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.
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.
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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.
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?
- 2010: Race leader Igor Anton crashes out, setting up a duel between Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez. Rodriguez drops Nibali on stage 16 to Cotobello to take the jersey, only to lose it the next day later with his customary terrible time trial. In the final week, Nibali fends off the maybe, possibly, likely-juiced Xacobeo-Galacia duo of Ezequiel Mosquera and David Garcia Dapena on the Bola del Mundo summit finish. Nibbles holds on by 47 seconds to win. Excitement level: Oh-Em-Gee!
- 2011: Known punk-rock fanatic and Sky leader Bradley Wiggins appeared to have the race wrapped up until the route tackled the Angliru on stage 15, when Pro Continental rider and former Ricardo Ricco domestique Juan Jose Cobo drops everyone to take the race lead. Cobo weathers the onslaught by Wiggins and then-lieutenant Chris Froome to win by a mere 13 seconds. Yeah, this was the race that introduced us to Chris Froome. Excitement level: Holy Moly!
- 2012: Back from his doping ban, Alberto Contador comes in to battle against Valverde and a hyper-motivated Purito Rodriguez. Rodriguez wins three stages and takes a commanding lead, only to find himself cut to ribbons by El Pisolero on the stage 17 stage climb to Fuenta De. Again, the race finished atop the Bola del Mundo, with Rodrigeuz trying unsuccessfully to unseat Contador. Excitement level: Yabba Dabba Doo!
- 2013: An all-time classic saw admitted McDonald’s lover Chris Horner fight a head-to-head battle with Nibali, who came into the Vuelta hoping to pull the elusive Grand Tour double (he won the Giro that year). Wearing his trademark grimace grin, Horner slowly picked away at Nibali’s advantage until seizing the lead on stage 19. It set up the most dramatic final day on the Angliru, which saw Nibali launch endless attacks, only to be dropped in the fog and chaos by the 41-year-old American. Excitement level: I just had a heart attack! Call an ambulance!
- 2014: In a comparatively tame Vuelta, Contador and Froome both battled for redemptive glory after they both abandoned that year’s Tour de France with crash-related injuries. Contador was the stronger of the two on the climbs, and took a convincing win. But the sight of both men attacking each other with abandon became the lasting image of the duel. Excitement level: Yowza!
- Another all-time great: Man-monster Tom Dumoulin defies the laws of gravity by hanging with the race’s pint-sized climbers … for awhile. Fabio Aru’s all-in attack on the penultimate day slices Dumoulin down to size, and gives viewers a great show. Excitement level: Hooboy!
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.
- Chris Froome: How much beer has he been drinking since the Tour de France? No, seriously. As the reigning Tour champ, Froome is entitled to drink at least five pints a night for the month after the event.
- Alberto Contador: How angry was Contador after his humiliating crash on the Tour de France’s first day? If he hit boiling rage-levels of anger, then perhaps he was able to apply that to his pre-Vuelta training.
- Nairo Quintana: Did Nairo undercook himself for the Tour? If so, then perhaps he could reach into the fitness bag and pull out another peak for the Vuelta.
- Esteban Chaves: Is Chaves a killer? He almost escaped with the Giro win, but seemed to lack the angry sauce on the final climb. He’s plenty strong on the climbs, but does he have the mentality to destroy his rivals?
- Steven Kruijswijk: Will there be snowbanks on the course?
- Miguel Angel Lopez: Is Lopez the real deal? He sure seems like it.
- Alejandro Valverde: How can Alejandro Valverde still pedal a bicycle after three grand tours, the Olympics, and a full classics campaign?
- Andrew Talansky: How strong is peak Talansky? Apparently we’ve seen sub-peak Talansky for the last two years.
- Tejay van Garderen: Can Tejay complete a grand tour without one bad day?
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)