The Tour de France has the history, first run in 1903. That’s real old. It has the prestige too, with the most prize money, the famous Yellow Jersey, and a media impact that means that even non-cyclists have heard about it. The Tour has always provided the yard stick by which cyclists are proclaimed to be truly ‘great’ – win it 5 times and you enter a hall of fame inhabited by the cycling legends: Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain.
Then, there is the Giro d’Italia, the second of the ‘Grand Tours’. Amongst cycling fans, the Maglia Rosa, the Pink Jersey which the Giro winner wears, is almost as iconic as the Yellow Jersey of the Tour. The Italian race was first run in 1909 and whilst it lags behind the Tour in world-wide recognition outside of cycling, it is without doubt more romantic than the French three-week race and its native fans burst with pride and passion along the roadsides as their heroes speed past, equalling the French fans in this regard. There is something wild and slightly menacing about the big stages at the Giro that make it compulsory viewing for all cycling fans.
The Giro d’Italia is held in May and as the first of the Grand Tours, it serves to whet the appetite for the Tour, which is held over June and July. After this there is a period of relative calm during which fans and riders alike catch their breath, slightly exhausted after all the excitement!
But there is another Grand Tour, one that rounds out the end of the year, that in recent times has traditionally started a month after the end of the Tour de France, and this is the Vuelta a Espana.
Here we will take a look at the history of the Vuelta (this means ‘Tour’ in Spanish) and examine why it is seen as the lesser of the Big 3 Grand Tours, and whether this view is justified or not.
Spain came relatively late to the game in comparison to the French and the Italians, holding its first national tour in 1935, 32 years after the Tour de France and 26 years after the Giro. Indeed, until 1955, the race was not held annually, in great part due to the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939), and the 2nd World War and its after effects.
The race was created directly because of the successes of the French and Italian events, and, just like the Tour and the Giro, the founders of the Vuelta were newspaper men, desperate to increase sales of their daily publication, Informaciones. The first ever race in 1935 saw 50 riders tackle 14 stages for a total of 3.411km, an average of 240km per stage.
Originally the race was held in the spring, usually late April. In 1995, however, the race moved to September to avoid direct competition with the Giro d’Italia, held in May. The moving of the race from spring to the European autumn was seen as a necessity by the Vuelta organisers to ensure the race’s survival, however it also reinforced the feeling that the Vuelta was definitely the ‘poorer brother’ of the other two Grand Tours.
The overall leader at present wears a red jersey, although previously it has been the ‘Maillot Amarillo’ (Yellow jersey) and the ‘Jersey de Oro’ (Golden Jersey). At the Tour, the leader’s Jersey has always been Yellow, and the same at the Giro with the Pink jersey, making it seem that the Vuelta was struggling to define its own identity.
The period from the mid-1960s to the early 80s saw the prestige of the Vuelta increase however, with the first ever wins by non-Spanish riders. In 1963 the great Frenchman Jacques Anquetil took the overall win, followed by countryman Felice Gimondi in 1968, the great Eddy Merckx in 1973 and Bernard Hinault, at the peak of his powers, in 1978 and 1983.
During mid 60’s though, the new organizer of the Vuelta, the newspaper El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco, went through some financial problems that endangered the running of the competition. However, during that time all editions ended normally. In 1968 the Vuelta was hit by a bomb attack by the Basque separatist movement ETA, which blew up on the route and led to the cancellation of the 15th stage. There were no fatalities, and the race continued the next day.
The record for most wins is held by Robert Herras of Spain, winner in 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2005. Spaniards have dominated historically, winning 30 of the 67 runnings of the Vuelta. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Colombia, Ireland, Russia, Kazakhstan, the United States and Great Britain have also had first-place finishers.
In 2008, Tour de France Organiser, ASO, bought a 49% stake in the race, and in 2014 took full control.
Television viewing figures for the Vuelta are difficult to confirm, but we can safely assume they are far below the 1.5 billion that ASO says watched some part of the 2018 Tour de France. One aspect that makes the Tour so popular with non-cyclists is the beautiful landscapes that feature in the TV broadcasts, with stunning mountains, lush forests and fields full of vibrant flowers. This is not quite the same landscape that features in Spain, which, though verdant in parts, is altogether more ‘Spaghetti Western’ in others.
There are however several factors that make the Vuelta a Espana worth watching – and some hardcore fans believe these factors make the Vuelta the best of the three Grand Tours for these very reasons.
- Crazy Courses. Because the organisers know they need to work hard to pull in the road side fans, the TV audience and the sponsors, they are willing to experiment with the route. If someone finds a new and tough climb, or a hard gravel mountain pass, they’ll add them to the course. Some editions had as many summit finishes as the Giro and the Tour put together.
2. Early summit finishes. Usually, Grand Tours wait to add the big mountains, at least til the second week, sometimes the third. Not at the Vuelta. Usually there’s at least two in the first week. Interestingly, the Tour de France this year copied the Vuelta and added some hard mountain stages early on, to attract more viewers.
3. Little consistency. As the race is towards the end of the year, many riders have ridden either the Giro or the Tour and are fatigued, so they can be really strong one day and not the next. Also, throw in a few local Spanish wildcard teams hungry for TV exposure every day, and the riding can be very wild and unpredictable.
4. Desperate riders. There are always quite a few riders at this time of year looking for a new contract for the following season. Whereas the big riders will have signed theirs in July at the Tour, the less successful will still be desperate to impress and confirm with a team for the next year. This can lead to fireworks on the road and sometimes to riders disobeying team orders.
5. World Champs Preparations. Traditionally, many of those aiming to win the World Championships (held 1-2 weeks after the Vuelta) will turn up at the Spanish race to get some fire in their legs. If the World’s course os a flat one, then the Vuelta teams will be packed with sprinters, which can make even the flat stages very intriguing.
6. Young Guns. As many pro teams will have used their strongest and most experienced riders at the Tour and the Giro, they often send their new pros to the Vuelta. One example is Tadej Pogacar, who was sent by his Emirates team to Spain. Last year he went and won three stages. This year of course, he won the Tour de France in thrilling style. At the Vuelta we often get to see emerging new talent on show each year.
7. Teams usually don’t dominate. At the Tour we often see one team controlling the race, which makes for boring TV (this year it was Junbo-Visma, last year and for the last decade, it was Team Sky). At the Vuelta, some are tired, some are fresh, some want to impress and some are just happy to ride on automatic and see the season finish. This all adds to the unpredictability and also means we really do get to see the riders more as individuals, having to rely on their own strength and cunning.
8. The Vuelta is the Underdog! Yes, the Tour is brighter and bigger, the Giro has the undeniable passion, and the Vuelta is the little kid brother.
But it’s also a fighter and a rebel in many ways, and after years of uncertainty, it’s found its identity and it’s here to stay.