As the final Grand Tour of the season splutters to its irrelevant conclusion, this weeks Rapha Mondial sees Herbie Sykes trace the path towards a three-week stage race for the Pornhub generation.

Summit finished?

As the Vuelta a España splutters to its conclusion, this week’s Rapha Mondial sees Herbie Sykes trace the path towards a three-week stage race for the instant gratification generation.

14 September 2018

It was the first week of August 1992 and Hein Verbruggen, the ambitious new president of the UCI, had an elemental problem. The Tour de France, the last of his grand tour triptych, had run its course, and four of the five great classics were archived for another year. Professional bike racing would take place throughout August, September and October, sue, and six of the bigger one-day races belonged to the nascent World Cup series. In principle at least that constituted a season-long narrative (that old cycling chestnut), but in reality nobody much cared. Events like the Wincanton Classic had no prestige to speak of, while Paris-Tours had been haemorrhaging it year on year for over a decade. It felt scruffy and not a little itinerant, while the Gran Prix des Nations was in terminal decline. Only Lombardy and the World Championships attracted significant global interest, but there were six long autumn weeks between them.

Verbruggen had inherited a calendar short on suspense and money, and above all hopelessly lopsided. It needed re-inventing and so, hung for a sheep as a lamb, he picked up the phone and called the boss of the Giro d’Italia.

Carmine Castellano was an agreeable, collegiate man, keen to help and to be helped. Here, however, he explained as politely as he could that it would be lunacy for the Giro even to contemplate a move to early September. Verbruggen had feared as much and so now he tried his luck with the organiser of the Vuelta.

"The Vuelta was a Spanish race for Spanish (cycling) people, but in almost every respect it was the poor relation to its French and Italian siblings."

Enrique Franco’s race, perennially strapped for cash and perennially overlooked by the wider cycling community, hadn’t so very much to lose. For the Spanish hardcore, dyed-in-the stage racing wool, it remained the highlight of the season, but it singularly failed to resonate north of Girona. It started in late April and, in the public perception at least, served mainly to kill the time between the classics and the Giro. The Vuelta was a Spanish race for Spanish (cycling) people, but in almost every respect it was the poor relation to its French and Italian siblings. The others had more money, more history and more TV, and they’d infinitely more clout politically. They’d more of just about everything, and even Miguel Indurain, Spain’s great idol, preferred the Giro to the Vuelta. That amounted to a national humiliation, but try as he might Franco was powerless to do anything about it.

None of which was lost on Verbruggen, who presented him with a two-fold offer. Not only would there be extensive coverage on Eurosport but, crucially, a single-day racing hiatus during the rejigged Vuelta. In a material sense that would compel Indurain to start, because like the rest of them he’d need the racing in advance of the Worlds. Franco signed on the dotted line, and in 1995 the all-new Vuelta rolled out of Zaragoza on 2 September.

Minus Miguel Indurain, the five-time winner of the Tour de France…

Tellingly but entirely prophetically, Verbruggen had double-crossed Franco. He’d sanctioned any number of high-class Italian semi-classics during September, but worse still he’d sold the World Championships to the Colombian Federation. They would take place in Duitama, a cycling stronghold 2,500 metres above sea-level, and would feature both a road race and a juicy 43 kilometre time trial. Miguelon first rode a weekend stage race in Colorado, and then caught a flight to Bogotá to acclimatize. A rainbow jersey for he and for the Spanish Cycling Federation, and a calamity – yet another one - for the Vuelta Ciclista a España, now devoid of its star and its historic place in the cycling calendar.

It’s been 23 years since Verbruggen’s duplicity, but paradoxically he did the Vuelta a huge favour. The Franco family got a generous price when they sold it to the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), and ostensibly at least Verbruggen’s World Tour sees it on an equal footing with the Giro. It’s reinvented itself as three weeks of post-literate bike racing. It’s 21 days of high altitude, low attention crash-bang-wallop, grand tour cycling for the pornhub generation. It seems to work, but only after a fashion. The Vuelta has discovered a useable algorithm, and yet just like pornhub it doesn’t quite… Somehow it’s still just...

"It could be argued that the race’s greatest virtues, its immediacy and its timing, its day-by-day chaos are the things which undermine it."

It could be argued that the race’s greatest virtues, its immediacy and its timing, its day-by-day chaos are the things which undermine it. Spanish cycling history – parochial, glorious and squalid in equal measure - has seen to it that the hosts have no credible GC rider post-EPO and post-Contador. The owners are foreign and the peloton is overwhelmingly foreign and thus, for all that the racing is exciting, it feels utilitarian. It lacks the depth and intimacy of the Giro and the Tour because increasingly it resembles a race which takes place in Spain, as distinct to one which is of Spain. Still today there’s a flimsy, somewhat ephemeral quality to the leader’s jersey, and in that sense it’s the perfect metaphor for the event. They keep recolouring it and redesigning it, but each new iteration serves only to trivialize it further still. Somehow it seems orphaned from the bike race, just as the race seems orphaned from the sport.

All of which explains why, notwithstanding Froome’s victory last year, you’re hard pressed to name a GC rider for whom it’s the season’s main objective. With the Spanish contingent depleted it’s in danger of becoming a land of second chances for the Giro and Tour nearly-men. That may not be a bad thing, and of course it’s splendid as a barometer of preparation for the Worlds. However the whole thing is too fast and way too frenetic, and ultimately just too needy. There’s no denying that it’s stimulating, but then so is WWE wrestling. So, on occasion, is Espanyol versus Rayo Vallecano, but El Clásico it categorically is not. The nearly-men are those on the undercard, not the prize fighters who sells the tickets.

There’s nothing wrong with the Vuelta per se. It has its place, and there’s no denying its fitness for televisual purpose. The fact remains, however, that three-week bike races are marathons and not sprints. Like all true love affairs they need time to evolve. Without the spaces in between they’re nought but gratuitous and, ultimately, nought but light entertainment. Sometimes they just need to slow down.

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