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by Dane Cash
August 22, 2019
Photography by Gruber Images, Cor Vos
It’s hard to blame anyone for seeing the Vuelta a España as the little brother of cycling’s Grand Tour family.
It’s the newest of the trio, “only” in its 74th edition this year. The red winner’s jersey lacks the mystique of the maillot jaune or the maglia rosa, perhaps because it’s only been red since the start of this decade. For quite a while, the Vuelta was more of a race for Spaniards than for international stars.
In short, the age-old view that the Vuelta sits in a clearcut third place among Grand Tours is understandable.
That doesn’t make it right.
These days, it feels like every season the world of cycling comes to the realization in late August that, hey, wait, this Vuelta is going to be awesome. And then it is.
Miguel Ángel López at the 2018 Vuelta a España. Photo: Miwa iijima/Cor Vos © 2018
Maybe 2019 should be the year cycling fans embrace the idea that the Spanish Grand Tour is one heck of a race, and that maybe one excellent edition after another isn’t just a fluke. With only a few days left until the race gets underway in Torrevieja on the Mediterranean Coast, now seems like the perfect time to spell out why you should watch the 2019 Vuelta a España.
I’m not here to convince anyone that the Vuelta can rival the Tour de France for prestige, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. The way I see it, if you love the Giro d’Italia, where the thrilling racing makes up for the Tour’s prestige gap, you’ll love the Vuelta too.
To hear some fans and even writers describe it, winning the Vuelta is clearly a lesser feat than winning the Giro. Maybe that was true in the ’60s and ’70s, but the start lists and the results sheets in recent years dismantle that notion now.
The last decade of Vuelta winners includes Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, and Alberto Contador, often stars of the Tour itself. It took some time for the Vuelta’s mid-90s date change from the spring to the late summer to really settle in, but it has paid off big-time. Now, Tour favorites can make the Vuelta start without worrying about putting their yellow jersey hopes at risk, joining the contenders who raced the Giro and are now rested and ready for another round.
The peloton on stage 18 of the 2018 Vuelta a España. Photo: Gruber Images
On top of that high-level racing that seems to surprise people every year, the Vuelta has a special quality that neither the Giro nor the Tour have: an unrivaled sense of desperation.
Are you a GC contender whose early season stage races didn’t go the way you wanted? That’s fine, the Giro’s coming up. Giro didn’t go according to plan? Take a break and rest up for the Tour. Tour didn’t go the way you wanted?
You better perform at the Vuelta, or else your season is a flop.
The Vuelta’s reputation as the Last Chance Saloon for Grand Tour racers ups the ante competitively, as riders work hard to come into the race at their best for a final shot at glory. It spices up the racing itself too. Even Chris Froome, for all the criticism fans level at his and his team’s racing style, has always loved to race aggressively in Spain. Alongside his two overall wins, he has five career Vuelta stage wins and even a points jersey to prove it.
The strong start lists and that always-entertaining air of desperation are long-standing facets of the race by this point. Then there’s the route, and the storylines – they change each year, but they’re consistently compelling just the same.
This year’s race features several stages that define what the Vuelta is all about. Take stage 5, which closes out with an 11.1-kilometer climb at nearly 8%. Not exactly the walk in the park you tend to expect for the first few stages at a Grand Tour. Or how about stage 15, which features four category-one climbs, including a finale whose average gradient nears 10%?
Throw in one team time trial and one individual time trial to keep the pure climbers honest and you have a somewhat balanced, but entirely entertaining parcours, as usual. For more about the route and the many reasons it offers to watch this bike race, check out the CyclingTips Vuelta preview.
As for those aforementioned storylines, well, here are three to chew on.
For starters, there’s Jumbo-Visma – a team that has been in the news a lot lately – which brings both Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk to the race. With those two heavy-hitters, plus a support squad that has proven to be one of cycling’s best this year, Jumbo-Visma looks like the team to beat. Both leaders, however, have to be feeling a bit of pressure.
Steven Kruijswijk digging deep in the GC group on stage 14 of the 2018 Vuelta a España. Photo: LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2018
Roglic rolled into the Giro this May as the overall favorite, and came up short. He has the skill set of a Grand Tour favorite but he hasn’t put it all together just yet. Kruijswijk’s Tour podium was nice, but he never really challenged for the overall win. Both riders have something to prove, considering their team just signed one of cycling’s biggest stars in Tom Dumoulin — as if the Vuelta didn’t have enough desperation already.
Speaking of intra-team drama, the Movistar Grand Tour soap opera rolls on in Spain as Giro winner Richard Carapaz will make the start alongside two former Vuelta winners, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. Is the Spanish WorldTour team ever not entertaining?
Movistar’s multiple-leader approach may earn the team plenty of derision on Twitter, but it sure worked well at the Giro, and Ineos has won the last two Tours de France with multiple leaders, so it’s clearly a viable strategy if executed well. The question is whether the team can actually pull it off again. If so, it will be a feat worth watching. If not, it will likely be another dramatic implosion … also worth watching.
Getting away from the GC heavyweights, there’s also the Vuelta’s strong track record of giving up-and-comers an opportunity to shine. Chris Froome, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Dan Martin, and Tom Dumoulin are just some of the stars whose first big Grand Tour successes came in the Vuelta a España. Even with the high level of competition, it’s an event that many teams use to give their rising stars a shot at leadership.
Ben King won two stages at the 2018 Vuelta a España. Photo: Luis Gomez/Cor Vos © 2018
With that in mind, over the next three weeks, keep an eye on the likes of Tadej Pogacar, Fabio Jakobsen, Sergio Higuita, Daniel Martínez, and Tao Geoghegan Hart.
Perhaps even more importantly, just tune in, and be ready for surprises. As the race has proven time and again over the past few years, you’ll be glad you did.