La Vuelta a Espana 2018
Saturday 25th August sees the start of the 73rd edition of La Vuelta a Espana, Spain’s contribution to the group that, with the Giro d’Italia and Le Tour de France, make up Cycling’s triumvirate of Grand Tours. Each comprise 21 stages spread over a 3 week period (23 days to include 2 rest days), though it wasn’t always so. Much has changed since the first Vuelta in 1935 not least the fact that it is held over 3 weeks, that it is held in August / September and even the colour of the winner’s jersey. What has not changed is the fact that’s tough. really, really tough.
Back in 1935, it was all started by a newspaper, just as with the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. In La Vuelta’s case, it was the Conservative Spanish newspaper, Diario Informaciones, who had decided Spain wanted its own version of Tour de France. The first edition saw 50 riders complete a 3,411 km course run over just 14 stages averaging over 240 km per stage.
The Vuelta was originally held in the Spring, usually towards the end of April though on occasion in June. In 1995, the race moved to August / September, primarily so as to avoid a clash with the Giro d’Italia which is held in May.
These days, the race finishes in Madrid though prior to 1994, the race regularly ended in Bilbao and San Sebastián. Like all Grand Tours these days, the Vuelta regularly starts abroad and in 2009, the race started outside of the Iberian Peninsula for the first time when Assen in the Netherlands hosted the prologue.
What’s in a colour?
Also these days, we associate the red jersey with the leader of the General Classification on La Vuelta but that is a surprisingly recent choice of colour. The original colour for the leader’s jersey was Orange with Gold being the predominant colour of recent decades. In fact, as recently as 2010, the colour was changed to the present day red so as to avoid confusion with the Maillot Jeune from the Tour de France. One suspects that rather than wishing to avoid confusion, it’s more a case of wanting to be different and create an individual identity for the race. Entirely understandable really.
Up and more up
The Vuelta has long been considered one for the climbers. With stages in the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa mountains gracing the race, there’s little respite across the 3 weeks. In 1999, the course included the famed Alto de L’Angliru in Asturias for the first time. By any benchmark, this one’s a complete monster. In just 12.9km the Angliru climbs 1,573m (or just over 5,000 feet if you prefer) with grades that top out at over 23%. In 2017, Alberto Contador, cheered on by his devoted fellow countrymen and in his last Grand Tour before retirement, won Stage 20 on Angliru and so wrote himself a little more into the history of the greats that have shone on La Vuelta. Over the history of the race, Spaniards have dominated winning almost half of the 66 editions so far with Roberto Heras holding the record for the most wins (4 in 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2005). In recent times though the race has become a far more cosmopolitan affair in terms of winners at least although with just one Brit to ever stand atop the podium; Chris Froome finally did it in 2017 on his 6th attempt (albeit with 3 runner up spots in those 6) and having then gone on to win the Giro d’Italia in 2018, he joined that elite group of men to have won all 3 Grand Tours.
The 2018 route
For this year’s edition, we begin in Marbella for the first of 21 stages (an individual time trial) that by the time the race reaches Madrid will have covered some 3,255 km. According to the organisers, we will be treated to 6 flat stages, 2 flat stages with high altitude finales stages (answers on a postcard please), 6 hill stages, 5 mountain stages and 2 time trials. The concept of a ‘hill’ stage in the Vuelta does rather make us smile, although they are likely to bring something other than a smile to the faces of the riders.
Pick of the first half of the race for us looks like Stage 9, a real cracker from Talavera de la Reina and the small matter of 200km before ending with a summit finish at La Covatilla, at an altitude of 1965m. Still, at least the next day is a rest day – we think they’re going to need it!
Riders to watch
The big news in the run up to the race was that Team Sky would not be sending either defending Champion Chris Froome or teammate and reigning Tour de France Champion, Geraint Thomas. They have both opted to ride in the Tour of Britain instead and understandably so really given their exertions already this year. So Team Sky will instead be led by local favourite David de la Cruz, ably assisted by Michael Kwiatkowski. However, whether Team Sky have enough to mount a serious challenge is debatable, especially given the firepower that other teams are bringing along.
Indeed, without the presence of Messrs Froome and Thomas, this year’s Vuelta looks one of the more wide open and hard to predict Grand Tours for some time. At the time of writing, Richie Porte of BMC (though set to join Trek Segafredo next year) is outright favourite with Simon Yates second, Nairo Quintano third and Alejandro Valverde fourth. That’s interesting for a number of reasons; there is no doubting Porte’s extraordinary talent but he is yet to win a Grand Tour and indeed hasn’t managed to even finish one since 2016. Still, there’s little doubt he would be a very popular winner. And Simon Yates also raises the odd eyebrow given how he so spectacularly blew up at this year’s Giro on Stage 18 having worn the Maglia Rosa since Stage 7 before Froome blew him (and everyone else to be fair) away.
Oh, and not forgetting Miguel Angel Lopez, Fabio Aru, Thibaud Pinaut, George Bennet, Stephen Kruijswijk, Vincenzo Nibali and Ilnur Zakarin. Quite the supporting cast, not that any of them will see their role in such a light!
So definitely one to watch. It may not have the glamour of the Tour de France or the season opening drama of the Giro but the Vuelta is one of the toughest and most highly prized races of them all for very good reasons. We can’t wait!