Vuelta History: An Old Race With A New Future
– By Gordon Cameron –
In a short time, the Tour of Spain has emerged from the backwaters of European cycling to become one of the most exciting races on the planet. And all it took to achieve this were 2 innovative decisions.
Neither pleased the traditionalists, but by moving the race in the mid-’90s from its customary mid-April start to early September, and by radically shortening the stage lengths, the value of the race has grown beyond belief.
In the last 2 seasons, we’ve seen much shorter, faster and aggressively ridden stages, making for a fantastic spectacle. Constant attacking makes the race harder to control, and a thrilling series of stages is almost guaranteed.
The old slot meant that many of the Classics specialists chose to forego La Vuelta in favour of their beloved spring races in northern Europe, such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Paris-Roubaix. As a consequence, the quality of fields participating at the Spanish Tour varied from year to year.
But a look at the winners since the race started in 1937 reveals that some of the greatest names have taken part, and won. Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault all triumphed, along with more contemporary stars such as Sean Kelly, Lucho Herrera (Colombia’s only Grand Tour winner) and Tony Rominger.
In 2002, we’ll see several former winners take part, including Angel Casero (defending champ), Roberto Heras (2000 winner), Alex Zuelle (1995 & 1996 winner), and even Melchor Mauri who won before the Miguel Indurain era, in 1991.
Intriguingly, Indurain was under such immense pressure to ride his home tour, and was expected to win so convincingly, that he shunned the event altogether during his Tour de France glory days. He is one of the greats who never won La Vuelta, and his last taste of professional racing was in the 1996 Tour of Spain, when he simply decided enough was enough. He glided into a hotel car park, climbed off his Pinarello, and left the sport for good.
Now, all the Spanish stars are desperate to win the race, and make it a season target. And for all the riders, La Vuelta has taken on new significance, due to its falling at the end of the season.
If you’ve had a poor season and need to restore some professional credibility, this final 3 week tour offers the hope of redemption (we’ll name no names at this point).
For riders looking for a new contract, a good performance or stage win can help to grab one of the remaining spots on the team rosters for the following season.
One thing is for sure. The Vuelta’s new incarnation makes for an exhilirating end-of-season, and the riders’ mix of desire to win, and desperation to shine, will leave fans breathless!