The three Grand Tours are the crown jewels of cycling, a trio of behemoths dominating the calendar, taking up a full three months of the year and devouring the column inches as coexisting races flounder in the shadows. The three-week marathons through Italy, France and Spain are the longest, toughest and most talked-about races in our sport.
But, of course, we all know that the GTs don’t stand shoulder to shoulder. The Tour de France is by far the biggest – the most important and most coveted – while some way behind the Giro d’Italia follows. Lastly comes the black sheep of the cycling world, the youngest of the Grand Tours, the Vuelta a España.
It’s place in the GT hierarchy approximating a runt of the litter, the Vuelta remains the only race of the import to be shunted across the calendar. Back in 1995 the UCI and race organisers Unipublic moved the Vuelta from late April/May all the way to its current late August/September slot, partly in order to avoid competition with the Giro and attract a more international field.
It would be an interesting thought experiment to ponder what an April Vuelta would look like today (the weather would surely be more tolerable, and a Vuelta-Tour double would certainly be more attainable than the Giro-Tour double), but things are as they are for a reason, and instead we have our delightful epilogue to the stage racing season.
Once the grand aim of native riders, the Vuelta really isn’t a race anybody builds their season around now – save for the Spanish wildcard teams Caja Rural-Seguros RGA, Burgos-BH and Euskadi-Murias. Instead it’s something of an afterthought, one for the men who didn’t have the Tour de France they wanted, or for those building for the World Championships.
This year is no different from seasons past, with Tour de France casualties joined by four of the top ten from Le Grand Boucle as well as half of the top ten from the Giro and numerous other GC riders from the season’s previous Grand Tours.
In Spain this year we’ll see one of the deepest GC fields in living memory do battle. A grand total of 31 riders who have previously finished in the top ten of a Grand Tour will take the start in Málaga. First up, there are the men whose Tour dreams were ended by crashes – Richie Porte, Vincenzo Nibali (who claims to be preparing for Worlds), Wilco Kelderman and Rigoberto Urán.
Then there are those who actually finished the Tour – Steven Kruijswijk, Dan Martin, Ilnur Zakarin, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Rafał Majka, the Izagirres, Adam Yates and Bauke Mollema. Contenders from the Giro include Miguel Ángel López, Richard Carapaz, Pello Bilbao, George Bennett, Davide Formolo, Rohan Dennis, Sergio Henao, Michael Woods, Simon Yates, Louis Meintjes, Thibaut Pinot and Fabio Aru.
Furthermore, there are the wildcards that the Vuelta usually seems to throw up. Emmanuel Buchmann, who hasn’t raced a GT this year; Tiesj Benoot, 20th at the 2017 Tour and has shown intriguing climbing legs this season; David de la Cruz, who looks to have free reign at Sky; Sepp Kuss, the 23-year-old American in flying form at Utah; Sergio Pardilla – 15th last year; and Enric Mas, another 23-year-old who has impressed in short stage races this season.
Of course that’s 31 riders, and 31 into 10 doesn’t quite fit. Just going by the numbers game it looks like we’ll witness a thrilling GC battle over the next three weeks. Porte, Urán, Quintana (who won the 2016 Vuelta after racing the Tour), 2015 winner Aru and the in-form López look like the main competitors for the win. But – as we’ve seen in the past – anything can happen at the Vuelta and it often does.
Since the turn of the Millennium, the race has frequently thrown up bizarre and inexplicable results. Looking back to 2002, Kelme’s unremarkable stage racer Aitor González – fresh from an unexpected sixth at the Giro – smashed the field in the final time-trial to overhaul Roberto Heras for his only GT win.
A year later Isidro Nozal, the rider famous for not showering during Grand Tours but not much else, demolished prime David Millar in the race’s first two time-trials. He would hold the then-golden jersey for much of the Vuelta until he fell apart on the final mountain TT to end up second overall.
2004 saw Phonak’s Santiago Pérez come from nowhere to finish just 30 seconds behind Roberto Heras in Madrid, winning three stages along the way. His other career GT results? DNF, DNF, 44th, 49th, 65th…
And it doesn’t stop there either. Later on there would be Andrey Kashechkin’s 2006 podium, the Ezequiel Mosquera years, Martin Velits’ sole Grand Tour podium, old man Chris Horner and of course the 2011 Juan José Cobo vs Chris Froome battle we all definitely expected. The race also holds the dubious honour of hosting the only GT wins of Alexander Vinokourov and Alejandro Valverde.
But aside from the freak (and let’s get real, often dubious) results that have made the race as intriguing as anything else on the calendar, the racing itself throws up surprises and entertainment in equal measure too. Who can forget the ambushes from Alberto Contador to Fuente Dé, or from Fabio Aru to Cercedilla, for example? Or those battles Vincenzo Nibali fought with Mosquera and Horner?
For that we can partly thank circumstance, partly the route. Unlike the more formulaic Giro and Tour, with their yearly routes geographically bound by the location of various mountain ranges, the Vuelta can dip in and out whenever it feels like.
Blessed by hills and mountains almost everywhere, the 2018 Vuelta visits the Sierra Nevada of the Baetic System in the south (Alfacar), the Sistema Central (La Covatilla), the Cantabrian Mountains (La Camperona, Lagos de Covadonga), the Basque Mountains (Balcon de Bizkaia) and the Pyrenees (Andorra, Coll de la Gallina).
This year the uphill finishes – nine in total – begin on just the second day, with mountain stages dotted throughout the race on stages 4, 9, 13, 14, 15, 17, 19 and 20. Throw in time trials and other lumpy stages and there are 14 stages on this year’s route with the potential for the GC battle to erupt. And the wild thing is that this is not out of the ordinary for the Vuelta at all.
Throw in an entirely different style of racing to what we’ve seen just a month before – from the Sky train dissuading any attacks to the risk management of those around the top ten – and it’s easy to see why the Vuelta is an appealing prospect.
Sure, nobody sits down at the start of the season and plans their year around winning the Vuelta [Are you sure? – Ed], but maybe that’s part of what makes the race so special. It’s the Grand Tour of second chances, the Grand Tour of endless mountains, the best Grand Tour of the year.