The Tour De France is, financially speaking, just about the only bike race in the world. Three weeks of traipsing around France accounts for 80% of the annual TV exposure for teams involved. When Thibaut Pinot won Stage 8 of the 2012 Tour, his ride alone brought in $10 million worth of exposure for his team’s sponsors, which was over half of their annual budget. The Tour’s financial footprint means teams have to take it very seriously. It is the star at the center of the cycling solar system. It’s also pretty boring.
But where the Tour is a sanitized procession of predictable climbs that follows a familiar pattern, the Vuelta a España is as wild as they come. Teams come to the Tour buttoned up and ready to race conservatively for a big ole money pot, but they arrive at the Vuelta ragged, needing to scrap to save their seasons. The Vuelta is the season’s last stage race of consequence and the desperate scramble for the last few available wins before time runs out makes it the best.
The Tour is the wedding. The Vuelta is the reception. The Tour is a beer with the in-laws. The Vuelta is a mushroom-fueled odyssey. The Tour is Forrest Gump. The Vuelta is Apocalypse Now. It is as spectacular as a relatively tame sport gets.
By now, the whole peloton is worn out from racing since January. Nobody will control the race like Team Sky did in France or Astana did at the Giro d’Italia. This first-order anarchy makes the racing in Spain gloriously free of dead air. You can try shit because there aren’t hordes of able chasers behind you, like when Tony Martin went solo from the gun in 2013 and came up 15 cruel meters short of the greatest Grand Tour win of the century.
This year’s Vuelta course is, as usual, a science experiment. The ASO, who also run the Tour, always uses the Vuelta as a lab to trot out new ideas and this year is especially weird. Where the Grand Tours of France and Italy use the same climbs over and over again, exactly zero of the summit finishes featured in this year’s Vuelta have ever been used before. Stage 11 alone features 5000 meters of climbing, which is bananas even for the sadistic Vuelta. While teams can get a rough idea of what it will be like from looking at the profile, they will be flying into the it blind.
This afternoon’s opening 7.4 km team time trial on the beachfront in Málaga encapsulates all the glorious oddness of the Vuelta pretty neatly. It’s not long enough to create significant time gaps, so nobody really thought much about it besides groaning at its brevity. That is, until Thursday, when a bunch of riders scouted the route and discovered that half of it takes place on sand and a tiny footbridge.
Sand is a Bad Idea, no matter how short the segment is. A TTT requires tight grouping and perfect cornering, and sand makes that more or less impossible. Riders were understandably pissed, and the UCI, the teams, and the ASO had to meet to figure out what the hell to do. They ended up neutralizing the times, but are proceeding with the same sludgy parcours.
If you can get beyond the danger involved here, this might be the most fun TTT in a long time. Watching one is almost literally like watching a clock move, but seeing little avian climbers struggle to keep their gears moving through the sand is going to be great. Since it’s neutralized, some teams might just treat it like a group ride and chill. Were this the Tour, teams would have sent riders out to scout the course months ago and this all would have been taken care of. But hey! It’s the Vuelta! Teams are forced to treat the Tour like a job so they can earn the money to pay their riders. They concentrate their yearlong efforts on the race and fans get tightly controlled racing. The Vuelta doesn’t get this laser focus. It’s nobody’s target, but stars always show up to race. Throughout the course of the season, it’s always just sort of an idea, looming out there in the future somewhere until late August when it’s time to redeem your season.
Cycling is this great, silly sport where 180+ riders start every race and 179+ of them lose every race. You can’t reliably plan ahead when there are that many divergent motivations in play. There are so many miles and unforeseen slings and arrows to a season that something, always, will go wrong. The Vuelta has been growing in prominence over the past few years because it’s the last refuge for riders who’ve seen their seasons go to shit.
Take Tejay Van Garderen. The American has always been a decent second-tier General Classification threat without the punch or guile to ever podium at a Grand Tour until this year’s Tour, when he survived the Pyrenees and was comfortably positioned in third place heading into the last week. But on Stage 17, his lingering chest cold suddenly flared up and knocked him out of the race. One day, he’s throwing attacks at everyone, and then the next he’s weeping as he climbs into his team car. He is headed to the Vuelta looking to finish what he couldn’t in France.
There are more like him. Loyal servants with their first chance to race for themselves (Rafal Majka), guys from nascent cycling countries (Tsgabu Grmay: Ethiopia, Natnael Berhane: Eritrea), refugees from injury (Domenico Pozzovivo, Simon Gerrans) and young guns getting their first shot at a Grand Tour (Joe Dombrowski, Caleb Ewan, Lawson Craddock) will all be there.
There will also be superstars, as the top four finishers from the Tour De France are coming along with several classics specialists looking to tune up for the world championships. Chris Froome will try to become the third cyclist ever to do the Tour-Vuelta double. Nairo Quintana is gunning to avenge his loss to Froome in France, as well as his 2014 Vuelta, when he crashed out in the leader’s jersey. Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, and Alejandro Valverde are also there to go for the win. Any of them could take, as could about five other outsiders, and this is always the most radically open of the three Grand Tours. In 2013, a 41-year-old Chris Horner showed up and punked Nibali, Valverde, and a raft of other stars. He conceded minutes per time trial but ended up taking the final red jersey by 37 seconds.
Despite the amount of riders doing both, the Vuelta is aggressively not a Tour retread. It’s the ingredients that animated the Tour taking their act to a country full of 25% ramps, 100-degree days, and unknown mountains. Riders who seem like defined quantities will show up on mysterious form. It’s an absurdist race, which, given the sport we’re talking about, is the best kind.
Photo via Ivan Aguinaga/AP