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Vuelta a Espana

Commentary: Why the Vuelta a España is the best grand tour of the year

Vuelta a Hoody: There's a sense of anarchy this month that will only reconfirm La Vuelta as the season's most entertaining race.

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Ah, the Vuelta a España, one of the season’s craziest and unpredictable highlights, blasted off Friday with trademark aplomb.

Like Primož Roglič joked, the Tour de France is just training for the Vuelta.

The Spanish grand tour might not be as prestigious as the Tour or pack the same gravitas as the Giro d’Italia, but it’s just so much more fun.

What’s not to like? Later starts, shorter stages, explosive finales. Set in Spain’s late summer, the race packs the vibe of a beach holiday and a never ending bike party.

The Vuelta “blueprint” is firmly set in place under race director Javier Guillén, and that means almost nonstop action from start to finish in a climber’s paradise.

Simon Yates put it best the other day when he said, “It’s hard every day at La Vuelta, and there’s always something that you need to be aware of and switched on for. You really race every day, and that brings out aggressive racing as well. That’s La Vuelta for you.”

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Because it’s not the Tour, the race for the spoils can be a heck of a lot more interesting as a result.

Why? Riders are arriving in Utrecht with form all over the map.

Some are coming off the Tour with dwindling form, others are flying fresh after a long break from the Giro. Almost no one ever peaks for the Vuelta, unless you’re a rider from one of the minor Spanish teams. One significant exception is Remco Evenepoel, who could be a smoky for the GC in his Vuelta debut.

Then there’s the route, and the Vuelta always delivers a few zingers.

The Vuelta long ago dared to rip up the tried-and-true predictable grand tour formula, and came up with some truly wacky ideas. It was the first major race to chop down the kilometers and spice up the action, unveiling short, explosive stages of 120km more than a decade ago.

The Vuelta helped bring in the trend of “impossible” climbs with the advent of the Angliru, and organizers keep “discovering” new ones. This year sees new summits at Pico Jano and Colláu Fancuaya in the first week across northern Spain.

Because the Vuelta is leaner and not as massive as the Tour entourage, it can venture to far-flung destinations and perch finish lines atop mountaintop finales at the end of narrow, torturous roads that truly are the definition of a goat path.

And what race finishes inside a soccer stadium, like it did in 2002 with the finish line on the pitch of Real Madrid’s famed Bernabéu stadium? Or start on a salt flat in 2019, or trace the “running of the bulls” route in Pamplona to finish in the city’s famed bull ring? Hemingway would be proud.

EF Pro Cycling at the 2019 Vuelta a España
Start on a salt flat? ‘Why not’ says Vuelta chiefs. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The Vuelta is many things at once.

It’s a proving ground for up-and-comers — cue Tadej Pogačar nearly blowing up the Vuelta in his grand tour debut in 2019 — and a race to avenge a season of wrongs, setbacks, illnesses or disappointments.

This year’s Vuelta’s sees grand tour farewells from two former winners and two giants of the peloton with Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali. Yet no less than 70 riders in the bunch are racing the Vuelta for the first time.

Riders are often riding on fumes by the final week, simply because almost no one puts the Vuelta at the center of their racing plans. That can often deliver some stunning swings of fortune and unbound drama unique to the Vuelta.

Alberto Contador’s famous raid at Fuente Dé back in 2012, or the “Folly at Formigal” in 2016, when Nairo Quintana and Contador led an attack in the day’s neutral start to turn the Vuelta upside down. They’re just two examples of Vuelta craziness.

Richard Carapaz nearly won the Vuelta two years ago, and if the final climb La Covatilla was about one kilometer longer, he probably would have.

Only the Vuelta could have delivered the drama of last year’s astonishing exit of Miguel Ángel López in a temper tantrum with just one stage to go. And the best part is that he’s back as if nothing happened out of the ordinary. Venga!

Jumbo-Visma and Jonas Vingegaard did everyone a favor in July by taking down Pogačar and what looked destined to be five yellow jerseys in a row. That stunning reversal completely scrambled the grand tour hierarchy, and that era of change is spreading south of the Pyrénées.

There’s a sense of anarchy at this Vuelta that seems to foreshadow a new and different winner.

The “big three” of Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma, and UAE Team Emirates will still likely dominate, but there’s more room at the Vuelta for the little guy to come out on top or the inspirational story to prevail.

And finally there’s Spain’s incredibly diverse and wild landscapes.

Geography is cycling’s stadium, and the Vuelta course designers mix things up, but usually spend a solid week on Spain’s “green coast” from the Basque Country to Galicia, a largely undiscovered corner of Europe replete with wild beaches, towering peaks, and the last refuge of Spain’s brown bears.

The iconic cities such as Valencia, Granada, or Toledo play less of a starring role in the modern Vuelta. Instead, the race directs the peloton into the hidden backroads of “España profunda,” and the impact is much bigger.

While a big city like Malaga in August would loathe to see its roads closed, small hamlets like Valdepeñas de Jaén, a town lost in the middle of Andalucía’s “sea of olives,” turn the Vuelta into a massive block party.

Races get you places, so the saying goes, and the Vuelta keeps pushing the boundaries of what a grand tour can and does look like.

Add the food, vino tinto, and an afternoon round of pintxos, and it’s hard to beat the Vuelta.

That’s where I’ll be for the next three weeks. Let’s buckle up and enjoy the ride.