…
This year sees edition 69 of the race, way behind the 100 plus for the Tour and 97 for the Giro but the Vuelta had a difficult childhood… It was in 1935 that Juan Pujol decided that there should be a national tour of Spain – and as with the Tour and Giro it was a marketing exercise, to boost sales of the newspaper, Informaciones.
But there was more to it than that; it was a grand gesture in line with the social and political reforms of the time in Spain – optimistic, positive and forward thinking. But those emotions were an illusion with only two editions run before the nation plunged into a brutal Civil War whose echoes still resonate in Spain today.
Julian Barrendero, Vuelta a España winner in ’41 & ’42. Not sure about the podium girl
But as war raged in Europe and a shattered Spain remained neutral, the Vuelta was resurrected in 1941 and ’42. It was not until 1945 it ran again, this time until 1948 with a gap to 1950. It was in the year of my birth, 1955 that it came back to stay – and despite a few close shaves along the way has fortunately been with us ever since.
The race used to take place in the spring – and was notorious for bad weather – but in 1995 moved to it’s current pre-Worlds slot. At that time the organisers cut the stage distances in an effort to stimulate higher quality fields and more aggressive racing – but gradually that ethos has slipped back to where we are now.
That’s with eight summit finishes – not for the faint hearted.
‘Recordman’ for the race is the diminutive, curly haired Spanish climber, Roberto Heras with four wins – 2000, ’03, ’04 and ’05 with second spot in ’02 and third in ’99. And given the fiercely nationalistic nature of this race it’s no surprise that Heras heads the list of 32 home winners and podium appearances – 47 second places and 39 third places – way ahead of Belgium on nine wins, three second places and four thirds.
If the 2014 Tour de France was the first time since 1997 a Frenchman appeared on the podium, you have to go back to 1996 to find the last occasion there was no Spaniard on the Vuelta podium. Of riders still competing, the home nation’s Alberto Contador is the most successful – with two Vuelta wins.
But no précis of Spanish Vuelta winners is complete without mention of two men from my youth – both sadly no longer with us – who would have laughed at today’s tightly controlled professional peloton. Twice winner, in ’72 & ’74, Jose Manuel Fuente and ’70 winner Luis Ocana – who was also three times second and once third placed – were men who dared.
Jose Manuel Fuentes, always on the attack
Not for them cold calculation; there was only one way to race in their book – mad, impulsive attacking sometimes far from the finish. Often it would end in failure and ridicule from the Media but when they won it was glorious and Spain rejoiced.
Last year saw history made with the Vuelta being won by it’s oldest rider – Chris Horner of the USA took the honours at 41 years 338 days. That’s double the age of the race’s youngest winner; Spain’s Angelo Soler whose 1961 win was achieved at 21 years 173 days.
The most days in the leader’s jersey is 48, on the shoulders of Swiss Alex Zulle who won the race in ’97 and ’98 and was second in 1993. Heras had 34 days in amarillo – the leader’s jersey colour before the red of today – and of current riders, 2009 winner Alejandro Valverde has spent 23 days as race leader.
The Vuelta has always been a hotly contested affair and is the Grand Tour which has been won by the tightest margin – Eric Caritoux of France won by just six seconds from Alberto Fernandez in 1984. And to endorse the closeness of the competition, 20 editions have been won by less that a minute. The biggest margin in recent times is Toni Rominger of Switzerland’s 7:28 in 1994 – although Spain’s Delio Rodriguez did win by 30 minutes in 1945.
Tony Rominger, Vuelta ’94
Another stat which endorses how hotly contested a race this is – in 2011 there were nine different riders in the leader’s jersey and eight in 2008. The longest Vuelta was 1941 with 4,442 kilometres and the shortest 1963 with 2,419 kilometres.
The slowest was 1941 on 26.262 kph (hardly surprising given the distance, roads and depth of war time field) and the fastest the 2003 edition on 42.52 kph.
Spain holds the record for stage wins at 608 with Belgium a distant second on 234. Delio Rodriguez took 38 of those 608 with his last coming in 1947. In the modern era it’s Ale Jet Petacchi who leads on 20 wins from 33 stage podiums. The most stage wins in one Vuelta – and indeed any Grand Tour – is the remarkable 13 achieved by Belgium’s Freddy Maertens en route his GC win in 1977.
As far as race participation goes, homeboy Inigo Cuesta rode 17 with 14 finishes between 1994 and 2010 with his compatriot Federico Echave riding and finishing 14 straight between 1982 and 1995.
Freddy Maertens and Eddy Merckx, both Vuelta winners
The 2014 race starts in the south near the Portuguese border in Jerez de la Frontera with a team time trial which Movistar should win. The Testosterone Kings and Harry Houdinis have their days up to Stage Six from Benalmadena to La Zubia where lies the first summit finish.
Stage Seven might be one for the sprinters – but it might not; Stage Eight will be as the route heads north from Baeza to Albacete.
The words ‘ski resort’ and ‘sprinter’ don’t often figure in the same sentence – unless there’s a Robbie McEwen wheelie involved and Stage Nine from Carboneras de Guadazon to Aramon Valdelinares is no exception.
Whilst Stage Six may have started to shuffle the pack, this is where high stakes players will be begin to show.
Stage Ten is a fast 34 K chromo.
Stage 10 ITT
Stage 11 from Pamplona – of Bulls, Hemingway and ‘Big Mig’ fame – to the Santaurio de San Miguel de Aralar monastery contains another expression which sprinters don’t like; ‘steep ramps’ on the final climb. Step forward Joaquim Rodriguez.
