How does a Grand Tour shape its identity?
The recent unveiling of the parcours for the 2015 Vuelta a España pushes the race further towards the specialist climbers. Thirteen of the 21 stages will be hilly or mountainous; 44 summits will be crossed. Just six stages are billed as flat, and only one will be contested against the clock.
Stage 11 from Andorra la Vella to Cortals d’Encamp, an agonising 213km slog along Spain’s northern coast, is billed as one of the toughest in the history of the race, a claim bolstered by the saw-tooth profile wrought from five climbs passing 1800m, including a finish at 2,100m.
Nacer Bouhanni's feat in winning the second stage of the 2014 Vuelta a Espana is unlikely to be repeated by a sprinter this year. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Despite its savagery, this ordeal is only the first of three consecutive mountain stages as the race works its way from Cantabria to the Asturias, a self-styled ‘mountain triptych’ that reaches its denouement at the summit of the Ermita de Alba.
To win the Vuelta in the modern era, a rider’s key strength must lie in the mountains. Tour de France owners ASO took a 49 per cent stake in Unipublic, previous organisers of the Spanish national tour, in 2008, and at the end of 2013 acquired the remainder. ASO is billing the 80th anniversary of La Vuelta as a race with nine “unprecedented” climbs. Against this might be set a solitary time trial: a flat, 39km affair in Burgos, contested after sixteen stages.
The race was far from flat when it was won by Sean Kelly in 1988, but the chances of a rider with the Irishman’s skills claiming victory on the new parcours would be remote indeed. Kelly has no real equivalent in the modern peloton, but even a fast finishing rouleur like Peter Sagan, an accomplished all-rounder, would be unlikely to start among the favourites for the modern Vuelta.
Sean Kelly won a far from flat Vuelta in 1988, but a fast finishing rouleur would struggle in its more recent incarnations. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Taken as a whole, the parcours of the 70th edition of the Spanish national tour contains few surprises, but the inclusion of a hilly second stage from Alhaurín de la Torre to Caminito del Rey, culminating on the 560m Alto de la Mesa, has raised eyebrows. Perhaps the ASO is hoping to repeat the trick of the 2014 Tour, when the rolling roads between York and Sheffield brought the GC men into play almost immediately. Vincenzo Nibali’s brilliance in Yorkshire allowed the Astana leader to make an early statement of intent.
Held for the first time in 1935, the Vuelta has always been the third of the Grand Tours, following in the wake of successful races in France and Italy, and since 1995, when it moved from April to September, this invidious position has been replicated on the season calendar, too. The ASO, it seems, is working hard to combat an inevitable corollary in the public imagination that it is also the least prestigious of the three.
Last season, the Vuelta struck gold with the late appearance of the recovering Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Team Sky), both on the comeback trail after crashing out of the Tour. It is unlikely to have featured on the agenda of either man this time last year. This happy accident (for La Vuelta’s organisers, at least) may have sparked a resurgence in the popularity of the Grand Tour double: a staple of bygone eras but lost to the specialism of the Armstrong era.
The 2014 Vuelta featured three tests against the clock, including an opening stage team time trial. This year's race has just one 'race of truth' - a flat, 39km individual test on stage 17. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Twice in the last three years, La Vuelta has arguably been the pick of the three Grand Tours, with its 2012 and 2014 editions likely to live long in the memory. ASO are clearly not content to rely on local hero Contador requiring a comeback event. La Vuelta’s place in the Grand Tour pecking order this year will depend heavily on the start list. Should Nairo Quintana (Movistar) arrive in Malaga this September as a newly-crowned Tour winner, expect a thwarted Froome to follow. And could Contador resist a tilt at the never-achieved, single-season Triple if things go his way at the Giro and the Tour?The organisers, however, have already done much to deliver an exciting race.