Over the past decade, the Vuelta a España has emerged as the most unpredictable and thrilling of the grand tours.
It’s reinvented what a grand tour can look like. Shorter stages, explosive finales, and unexpected terrain all add up to make the Vuelta one of the highlights of the racing season.
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That wasn’t always the case. Up until the mid-1990s, the Vuelta was little more than a Spanish stage race and a way for many of the top Europeans to prepare for the season’s larger goals. A move to September in 1995 was the first step in reinvigorating the Vuelta.
The Spanish grand tour is fully owned by ASO, the French parent company of the Tour de France. Yet the Vuelta retains its unmistakable Spanish flavor. And that’s by design. By digging deep into rural Spain and searching out new summit finales such as Wednesday’s Los Machucos finish, the Vuelta is no longer overshadowed by other larger events. Today’s revisioned Vuelta stands alongside the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France as one of cycling’s big three stage races.
VeloNews sat down with Vuelta race director Javier Guillén for an interview on where the Vuelta has come from and where it is going. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
VeloNews: First off, how does one become the director of the Vuelta a España?
Javier Guillén: My background is the law. I never raced a bike. I was never involved with a team. I was working with the legal department, and I come from the business side of things. I see myself more as a businessman who leads this business that is the Vuelta a España.
VN: What is the best part of being the Vuelta director?
JG: What I enjoy most is the emotion that the Vuelta projects. What we look for are these “epic” moments. The explosive climbs, these impossible ramps, so that the race is stripped down to a true, brutal rider-to-rider battle.
VN: The Vuelta always delivers a new surprise. This year it is Los Machucos.
JG: What is really enjoyable for me is to explore these new summits, like Bola del Mundo, Mirador de Ezaro, and others. We are constantly looking for these undiscovered corners of Spain, and bringing them to the cycling public and the wider community. When they turn out well that is what really gives me a high degree of satisfaction.
VN: How does the organization find these new climbs?
JG: Basically, we squeeze the information that we have from our technical staff and from the wider public. We always have our antennae up. We look at the forums, at what fans send to us. And from what the pros and the ex-pros tell us from across Spain. They’re out riding on these roads, and their opinions are the ones that count most.
VN: The Vuelta has evolved a lot over the past decade. What was behind that change?
JG: The Vuelta has changed the model of what a grand tour can be. We do not have a dogma, or a strict model. We like to try new things. Of course, we cannot have all the stages at 114km, or all stages at 220km. It’s best to mix it up and to present something that is unexpected.
VN: We see other grand tours go far beyond its national borders, but Spain seems to have looked inward?
JG: We see two types of frontiers: outside of Spain and inside Spain and these undiscovered gems. We made bets on the spectacle, and it’s paid off for us. The great thing about a grand tour is that you can go anywhere. You can take the race to places where perhaps they have never seen a big event like the Vuelta. You bring the Vuelta to a place like Valdepeñas de Jaén [a host city since 2010], and it becomes a huge event for the community.
VN: Some say the Vuelta is the most difficult grand tour of the year. Do you agree?
JG: I am not sure about that. We are the shortest of the three grand tours. We have more uphill finales, true, with nine, but we do less high-altitude mountain stages. It’s a highly competitive race. We are also at the end of the season. Riders are tired, so we cannot expect them to give everything for six hours day after day. We have to be realistic. What works for the Vuelta might not work for the Giro or Tour. We are where we are, and we are quite satisfied with it right now.
VN: After starting in France this year, where does the Vuelta go next?
JG: I’d like to end the Vuelta in the Canary Islands, and that Teide [Europe’s highest volcano] be part of the finale. It’s a big challenge, logistically, for time, and for the cost. To move the race there would cost a lot of money and manpower. We’ve worked a lot on the idea, we have some concrete plans, and we have a government in the Canary Islands that are curious. That’s our big dream right now. Morocco? If we can take it to Morocco, of course, with the neighbor very close, that is also a possibility, but more remote right now.
VN: ASO is now the full owner of the Vuelta. How does that help the Vuelta?
JG: ASO gave us stability. It’s the best company out there putting on bike races, so we gain so much by being part of that organization. We can lean on them to help us with the expertise that they have. We work as one company, all of the departments work together, but in Spain, we still run the day-to-day operations.
VN: Has the Vuelta lost some of its Spanish flavor since ASO bought it?
JG: No, quite the opposite. ASO insists a lot that the Vuelta retains its Spanish touch. ASO has simply helped us grow stronger. It is still very much a Spanish race.
VN: How much did Spain’s economic crisis hurt the Vuelta?
JG: The crisis was very hard. For those of us who had to live through publicity, those were hard years. What the crisis did was make the Vuelta even stronger. We had to find new ways to work with imagination. We made a bet on what the Vuelta could be, and now that Spain is growing again, the Vuelta is well positioned to make that investment pay off. Now we have a very solid platform, with a strong narrative, with short, explosive stages, with excitement every day, and with Spain as the backdrop. It’s an attractive event on many levels.
VN: The Vuelta has perhaps the best start list of the grand tours. Why do you think the big stars want to race the Vuelta more now than in the past?
JG: We cannot complain. Part of it is because the teams want to maximize their investment in their riders. The riders also want to come because the Vuelta is a grand tour and the big riders want to win the Vuelta sooner or later. Moving from April to September helped us a lot. Looking at the statistics, we have seen even better participation, but starting in mid-August is even better because of the public, the TV, and the fact it’s closer to the Tour de France.
VN: There was some conversation of moving the Vuelta back to April or reducing the number of stages. Where does the race stand now?
JG: There is no serious conversation about this right now. The Vuelta is very good where it is and how long it is. It’s important to keep it the same as the Giro and Tour. That’s the way it should be. These are three jewels in international cycling, and we should be talking about protecting them.
VN: How is the Vuelta route designed each year?
JG: It’s a complicated process, of course. First, we look at different institutions, and where we want to start the race. Of course, it ends in Madrid, so that’s when you start to imagine a route, go west, east, up or down. What is most important for me are the weekends. We like to have a lot of action focused on the weekends. Then you think about the time trials, and map out a basic concept. And then that’s when the technical team starts to look at the specific details of the race route each day, finding the roads, mapping out the climbs, and the exact start and finish areas. There are a lot of moving pieces.
VN: What does the Vuelta try to project during the race?
JG: I know that during 21 stages we have the opportunity to tell 21 interesting stories, 21 “movies,” so to speak. I’d love it that the Vuelta could be decided on the very last day, but that every day before that, we’ve had a big battle. And we’ve had luck that that’s been the case the past few years. We don’t want just one big stage, and everything is decided, but rather that we have beautiful and emotional battles each and every day.
VN: How big is the Vuelta staff?
JG: With Unipublic [the Vuelta’s holding company], we have a staff of 16 year round. A lot of people in Paris with ASO are constantly helping us as well. That number grows to 190 during the Vuelta, and that’s not counting the contracted employees, who help with logistics, barriers, the podiums, etc.
VN: The perfect Vuelta?
JG: It’s always the next one, of course.