The bike racer’s bike race, that’s how I’ve always seen the Vuelta Espana ever since my first participation in 2001. There are a few reasons for this, but the primary one is that racing there feels like bygone days when racing was the only thing that mattered.
So many races seem to carry so much baggage these days, the biggest and heaviest of those bags holds the weight of expectation, one race in particular is the worst for it, the Tour de France. Of course, my love for the Tour is undeniable, but with it comes that weight which over the years turned it into a love-hate relationship. Even now I feel it when working there as a commentator.
The Vuelta, on the other hand, didn’t have any of that for me. It was a race I would always ask to go to so that I could enjoy racing my bike for the sake of racing, no expectations or baggage. I’d avoid the post Tour de France money-making criteriums in order to rest and recover and then train in order to arrive at the Vuelta fresh and ready. My French team mates back in the day thought I was insane.
Of course, there was one year I treated the Vuelta like the Tour and it all went pear shaped (2002, but that’s another story), and that disaster made me promise to never repeat the same mistake of mistreating the Vuelta.
So how to treat the Vuelta? In a nutshell, like an old friend, that person from school you don’t stay in touch with yet find time to occasionally meet and when you do you remember all the good times, and reminisce fondly of the bad. Everything about it feels more emotional than rational, you can allow yourself that luxury, if you’re on a bad day you can wallow in it and just sit at the back and not get in trouble (well, not completely, but the style of racing and roads mean that you can get yourself out of trouble if required), and if you’re on a good day you can race like a maniac and rip up the rule book and nobody’s going to tell you off.
I am often asked these days what my favourite race was and I always say the Tour de France, because it pulled me into the sport and still carries the most baggage for me (there’s that word again), but on another level, the kid racer in me has to chip in and add the Vuelta, because it allowed me to be a care free bike racer. And it was that part of me which truly loved the sport, because above any race in particular I loved racing my bike, and the Vuelta let me do that.