The 2020 Vuelta a España was going to happen, sí o sí.
The bigger question was if the race was going to make it all the way to Madrid.
Vuelta director Javier Guillén, speaking during a media chat Tuesday in Madrid, outlined the tension and uncertainty for the Spanish grand tour held during unprecedented conditions in a worldwide pandemic. in a worldwide pandemic.
Rescheduled for late October and running into mid-November, COVID conditions worsened with each passing stage as Europe’s much-feared second wave started to build.
Guillén revealed the Vuelta was counting down the stages as it neared its rescheduled conclusion on November 8 in Madrid.
“I was most worried during the second rest day, because we were getting so close to Madrid,” Guillén said Tuesday. “We knew if we lost a moment of concentration or lowered our guard, we could have lost the final week.
“We knew that the most difficult challenge of the Vuelta was if one of the ‘bubbles’ was not working. That was key for the success of the Vuelta this year.”
Perhaps more than any stage race on the international calendar, the Vuelta a España was the one that was most impacted by the COVID disruption.
Not only was its dates moved into unknown territory by racing in November, but the race also lost its planned start in The Netherlands. Stages into Portugal and later a crossing into France for a summit finale on the Col du Tourmalet were also canceled. Three stages of the route were removed, reducing the race from 21 to 18 stages.
Not only was it a race against the weather and Spain’s unpredictable fall climate, the Vuelta unfolded as pandemic conditions started to worsen across Europe, putting even more pressure on the organization.
“It was a very, very difficult Vuelta, with a lot of tension,” Guillén said. “This was the Vuelta of COVID, against a singular enemy. We had a very different kind of race, we had to completely change our plans, and we faced uncertainty at every turn. Above all, we were determined to hold the Vuelta if health conditions allowed.”
Guillén said Vuelta organization searched for a “sweet” spot on the rescheduled calendar. The further away from the conclusion of the Tour de France, the better it was for the quality of the Vuelta start list. But the race didn’t want to go too deep into November.
“We never worked with the idea of canceling the Vuelta, but rather with the idea of postponing it,” Guillén said. “A third option was to move it even later, but then we would have seen even worse conditions, so in the end, the new dates worked out well. We only had two days of rain during the entire race, and the Vuelta held during the fall delivered some dramatic TV images.”
Guillén also revealed that Unipublic, the holding company that runs the Spanish grand tour for owners ASO, spent 6 percent of its operating budget on mitigation efforts and health protocols.
Extra costs included hiring out medical staff and a mobile health unit that traveled day-to-day with the race. The organization also paid for thousands of COVID controls as well as hired extra security staff. Other costs included buying 35,000 face masks and hiring out an additional four kilometers of barriers to help create a COVID-free perimeter around the starts and finishes.
Despite the additional costs, the Vuelta organization did not lay off or fire any of its staffers.
Guillén said the Vuelta also learned lessons from how the Tour de France and other races unfolded, and applied those to the Vuelta.
Another foundation to the Vuelta’s success was a concerted effort to limit fan access to starts and finishes, something that proved critical not only as the race had to see approval for the Vuelta from the national government, but also from nine regional governments where the route passed in 2020.
The key to everything was the “race bubble” — if it worked, the Vuelta had a chance; if there was a breakout, the race could well have been doomed.
Guillén said tension ratcheted up as teams arrived in northern Spain, and the organization was under pressure to assure riders and staffers that they could feel safe at hotels. Another challenge came with the first stage finishing atop Arrate, a decisive test not only for the peloton but also the race organization.
And finally, the rest-day COVID protocols, which could have derailed the race entirely if there was a spike in cases, saw tensions nearly boil over.
Though there were some positives among some staffers, no riders tested positive during the Vuelta. Later, it was revealed that dozens of motorcycle police tested positive, but by then, the Vuelta had safely arrived in Madrid.
“There was a lot of tension that day because that’s the real test to show if you are doing the job well or not,” Guillén said of the rest-day controls.
For 2021, Guillén and the other stakeholders are holding out hope that the traditional racing calendar can be contested without major disruptions.
Next year’s route will be revealed in January or possibly early February, but it’s already confirmed the race will start in front of the Burgos cathedral on August 14, and end in Madrid on September 5.
Guillén also confirmed that its women’s race — the Challenge by La Vuelta held with three stages in 2020 — will grow to five to seven stages in the coming years, and become an important part of ASO’s larger support for women’s racing, which also includes a women’s Tour de France for 2022.
“We are hopeful that by 2021 we can all return to enjoy the Vuelta as we always have,” Guillén said. “There are only three grand tours in the world, and Spain is lucky to have one of them. It’s a national event with a huge international impact.
“We saw an important reduction of income this year, but it was important to save the Vuelta this year, not only for this season, but also for the future,” he said. “Everything was focused on this cursed COVID, but we had a great compensation that the Vuelta was contested, and it turned out to be a fantastic race.”