Stage 12 is a pan flat circuit race for the sprinters with eight laps of a circuit at Logrono.
Stage 13 is a transition stage from Belorado to Obregon.
The next stage, 14 from Santander to La Camperona the next day is the first of three savage days – how do 24% ramps sound?
Stage 14 ramps
Stage 15 and now we’re into ‘legendary’ territory with the climb to Lagos de Covadonga coming at the end of a stage which starts in Oviedo and covers 149 kilometres. Up past the Basilica opposite the cave where Pelagius and his men saw the vision of the Virgin which inspired them to defeat the Moors in the battle of 722.
Then past the ossuary where the bones of both sides still lay before the final push past the other worldly Lagos, high in the Picos. You may not win the race here – but you can sure as hell lose it.
The legend of Covadonga
And if you do win – you become part of Legend. But win or lose, there’s no respite, tomorrow is worse; Stage 16, the Queen Stage, 159 K from San Martin del Rey Aurelio to La Farrapona with five category one climbs – savage.
Stage 17 from Ortigueira to A Coruna way up in Galicia should be one for the sprinters and Stage 18 from A Estrada to Mont Castrove one for the men who can finish it off on a short, steep climb – Rodriguez, or maybe team mate, Moreno?
The breakaway should prevail on Stage 19 – the day before the horror of Stage 20.
Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil to Puerto de Ancares – unless one rider has stamped indelible authority upon the race the final HC Ancares climb to the finish could well decide the race: 11% average for the first eight of 12 kilometres speaks for itself.
And that’s after a third, a second and two first Cat. ascents en route.
The very hard stage 20, win or lose day
The pundits are saying that the final Stage 21, 10 K TT around beautiful Santiago de Compostella will decide nothing – we’re not so sure. Remember that this is a race which has been won by six seconds in the past. But decisive or nae, the symbolism of Santiago is perfect – it’s the final destination of the pilgrimage route, ‘The Way of Saint James’ and of what’s sure to be an epic Vuelta.
Nothing to decide, maybe?
The Gazzetta dello Sport cites six main protagonists: Nairo Quintana (Movistar & Columbia) made the Giro his in emphatic manner then disappeared back to the Andes to the place of his birth to live and train at 3,000 metres. A stage win and the GC in the Tour of Burgos prove he’s ready. But not only is he ready and served by a team as robust as Roman Legionnaires, with management to match, he has another ace to play.
It’s called Alejandro Valverde – patently wasted in the last week of the Tour, the 2009 Vuelta winner bounced back to win San Sebastian one week later. Quintana’s rivals will need eyes in the back of their head for three weeks.
The Colombian duo: Quintana & Uran
Chris Froome (Sky & GB) crashed out of the Tour before it really started and will be hungry – ravenous. Remember in 2012 after he came second the team mate Wiggins in the Tour he came to the Vuelta – so desperate was he to win his ‘own’ Grand Tour. But he underestimated the demands le Tour makes upon a rider’s system and how savagely the Spanish would battle on home ground, ending up in fourth spot. But the Vuelta was where he broke through in 2011 to make the podium and have every World Tour team chasing his signature; so it’s a special race for him. He’s well recovered from his Tour trauma, is well trained and rested, has the best sports scientists and coaches behind him and a very strong team – he’s ready.
Chris Froome needs the win
Chris Horner (Lampre & USA) won the race last year but suffered a horrific crash back in the spring. However, if you watched him in the Tour – as we did – you could see a man riding quietly but confidently into form. Whether he’s at the level of Quintana and Froome is another matter – and his team don’t match Sky or Movistar, in our book.
A Horner repeat?
Fabio Aru (Astana & Italy) was brilliant in the Giro and team management has sensibly given him plenty of time to recover from his Pink Race exertions. His team is another band of hard, dedicated men whose egos are left at home – but against a rested, altitude honed Quintana and Froome on a mission…
Fabio Aru, a young man looking for more success
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha & Spain) the Giro again treated the little Catalan poorly, leaving him with broken bones and morale. But a spell in the in polka dots in le Tour showed that he’s bounced back beautifully and rode most of the Tour as preparation for this race. The mountain top finishes and ramps suit him, his team is good and the podium is possible – as are more than one stage win.
Can ‘Purito’ save his season?
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff & Spain) was – according to our ‘insiders’ in the team – in the form of his life for the Tour de France; it was surreal to watch him climb off his bike having watched Froome do the same thing just a few days earlier. But the Tour went on and now Contador comes back from serious injury. It’s difficult to see how he can make the podium but as one of the greatest Grand Tour riders in history he has to be given respect.
Has Alberto Contador recovered?
There are other names to conjure with; Warren Barguil (Giant & France) with two stage wins last year; Adam Yates (GreenEDGE & GB) making his Grand Tour debut; Rigoberto Uran (QuickStep & Colombia) second in the Giro but oddly quiet as of late; Andrew Talansky (US) looking to make amends for a disastrous Tour and Dan Martin (Ireland) coming nicely to form after injury – both from Garmin; Tour hero Thibaut Pinot (F des J & France) maybe biting off to much here, though; Wilco Kelderman (Belkin & The Netherlands) looking to step up a level.
Adam Yates in the Tour of Turkey
But we can pontificate all we wish – it’s the riders who’ll inscribe the facts across the hot, high roads of Spain in sweat and tears for the next three weeks.
Viva la Vuelta!
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It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.