Why the 2015 La Vuelta Espana is set to be the most exciting Grand Tour
Exhilarating editions in 2012 and '14 have raised the significance of La Vuelta. Froome's participation this year in pursuit of glory rather than salvation adds further emphasis
In keeping with a recent trend, the Vuelta ã Espana again has every chance of offering the most exciting racing of the three Grand Tours.
2012 was a corker (Contador's comeback Grand Tour victory) and last year’s edition was excellent - what began as a commiseration prize for the Tour’s two highest-profile crash victims became a four-way battle royale - but this 70th edition, which starts in Puerto Banus on Saturday, is more appetising still.
Why? The course and the start list are both of the highest quality, but most specifically Chris Froome is racing in Spain in pursuit of further glory, rather than for the salvation of a wrecked season. The emphasis is subtle but significant. It places the Vuelta on the same footing as the Tour, in Froome’s eyes at least, and Froome is the Tour champion, after all. High times for cycling's "third" Grand Tour.
Is there a still subtler subtext at play? Is Sky’s leader gambling on the chance to pull off a Grand Tour double in a year in which Alberto Contador has conspicuously failed to do so?
We are not comparing apples with apples, of course, but to complete a ‘double’ in Contador’s home race, with the Spaniard absent through the exhaustion of his earlier efforts, would be galling for the reigning champion, quite aside from being a victory for Froome to cherish, having come so close on two previous occasions.
Perhaps this is the ground on which the two men are now competing. Contador made little secret of the fact that to win the Tour again would not be enough this season. Froome’s decision to pursue the Vuelta might be a riposte of sorts; such is the rarified terrain of men who hope to be considered among the best of all time, and not merely of their generation.
There is no guarantee, however, that Froome will fare any better in his second tilt at Grand Tour glory in a single season than did Contador. And where Contador ‘only’ had to overcome the challenge of the still-developing Fabio Aru, Froome must best Aru and the Astana team’s most accomplished leader, Vincenzo Nibali. Oh, and Nairo Quintana (Movistar). The Italian champion and the Colombian pure climber were both visibly stronger than Froome in the final week of hostilities in France.
La Vuelta’s parcours opens further avenues of debate. While its almost immediate savagery (climbing from the second stage) lends further credence to the theory that the traditional Grand Tour pattern (a flat opening week, a second week of gradually increasing severity etc), has been shredded by Grand Tours of late, so the participation of the first four finishers in Paris might go some way to drawing a line beneath an era of Tour specialism.
The received wisdom of recent generations has run along the lines of France-or-bust for those taking the event seriously (a Rolland or Uran might ride the Giro too, but few of the first rank would countenance the endeavour).
What now if any of this re-ordered Fab Four (with Movistar’s world number one Valverde a realistic substitute for Contador, having finished ahead of him at the Tour) wins La Vuelta? Might Contador’s victory at the Giro be cast in a lesser light? Or will the reputation of the Giro-Tour double as the hardest combination be reinforced?
What is increasingly apparent is that far from being third in the Grand Tour pecking order, La Vuelta might again steal the limelight, as it did last year, and in 2012. It holds all the aces. The best of three? It shows every sign of being such.