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While the closing stages of this year’s Vuelta a España have certainly proved entertaining, there are those that suggest the race is in need of significant overhaul. Among them is Lee Rodgers who suggests it’s time for a change when it comes to the year’s final Grand Tour.
It has to be said that the Vuelta traditionally sucks. I’ve watched it these past seven or eight years or so because I get paid to write about it but when I do sit down to watch I feel like I’m 12 again, being dragged round to Auntie May’s house for an afternoon that stretches into half a decade of having my cheeks pinched, receiving wet kisses on my earhole and having to eat soggy yellow biscuits I have to pretend I like.
It’s always been the Grand Beige of the Grand Tours, the Ford Cortina MkII of early 1980s sportscars, the sherry of fine wines, a cup of tea without milk.
I started writing my notes for this article just after Stage 16 of this year’s Vuelta, where Fabio Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez thrashed it out for that one valuable second in the last 800m and Tom Dumoulin clawed his way back to save his chances in the ITT. It was, I thought, an anomaly of a stage, and in the end, though it made for compelling watching, Frank Schleck won the day.
“Need I say more?”, I thought.
Earlier in the week I had sat in quiet astonishment when I heard Sean Kelly agreeing with his Eurosport co-commentator that, over the past few seasons or so, the Vuelta had been the most exciting Grand Tour by far. For me, even if the last few Tours de France haven’t been far short of fantastically mediocre and the Giro d’Italia a bit hit and miss, we’re still talking about the Vuelta.
Saying the Vuelta is ‘really exciting’ is a bit like saying a fried egg is ‘exceptional’. It’s still a fried egg, folks, there’s no getting away from that basic fact.
So why have I always been so harsh about Spain’s national race?
Generally, very few stars bother to attend as, in their eyes, the race offers very little kudos even for a stage or a GC win. This is a fact echoed by sponsors and by the top teams’ attitude to the race. Some top sprinters and rouleurs do turn up but do so only to warm up for the World Championships before buggering off halfway through.
Spectator numbers by the road are notoriously fickle and there were several years when TV viewers were turning off in droves, a trend that is reversing slightly but not by enough yet to shout about. To top it all off, you have a race director who himself is wondering aloud if the race shouldn’t be cut by at least a week.
“It’s a debate that will surely come,” said Javier Guillen, mindful of the fact that the appeal of the race to the top GC Grand Tour riders is diminished by the fact that it comes after both the Giro and the Tour in terms both of prestige and timing. He stated that if a change in the duration would encourage the likes of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome to attend regularly, he would be open to the idea.
The Vuelta has adapted to survive in the past, of course, with the race having been moved from its old, late-April slot to September in 1995 to ensure it didn’t clash with the Giro d’Italia. So there is a precedent for change. To make this race viable, I believe it should either embrace the two-week format or fall on its sword if it fails to see a significant increase in revenue and viewing figures.
I can think of several alternatives to the Vuelta that could fill the September slot, like a recharged Tour of California, one that encourages the potential of cycling in the USA and gives the riders a chance to race in weather they can actually enjoy. Or how about a properly subsidised women’s Tour de France to compliment the Giro Rosa? It’s a race both ASO and the UCI could spend money on to kickstart what is still a massively neglected aspect of bike racing. It would be a half-decent salve to the neglect women’s racing has been subjected to for so long.
Or how about working to create an Asian tour that is focused on actually encouraging the massive potential of cycling in the Far East in terms of getting people on bikes and out racing? One that isn’t as dreary and pointless as the Tour of Beijing?
Tradition in the great races must remain but only where it can justify itself. Tradition must cede to change when it means more exciting racing that will draw in more sponsors and encourage more people to ride.
As it is, the Vuelta has become a one-trick pony, falling back on the strategy employed to mixed effect by the Giro in the Noughties — piling on difficult stages in an attempt to attract more viewers and greater TV revenue. The Giro learnt the folly of this method and more or less abandoned it, but the Vuelta is still trying its luck.
Mark Cavendish for one is not impressed.
“The Vuelta has just become stupid now. 11 mountain-top finishes this year,” he said, speaking to ITV. “One thing for the viewers: sprinters aren’t bad bike riders. You don’t have to go quick uphill to make it a good race, do you know what I mean?
“No-one wants to go to the Vuelta any more unless they crashed out of the Tour de France.”
Exactly. Spot on. But then … all of a sudden, this year’s Vuelta kicked itself from sepia into glorious technicolor. The 2015 Vuelta, since Stage 16, threw the form book on its head.
The past week of racing did more to enhance the reputation of the Vuelta than anything else that has happened there in the past five years. It really was an extraordinary race with the lead swapping between Aru, Rodriguez and then to Dumoulin and finally back to Aru.
Of course Aru has his detractors, as does his Astana team, but there’s little doubting the action on show this past week has been of the kind that every objective cycling fan wants from a stage race. It’s been enthralling and has had me eagerly tuning in to see what’s going to happen next.
Does the action this time round reflect a turn of genius by Guillen and his planning team? Or is this all down to chance? Could the race be better for not having a dominant force such as an in-form Contador or Froome in attendance? Froome’s broken foot was cruel for the man but might it have been a silver lining for the race in general? Might the bevy of summit finishes be keeping the racing closer by forcing more riders to conserve energy, allowing for a tighter GC through to the end?
If you ask me, the 2015 Vuelta a España simply served up the perfect storm. It’s appeal this year; it’s wham-bam action to the end was down more to chance than anything else. Froome leaving early, Dumoulin appearing as a force, Rodriguez riding out of his skin — it’s been a bit of a freak of a tour. The Vuelta’s organisers will take this one and run with it, and so they should.
But while I don’t want to dismiss such a great edition, the Vuelta is a race that still has many questions to confront in its quest to fully justify its length and lofty status.