Opinion: How the Vuelta a España needs to reinvent itself

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It feels like the Tour de France has only just finished and the Vuelta a España starts this weekend. With the pinnacle of cycling already completed, the Vuelta struggles for identity, relevance and differentiation in the modern era. Rowan Dever argues why it’s time to reinvigorate the Vuelta and how to go about it.

What comes to mind when you think about the ‘Vuelta a España’?

Personally, I consider it the redemption grand tour.

I think of top class GC riders lining up without top class form, racing the Vuelta after injuries or illness sustained at the Tour. Just like Wiggins did in 2011, Froome in 2014 and Alberto Contador/Nairo Quintana in 2016.

It’s also an opportunity for Giro riders to have a crack at two grand tours in a year, like Esteban Chaves. But you never hear of top-level pros – GC or otherwise – specifically targeting the Vuelta as their number one focus for the season.

The Spanish grand tour does offer an element of exposure, but it’s mainly for small Spanish pro continental teams and desperate riders hunting for a contract for the following year.

It also allows bigger teams to blood new riders. From an Australian perspective, this was the path for the likes of Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Will Walker (Rabobank).

Moreover, the Vuelta has for many riders been used as training for the World Championships. Racing to win the Vuelta is not an end in itself, for the best riders it’s a stepping-stone to find form for the Worlds.

To me all this is indicative of how the Vuelta is perceived, not just to cycling fans but even amongst the pro peloton. It’s not an identity any grand tour should have or want.

Fnding its feet

The Vuelta has recently relied on hilly parcours and brutal summit finishes to establish itself as the most punishing grand tour. In 2016 the Giro had nine summit finishes, the Tour had four mountain finishes and the 2016 Vuelta will have 10.

But if it’s uncompromising difficulty that the ASO as race organisers want to inject into the Vuelta, I say the Giro has that covered. Regularly traversing over 2000 metre-high mountains amidst snow and rain has become the norm for the Italian grand tour. Give me the spectacle of racing in driving Italian snow in May over searing September Spanish heat anytime.

So if the Vuelta struggles to attract the best riders at peak fitness, is most often used as training for the Worlds or to blood new riders, and lacks its own unique identity, what can be done with it?

Change is as good as a Spanish holiday

I want to see the ASO try something a little different. I want to see a riders like Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Tom Dumoulin and Julian Alaphilippe be given the opportunity to win a grand tour overall.

Think about it, right now Sagan is the world’s most complete rider and yet cruelly he has zero chance of ever winning a modern day grand tour. Displaying Eddy Merckx-like versatility, Sagan made this year’s Tour de France his own, but he could only grab the green jersey.  Surely he deserves more than that for his talent.

Eddy Merckx won the Tour a record-equalling five times, but these days a rider like ‘The Cannibal’ who could win classics like Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and Flanders has no chance of ever winning a grand tour overall. In the modern era riders have become so highly specialised that the difference between rouleurs and modern GC riders has become staggering.

Sean Kelly is another great example. The versatile Irishman not only won the 1988 Vuelta overall by nearly one and a half minutes, he also dominated the points classification and finished third in the KOM standings. Would that all round dominance ever happen again in the current grand tour era? It’s unlikely.

For me, the Tour of California is a fantastic spectacle. While not completely a level playing field, it affords pure climbers and rouleurs similar chances to win the race overall. Illustratively, recent winners have included Alaphilippe, Sagan, Wiggins, Gesink and Van Garderen.

In 2015, Sagan won the overall after going deep – very deep – up the infamous Mt Baldy to retain the overall lead. With grand tour mountain stages these days being largely formulaic affairs battled out between skinny climbers, it was brilliant to see Sagan climbing valiantly with the likes Sergio Henao, Robert Gesink, Ian Boswell and Julian Alaphilippe up a Hors Category climb trying to limit his losses.

There’s a curious yet fundamental attraction to seeing professional riders these days out of their comfort zone. In a modern era noted for specialisation, watching Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet ride like GC contenders and suffer in the mountains is utterly compelling.

