The Vuelta has outshone the Giro and can also claim to have beaten Le Tour this season, by protecting riders and staff from the ravages of COVID-19, while also delivering a level of drama and excitement from start-to-finish that other races would struggle to rival.
Of course, no race is without its faults, and at least half of the La Vuelta’s classifications were reduced to non-events this year. There is still more than can be done, but plenty we have already learned from the 2020 Vuelta a España.
It’s possible to run a Grand Tour safely during a pandemic
Where the Giro failed, the Vuelta seemed to thrive. The race began promisingly enough with both riders and journalists expressing sentiments that this, the final Grand Tour of the year, would be the most safe when it came to restricting the spread of coronavirus.
That thesis was borne out when, on the first and second rest days, no positive tests were returned.
Contrast that with the mass withdrawals by teams at Il Giro, and the positive test of the race director Christian Prudhomme himself at Le Tour, and you quickly see that the 2020 Vuelta has achieved something quite remarkable.
It’s a worthwhile achievement in and of itself, but what this COVID-free Vuelta really shows us is there is a path into 2021 for professional cycling. The pandemic, regrettably, is not going anywhere fast – but neither, it seems should bike racing have to.
La Vuelta’s classifications still need some work
Nobody would begrudge Primoz Roglic winning two jerseys at La Vuelta, given the spectacularly heartbreaking way that he lost such a significant one earlier this year at Le Tour. Nevertheless, what this race has proven – with Roglic taking the points jersey on day one and never looking close to relinquishing it – is that the classification itself is not fit for purpose.
Yes, the race was robbed of three flat stages when the Netherlands ‘départ’ was scrapped, but even if Pascal Ackermann had won all three of those stages, his tally would only have been good enough for second place.
True, no little boy or girl grows up dreaming of winning the intermediate sprints jersey, but at least the fact the Giro has such a competition allows the smaller teams to contest for something. The Vuelta’s way of organising its various classifications means the strongest GC teams have a monopoly, making the whole thing a bit of a sad charade.
The polka dots, at least, appear to be going to the riders that deserve them – in this case Guillaume Martin who looked absolutely indefatigable as he infiltrated break after break to hoover up mountains points.
To La Vuelta’s credit, the combined classification is well and truly dead now, it seems, and should stay so. Its removal was a good first step, but we still need more reform if the Vuelta is to rival the other Grand Tours for multifaceted entertainment that speaks to more than just the general classification men.
Spain is the star
Jonas Vingegaard notwithstanding, the big revelation of this Vuelta, has been Spain itself, and particularly the northern part of it in which the race spent all of its time this year.
Northern Spain in autumn is not so bad of a time and place to run a bike race, despite some fears a few months out about bad weather. In fact, the route has produced one of the closest GC battles in recent memory, with attacking racing and plenty of opportunities for ‘ambush.
It’s true, the Tourmalet was lost to the race after a stage was modified. Not – as many predicted – because of weather though, but rather the closure of the French borders. There were a few rainy days, but – with the possible exception of a crash that ruled Dani Martinez out of the race – nothing that drastically altered the course of the competition.
This year’s route around the northern regions of Pais Vasco, Navarre, Cantabria, Asturias and Galica – plus the northern reaches of the vast and sprawling central region of Castilla y Leon – has seen new climbs discovered by the race. One such was the Laguna Negra de Vinuesa, a standout explosive battleground early on in the race, from which Dan Martin emerged triumphant.
There have also been returns to some familiar places, with the Angliru providing perhaps the standout moment of the entire tour. Certainly, from a British perspective it ranks up there.
More generally, the greener, verdant scenery of La Vuelta this year was a welcome break from the scorched farmlands, drooping olive trees and British expat retirement villages that have become emblematic of La Vuelta’s trips to southern Spain in August.
Viva La Vuelta.