DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (VN) — It’s no secret that pro cycling’s three grand tours have their own distinct flavor. The Giro d’Italia is synonymous with soaring mountain passes and unpredictable weather; the Tour de France carries the weight of history and international prestige; and the Vuelta a España produces nonstop action. Which event is the most fun to race? Which race is the hardest? Which race is simply the best? Journalists like me can be armchair quarterbacks in the Giro vs. Tour vs. Vuelta debate all we want. But it’s the riders who know best.
So, I spoke to riders to get some answers. Over the past few stages here at the UAE Tour, I conducted a highly unscientific rider poll — plus multiple interviews with veteran WorldTour pros — to better understand how these events compare to one another. Here’s what I found.
Which is most enjoyable to race?
Verdict: Giro d’Italia
Caveat: Tour de France if you’re winning
We all love Italy: the food, awesome climbs, and yes, the Dolomites. Guess what? The riders love it too. All but one of the riders we polled listed the Giro d’Italia as the race with the most enjoyable riding conditions. Even the Giro’s recent history with late-season snowstorms, and the occasional mass pileup caused by a police motorbike did not convince them otherwise.
“I spent a lot of time in the Dolomites in the past doing altitude camps, and that is my favorite place on earth,” said Tejay van Garderen. “That is where I got the stage victory on all of the roads I used to train on. Just an awesome place.”
More than one rider listed an important caveat to this rule: The Tour de France provides the best overall experience when the team is having success. Why? The race boasts the most fan interest, both home and abroad. All of the pasta in Italy cannot top winning on the sport’s biggest stage.
“When things go great, it’s probably the best because of the fans and the energy,” said Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal). “And when things are going bad, the Tour is definitely the worst.”
Which has changed the most?
Verdict: Vuelta a España
There was a time in the not-so distant past when the Vuelta was viewed as a lazy late-summer holiday for pro riders. Sure, riders wanted to win. But the heat, late starts, and questionable form meant riders often rolled around in the bunch for much of the day.
That’s no longer the case. The Vuelta has changed more than either of the other two races, riders said. Stages are shorter, which forces the peloton to race from the gun. And many days finish with some chaotic sprint up a 20-percent climb.
“The Vuelta used to be very relaxed in the past and now it is very hard,” said Serge Pauwels (CCC). “The stages today are really short and intense. I would not say it is relaxed.”
That’s not necessarily a good thing in the eyes of every rider. Bernhard Eisel (Dimension Data) said the new racing style at the Vuelta makes it less appealing to him.
“The Vuelta went the wrong direction. It used to be more like a relaxed race,” Eisel said. “Its great to watch I’m sure. For the riders, it is 140 kilometers flat-out every single day. And there are long transfers.”
Verdict: Tour de France
This was a unanimous answer. All riders said that the Tour de France features the most pandemonium and chaos in the peloton, as riders take huge risks to go for the win. “Everyone’s an idiot to each other — we’re all trying to kill each other,” said one rider. Why? The pressure to win is more intense in France. Team directors and sponsors are grumpiest when the team does not follow orders. It’s no wonder those opening weeks of the Tour are always marred by crashes.
“Teams are doing a drag race to set up their sprinter and it’s still 100km from the finish. If you don’t move up, you’re not going to be there at the end,” said Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida). “That’s what causes the crashes. People take risks and you have directors saying, ‘C’mon guys go up.’ It just makes for massive chaos. It’s actually quite annoying.”
Best to win a stage
Verdict: Tour de France
This question produced a unanimous answer: The Tour de France. A Tour victory can’t be matched by wins at the other two.
Verdict: All three
All three races received the nod to this question. Even Hansen, who completed 20 total grand tours back-to-back-to-back, seemed to waffle between races.
“I think it’s the Giro. But then again at the Tour everyone is on form which makes it very hard,” he said. “At the Giro it’s 80 percent guys on form, and the other 20 percent are up for the Tour. And at the Vuelta, more guys are fighting for contracts or late season results, so that’s hard too. So sometimes the Tour, when everyone is going on, the Tour can be very hard. But the last few years at the Giro it’s been racing from start to finish.”
Would take a cycling vacation there
Verdict: Giro d’Italia
Again, another unanimous decision. Riders would much rather take a cycling holiday in Italy than anywhere else. Haussler said the combination of roads, cuisine, and even hospitality place Italy far above the other two.
“You can be in a small little hotel out in the country, and the pasta is the best you’ve ever had, the meat is amazing, and the coffee is perfect,” Haussler said. “No disrespect to the other races, but that’s not the case.”