Vuelta a Espana

As the Vuelta turns 80, has it lost its mojo?

As the Spanish grand tour turns 80, some question the race's importance on the calendar — but there's no denying its rich history

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It’s long been considered the “little brother” of the three. For prestige, for history, or for quality, the Vuelta a España has never quite been at the same level as the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia.

Part of the reason is age. The Tour was born in 1903, and the Giro in 1909. The sport flourished in those countries, and for a variety of reasons, no one managed to pull off a Spanish version until the 1930s. Despite looking like a wrinkled map, the mountain-strewn Iberian peninsula doesn’t have the emblematic climbs, similar to the Tour’s l’Alpe d’Huez, or the Giro’s Stelvio.

Yet there is no denying there is something very special about the Vuelta. Perhaps it’s the backdrop, the arid plateaus and rugged mountains of Spain. Or the white-washed towns and the telescopic-hot Iberian sun.

On Wednesday, many of the elite of the Spanish peloton from yesterday and today gathered in Madrid to celebrate the Vuelta and to mark its 80th birthday. Today’s pros are racing or preparing for their next goals, but the Spanish winners from the past gathered at the Puerta de Atocha in downtown Madrid to mark eight decades of the Spanish race, which began April 29, 1935.

Among those present was two-time winner Pedro Delgado. Bernardo Ruiz, at 90, was the oldest winner in attendance, who won in 1948. Federico Bahamontes, the “Águila de Toledo” — the Eagle of Toledo — was Spain’s first Tour de France winner but never managed to win his national tour.

“Everything’s changed since then,” Delgado told the Spanish sports daily AS. “In the first Vueltas, 50 riders started, and only half managed to finish, with stages as long as 300km. Today, cycling is more humane, with new kinds of challenges, above all, the pressure.”

Despite growing up in the shadow of the Tour and Giro, the Spanish grand tour has thrived, despite an uneven ride that started in the 1930s, and was disrupted by the Spanish Civil War and World War II, only to endure the Franco dictatorship into the 1970s. The Vuelta helped usher in a modern, democratic Spain in the 1980s, with the arrival of such riders as Delgado and five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain, who also never won the Vuelta.

As the ceremony evoked, the Vuelta was long a springtime grand tour. It was the season’s first, slotting in after the spring classics and before the Giro. The riders looked forward to the summer-like weather and relatively easy racing compared to what loomed in the months ahead.

The race also evolved, sometimes with barely enough stages to fill two full weeks, but it survived. By the mid-1990s, at the insistence of former UCI president Hein Verbruggen, the Vuelta was pried out from its traditional place on the calendar and moved from April to September. Coupled with the world championships, which moved from August to September, the switch helped lengthen the racing season and gave the Vuelta a much-needed boost.

Once it moved to September, former Vuelta owners Unipublic started to jazz up the idea of what a grand tour should look like. It created shorter stages, as short as 120km, held stages under the lights at night, and packed the race profile with climbs. The races were wildly unpredictable and often produced the most interesting race action of the year.

Two years ago, Tour owner ASO completed its takeover of the Spanish tour, but the Paris-based company has respected the Vuelta’s Spanish roots and has provided much-needed financial stability to the season’s third grand tour.

Not everyone believes the Vuelta is better off in September (it now starts in late August). Marino Lejarreta, who was the first to start and finish 10 consecutive grand tours in the 1980s and 1990s (a feat equaled by Lotto-Soudal’s Adam Hansen), thinks the Vuelta was perfect in April.

“I think the Vuelta has lost a bit of its importance,” Lejarreta, an 1982 Vuelta winner, told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “Before, riders would target the Vuelta and make it a major goal. It was the first grand tour of the season, everyone was ready to race hard. Now, it’s almost become a national race. By September, there are not a lot of GC riders in top condition to truly dispute the Vuelta.”

Without a doubt, a major boon for the Vuelta was slotting the worlds after the Spanish tour. Since the late 1990s, every world champion raced the Vuelta to hone their form ahead of the fight for the rainbow jersey. Though many didn’t make it to Madrid, two hard weeks of racing was just what the pros wanted in their legs before the long-distance, all-or-nothing shot for glory. That helped assure the Vuelta secured an elite, top-flight start list. Though many of the big names were not racing for GC, they added luster to the race and invariably would test their legs with a big stage win or exhibition to electrify the peloton.

That trend came to an abrupt halt in 2013, when Rui Costa won the worlds in dramatic fashion in Italy without racing the Vuelta. Instead, the Portuguese rider who raided the Spanish armada in Florence raced the Canadian World Cups. Last year, neither did Michal Kwiatkowski, who chose to race the Tour of Britain instead.

Some are muttering the Vuelta has become too hard. Packed with endless climbs and uphill finales, the Vuelta’s drive to make the race dynamic and unpredictable might be driving away some of the worlds-bound contenders. “Fresh” is the new buzzword in the peloton, and riders don’t want to get fried in the Spanish sun-baked mountains before a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the stripes.

It will be interesting to see what kind of field the Vuelta draws this year. Spanish climbers, such as Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), already have it on their calendars, but more than a few big names likely will not be racing. Defending champion Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is poised to race both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, so a Vuelta start is unlikely, but there are already growing rumors in Spain that Contador will indeed race the Vuelta. That remains to be seen.

A more critical factor will be that the world championships are being held in Richmond, Virginia, meaning that many of the top worlds favorites who would typically race the Vuelta have already indicated they will likely race in North America in the weeks leading up to Richmond.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), who raced the Vuelta before winning the rainbow stripes in 2012, has already said he will likely skip the Spanish tour.

“I don’t think so. I think it’s better to go to Quebec and Montreal, and race on a circuit, like you will see at Richmond,” Gilbert said. “Then you can stay there in North America for two weeks, and maybe have a race the week before the worlds. It’s a long trip to make from Europe.”

Regardless of who shows up in late August in Andalucía, the Vuelta seems to have come of age. Perhaps it still doesn’t hold the same prestige as the Tour or the Giro, but there is undoubtedly something special about the Vuelta. Everyone gathering in Madrid on Wednesday raised their voices in a toast to the Spanish tour: “Viva la Vuelta!”

The Vuelta rolls on. It celebrates 80 years, and will hold its 70th edition, starting August 22, in Marbella.