I want to see the Vuelta reinvent itself in 2017 so that rouleurs like Sagan and GVA can realistically target overall victory. This means fewer big mountain stages at altitude, shorter time trial stages with more of a parcours like California and Tirreno-Adriatico. The sprinters will still get their half a dozen flat stages, and the pure climbers will also have their chance to gain time, but by and large the course should ensure punchy riders have an equal chance to win overall against specialty GC riders such as Nibali, Contador, Quintana and Froome.

With more stages resembling lumpy, one-day classic races the time gaps will be smaller and the racing more exciting. Like at California, narrower margins will mean that bonus seconds for intermediates and stage wins will become more important and not just an afterthought as they are at grand tours these days. From a television viewing perspective, shorter hilly stages have become foolproof recipes for pulsating racing and unconventional tactics. This is what we want more of – waiting to the last two kilometres of a long mountain stage to see who attacks and who cracks has become stale and predictable.

At present there are only a handful of GC riders who can win any grand tour. Froome, Contador, Nibali and Quintana have won the majority of grand tours since 2013. I’d like to see a different type of rider challenge for the overall at a grand tour.

We’re also seeing climbers improve their time trialling in order to limit losses or gain time on their rivals. Whereas riders like Sean Kelly and Miguel Indurain once used TT stages to pick up time, this simply doesn’t happen as much anymore given how well Froome, Quintana, Van Garderen etc can race against the clock now relative to TT specialists like Tony Martin.

With different riders competing for the overall win this will be a completely new perspective on grand tour racing. We were privy to such tactics at the Tour this year, with Van Avermaet already in yellow going out in the break to try and steal more time before the bigger climbs arrived.

Rocking the boat?

Some may argue that modern day grand tour winners like Froome and Quintana have no chance to win Paris-Roubaix or Flanders these days, so why should the opposite be considered? In fact Bradley Wiggins’ attempt at winning Roubaix in 2015 is a perfect illustration of how hard it is for a Tour winner to triumph in a one-day classic.

Admittedly there are some exceptions to this, and the obvious ones are the Spanish duo of Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez. Valverde’s grand tour and classics record in particular is exceptional, but riders with his versatility are few and far between these days.

So why should a grand tour be redesigned so that more of an all rounder can potentially win overall? GC riders have their grand tours and rouleurs have their classics; the line of demarcation is clear, right?

Well remember unlike Paris-Roubaix and Flanders, which are by and large held on similar courses each year, route changes occur every year in modern day grand tours.

Some have claimed the relatively few summit finishes at this year’s Tour aimed to ensure Chris Froome didn’t dominate the mountains and win every stage (not that the strategy worked). Similarly, the 2016 Giro route arguably had Nibali in mind with the excessively hard mountain stages and uphill individual time trial.

Furthermore, it wasn’t until 1995 that the Vuelta moved to September so as to avoid directly clashing with the Giro. Put another way, wholesale changes to grand tours are not exactly unheard of.

If the Vuelta was to be changed with the above in mind, Sagan especially may want to slim down to better compete in the smaller mountains. Such weight loss is not without precedent when you think about Froome’s body transformation, going from 75 kilograms in 2007 to 67 kilograms in 2015. Miguel Indurain too was 10 kilograms lighter than when he was a junior and that seemed to work out alright for him at the Tour.

Moreover, a rouleur-friendly 2017 Vuelta course would be perfect preparation for the 2017 World Champs in Norway held on a course similar to Geelong.

Reinventing the Vuelta will rejuvenate interest in the Spanish race and will reconfigure grand tour racing. A new identity is desperately needed. These changes will deliver a new spectacle unlike any other modern day grand tour. Short but lumpy stages, fewer summit finishes, more pivotal intermediate bonuses and shorter time trials will open up the race to a new batch of overall winners and will create a more spectacular and memorable three-week race.

About the author

Rowan Dever juggles a career as a Chartered Accountant while competing as a national-level road racer in Australia. He is also the former Editor of Ultimate Cycling magazine.

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