La Vuelta Espana is the least known Grand Tour of the ‘big three’. It lacks spectators, TV ratings, the massive ambition that the Tour and the Giro bring, and of course, the history. However, almost all of these traits are because of where it falls on the calendar year. And we all love it for that.
Smashing through the arid countryside at speeds unfathomable to almost anyone (including myself sometimes), all for the sake of racing. If you are motivated, fresh and have goals past the month of August, at the Vuelta you have already won.
September is an interesting month in the cycling world. Most of us have been on the road for the better part of 10 months by this time and although the body is still working properly, the mind is exhausted.
Airports, hotels and Skype calls with the family lead to an unhappy and unmotivated athlete (not to mention family). So thank God we have the Vuelta to fool us into racing our bikes when we can’t bear the thought of doing another interval up some random hill.
We have an organiser who will take us up every goat path with gradients over 20 per cent in Spain. Believe me, should you happen to be the owner of a construction company with the means to make a road that is ridiculously steep, chances are the Vuelta might come to your back yard. The ultimate brainless training.
That said, I love the race. It has a laid-back attitude, bright sunshine, amazing scenery, nice people, good hotels and great food. Plus the hardest racing you can get that close to the off season. And the sleep? My lord, this is where riders with children come to rest up before the off-season with their families.
It is also the perfect race for spectators. There is practically no crowd control at the starts and you can pretty much walk around and meet any cyclist that you care to name; ride the course on your bike before the race without being thrown off by an over ambitious police officer; refuel with a great dinner and some local wine; and – if you aren’t too tired – take in some night life, where you may rub shoulders with one of your heroes who is racing the next day. No shit, it happens.
The Vuelta is hilly, hot, and not easy. The first week this year the thermometer never went below 100 and the ‘sprinter’ stages had 7,000 feet of climbing. So if anyone ever says that the Vuelta is easy, they are ignorant, misinformed or both.
Ambition is the key word here. There are Spaniards whose likeness will be cast in bronze in their respective villages after any sort of breakaway (doomed or otherwise), stage win or halfway decent performance.
There are riders without contracts for the following year killing themselves to get into breaks, others who need to turn around a horrible season. And, of course, the guys trying to prepare for the world championships. (Most of them know full well that they wouldn’t be able to come close to training properly if left to their own devices at home.)
Then there’s a final ten per cent who weren’t given a choice in the matter and needed to fill out a roster. All of this gives the race a unique feeling of opportunity. It also makes for the perfect storm of insane tactics and racing. Anything goes.
Take yesterday for example. I would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of harder first hours’ of racing than yesterday. Now, depending on which side of the sword you fall, that could be good or bad. I loved it. It is what racing is all about. The radios don’t come into play because everything is happening too fast. And everyone is racing. Everyone – the GC guys jumping into breaks and the guys at the back, racing their hearts out to survive another day.
As for me, La Vuelta serves a purpose second to none: getting a massive block of racing back in my legs, regaining the confidence that has left me over the past few months, and enjoying being a bike racer again – all things that are taken for granted until you crash…over and over and over. The lack of preparation that I had going into this race would have left me struggling anywhere else.
But at the Vuelta, anything is possible, and if you had the opportunity to see an unknown kid from Bratislava launch himself onto the podium yesterday in the TT, and the well-known race leader go from first to fifth over a 46-kilometre course through the some of the best vineyards in the world, you would agree. This is a great race.