The Vuelta is the best grand tour of the year. Why? It's always exciting, due to the creative course, the unpredictable riders, and weakened teams.

Every July, we hardcore cycling fans field dozens of bad Tour de France questions from our coworkers, family members, and other non-bike people who stumble across a stage while channel surfing.

No, that solo breakaway rider wasn’t trying to win the Tour de France. No, Lance would not have beaten these guys. No, that stage wasn’t exciting.  

That’s not the case during the Vuelta a España, which kicks off this Saturday in Ourense. I don’t know about you, but I rarely have any casual cycling people ask me about Spain’s grand tour. Sure, the Vuelta occasionally receives some TV time — this year NBC Sports is airing a two-hour recap show each night. But for the most part, the Vuelta exists in the small, web-streaming bubble of bike nerd-dom. That’s right — we have three weeks to enjoy the Vuelta all to ourselves.

Which is great. Because, as bike fans, it’s time we admitted something: The Vuelta a España is the best grand tour of the year.

The Vuelta is like an exclusive beach with perfect sand. It’s like that double-secret mountain bike trail that only locals ride. It’s like a restaurant with kick-ass food that doesn’t require reservations. The Vuelta is great, and it’s all ours.

 

With tired teams, unpredictable riders, and creative stages, the Vuelta always delivers excitement. /(c)Tim De Waele
With tired teams, unpredictable riders, and creative stages, the Vuelta always delivers excitement. /(c)Tim De Waele

Why is the Vuelta No. 1?

The Vuelta is No. 3 in terms of popularity and importance, but when it comes to exciting, edge-of-your-seat racing, it’s a convincing No. 1.

The Tour de France has the fanfare, the pressure, and the history. But let’s admit it, the actual race is a total snooze-fest. These days, it’s like watching the New York Yankees (clad in black Sky kits) stomp on the Bad News Bears (everyone else).

The Giro d’Italia has the hours-long climbs and the chaotic Italian roads. Sure, the Giro often produces fireworks — the last two editions were nail-biters. But occasionally the climb-heavy parcours simply separates the cream from the wheat too early. Was there any doubt that Nairo Quintana would win in 2014, or that Nibali would win in 2013?

So why is the Vuelta so exciting?

There are a handful of reasons. For starters, the race is the final grand tour of the season, so its the last opportunity for a stage racer to either make his mark, or salvage a disappointing season — some guys are racing on pure desperation.

The field always has one or two young, up-and-coming talents who are looking to turn heads. Then there are the established strongmen who, for whatever reason, underperformed at the Tour de France. Finally, you have the guys who weren’t picked for the Tour squad, but are looking to be on it next season.

Unlike the Tour de France, where the strongest team can often steamroll the competition, the Vuelta rarely attracts squads capable of shutting down the action. Marquee domestiques are tired by August, so teams often stack their Vuelta squads with younger support riders, or guys who are gassed.

Finally, the Vuelta organizers love to experiment with shorter stages, punchy climbs, and plenty of unpredictable terrain near the finish line, to make every stage worth watching. Your typical Vuelta stage looks like a standard Tour de France stage… only with a stinging climb, twisting descent, and maybe a few nasty corners right at the finish.

The 2014 Vuelta pitted Alberto Contador against Chris Froome in an all-time great battle. /(c) Tim De Waele
The 2014 Vuelta pitted Alberto Contador against Chris Froome in an all-time great battle. /(c) Tim De Waele

A run of exciting Vueltas

If you didn’t know, the Vuelta is currently on an impressive streak of dramatic, down-to-the wire races. Let’s observe the last six Vueltas, shall we?

How much beer has Chris Froome been drinking in the leadup to the Vuelta? Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
How much beer has Chris Froome been drinking in the leadup to the Vuelta? Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Questions for the Vuelta contenders

So who will win this year’s Vuelta? The VeloNews editorial staff is picking Contador (not me — I think Chris Froome will pull it off). Europe’s online betting sites agree with the other VNers, with most putting Contador as a 7/4 favorite, with Froome at anywhere from 11/4 to 7/2.

In my opinion, each Vuelta contender must overcome at least one question if he hopes to win.

Keep your eyes open for:

You know how cycling blogs recommend the “stages to watch,” for grand tours and then list like 4 or 5 stages? Yeah, that’s not the case with this year’s Vuelta. There are but few flat stages, with most finishing on the uphill. I’d especially recommend watching the following stages:

Stage 3 (Monday, Aug. 22), stage 4 (Tuesday, Aug. 23), stage 8 (Saturday, Aug 27), stage 9 (Sunday, Aug. 28), stage 10 (Monday, Aug 29), stage 11 (Wednesday, Aug. 30), stage 14 (Saturday, Sept. 3), stage 15 (Sunday, Sept. 4), stage 17, (Wednesday, Sept. 7), stage 20 (Saturday, Sept. 10)