As we neared the start area in the team bus, riders had started cutting holes in their jerseys and bib shorts. Outside the air-conditioned sanctuary, the Iberian countryside baked in the inhumane heat. For hundreds of kilometres, groves of olive trees lined the roadside and reached into the horizon. Benoit carved larger vents in his helmet with a paring knife he found in the bus kitchen, spotting his lap and the floor with flakes of Styrofoam. When he was done, we each took our turn; anything to provide some comfort during the five-hour stage. We were ten days into the race, the pace had been fierce, the heat hadn’t relented, fatigue was setting in from trying to control the peloton for our leader, Roberto Heras, and the season had worn us down.
In the start area, which was a large concrete parking lot in the middle of a subdivision with inflated banners, a maze of steel barriers, and stage with an emcee belting out riders’ names, there were few spectators. As it was midday, with the sun glaring down from above, most were probably at home eating lunch before dozing into their midday siesta. In our pre-race team meeting, we sat attentively listening to Johan, our directeur. Riders continued to cut and fiddle with their gear. Kelme, a Spanish team which was a significant rival, had being setting an infernal tempo on the climbing stages that few on our team could match. At one point, the peloton yelled mercy between cuss words and began throwing bottles at the team as they charged into the climbs. The pace was ruthlessly hard, the average speeds were breaking records, and the peloton grew smaller due to the daily abandonments. This was their home race, where their sponsors sold their goods, and a victory was all that would be accepted. Johan described a tactic that we hoped would thwart them. This scenario seemed to become routine in the five Vueltas I rode: we had a leader who could win and to achieve the goal we battled our Spanish rivals. The motivation within our team was fairly high, and Johan was good at getting the most out his riders, but some in the peloton were counting the days until the end of the race and season.
The Vuelta a España has always sat third in the trio of grand tours, never being as prestigious as the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia. Unsure of its place in cycling, the race has been redesigned over the years. Even the leader’s jersey has changed from yellow to gold to red, while the Giro’s pink and the Tour’s yellow have become iconic. For decades, the Vuelta was a late spring event. Then it was moved to the autumn, a week before the world championships, and further away from the shadow cast by the Giro and Tour.
For many riders, the autumn was too late in the year to perform at their peak, while a handful used it to tune their fitness to win the world championships. Most riders had signed their contracts, had lost the spark that had ignited the early season attacks, and were counting the days until they could let their bodies rest through the off season. For others, it was the final stage on which they could perform before the curtain was pulled on their careers if they weren’t offered a contract. In them, there was desperation; with each finish line crossed without a significant result, they moved closer to the end of their dream.
Of course, for the Spanish it has always been the target of the season, and, as the country produces more climbers than sprinters or rouleurs, the courses suited their abilities, or, perhaps, the routes were designed to suit the nation’s champions.
In the last few decades, the race hasn’t held the attention or interest of the television audience or the roadside spectators to the same extent as its sibling grand tours, so it developed courses that became talking points with climbs that tilted towards 25 percent in gradient. With riders weaving and straining to make their way to the summits, a show was created.
The race is a low-key affair in comparison to many of the other major races on the calendar, and for this it was enjoyable to race. The starts and finishes don’t have the swarms of press or crush of spectators and the road infrastructure isn’t as cluttered with bollards and islands, and perhaps most importantly to the riders and staff, the hotels and food are consistently decent.
Unfortunately, the race has often been affected by internal Spanish nationalism and has skirted the rich countryside in Catalonia and the Basque Country due to their fervent separatist movements. In the five Vueltas I rode, when the Basque separatists were still militant and violent, we rarely entered the region; no longer violent, it is only in recent years that stages have been hosted in the province. The race often cuts through Catalonia to climb to finishes in the peaks in the country of Andorra, but it’s rare that key stages finish in the autonomous community, and even more infrequent that the peloton enters Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city.
The toughest stages and most exciting racing often take place on the western side of the country, which is lush and mountainous. The organizers consistently find ascents so steep they force the riders to use gearing they likely won’t use on any other day in the season. When I rode the event, there was always the fear, excitement and anticipation of the courses. The extreme creates the buzz and draws the crowds. For many, those stages felt like a death march. In 2002, soaked from racing under pouring rain all day and cut from crashing numerous times, David Millar famously climbed off his bike in protest and unpinned his number before the finish line on the toughest of climbing stages, the Angliru, saying the stage was inhumane. On that day, it was. In response to the protest, the race director Enrique Franco said, “The Vuelta without the Angliru is like a five-kilometre marathon or a fifteen-minute football match.”
Cycling is a spectacle and to capture the audience the race has reached for the extreme, with success. For many riders, the courses are a deterrent, while for others, they are a springboard to prominence. For all who compete, the event provides memories of pain, success and accomplishment. My body is scarred from crashing on the melting tarmac, my mind is seared from the hours we sat in the long thin line of a peloton holding on with every last watt, but as with every tough race ridden, that is all eclipsed by the memory of a finish line crossed.