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, the same again from ten from the Giro – including the winner, Richard Carapaz – and numerous other GC riders from the season’s previous Grand Tours.
The field in Spain this year seems to be split between those teams who are going in all guns blazing, and those who will take opportunities if they present themselves but will be equally happy to simply stay upright for three weeks.
In the former camp you have Astana and Jumbo Visma. The former started the season firing on all cylinders and promised a lot going into the Tour, only to find their mojo missing upon arrival in Brussels. Miguel Ángel López will lead the strongest GC team at the race but Jakob Fuglsang will be a strong Plan B if things go south for the Colombian.
The Dutch side have adopted a similar approach, albeit with a bit more balance. Primož Roglič is their main man and, unlike at the Giro, he is being granted a much more experienced set of mountain domestiques to support him. One look at the eight and you can see why the Slovenian is the bookies favourite to be in rojo in Madrid.
Elsewhere we find Movistar doing what they do. Although all three tips of the trident have Grand Tour victories on their palmarès, only Carapaz can claim to be a true contender for the team’s home Grand Tour. After a rocky couple of years for Esteban Chavez, Mitchelton Scott have restored the GC whip to the Colombian. A stage win is always well within him, but he will be wanting to stay the course and get back on the podium in Madrid for the first time since 2016.
Then there are the wildcards that the Vuelta usually seems to throw up. There are a few Brits who could pull off a result somewhere: Hugh Carthy may ostensibly be there in support of Uran but if Rigo falls away – or even if he doesn’t – there’s no reason to think Carthy couldn’t sneak inside the top ten; Tao Geoghegan Hart has been given the nod to lead the Ineos line; James Knox, although he’d rather be referred to as a Cumbrian, makes it into a Decuninck Quick Step team of misfits, most of whom have stage wins well within them.
Another team to watch is UAE Emirates. It should be all about Aru, who has not only plenty of three week races under his belt, but has actually won one. Then again, maybe it won’t be. His younger team-mate, and last year’s Tour de l’Avenir winner, Tadej Pogačar has ridden rings around the Italian all season, winning two of the stage races he’s started and finishing outside the top ten in only one. The bookies certainly seem to think so, affording the Slovenian the stingiest of odds of 25-1 on winning the overall.
Just going by the numbers game it looks like we’ll witness a thrilling GC battle over the next three weeks. Roglic, López and Carapaz 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 2019 Vuelta starts on the Costa Blanca, before tracing a counterclockwise route up the coast towards the Pyrenees, into Andorra and France, with an individual time trial that finishes in Pau – how novel – then onward through the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias.
This year the uphill finishes – eight in total – begin on stage 5 at Alto de Javalambre, with mountain stages dotted throughout the race. Throw in a whole bunch of other lumpy stages and there are plenty of 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 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.