Friday Feature: Five days in the sun at the Vuelta a España

Sheree has just returned from five days in the roasting sun at the Vuelta. Here she brings us her impressions and reflections from behind both the scenes and the barricades at the race.

When the lady in the Vuelta accreditation office asked me how long I wanted the accreditation for, I can’t tell you how tempted I was to say for the entire race. Sanity prevailed and I admitted it was only for five days – but what a five days! My husband and I had a most enjoyable and privileged stay, thanks once again to the kind hospitality of Eurosport.

Most of the major contenders held press conferences on Friday, either in the press centre or at their team hotels. Many downplayed their own chances while talking up the opposition, including Alberto Contador, whose return to the Vuelta was eagerly anticipated after his win in 2008 and who promised the assembled press corps that Saxo Bank would not be controlling the race a la Sky.

Alberto Contador’s Vuelta press conference (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)

The team presentations may have been more perfunctory than the Tour’s but actually no one really wanted to hang around in the stifling evening heat in historic Pamplona. The VIP stampede for seats in the shade to watch the proceedings in the Plaza del Castillo rivalled that of the town’s historic Fiesta de los Sanfermines, the famous running of the bulls.

We were back the following evening to watch the team time trial, which produced more than a few twists and turns than the route through the cobbled old town of Pamplona. The teams started in the Plaza del Castillo and finished in the Plaza de Toros, site of the town’s bull-fighting ring. Everyone was squashed into the seats in the shade as, once again, the mercury soared. Fortunately there were plenty of cold refreshments on hand. No one opted to sit in the sunshine.

Fans packed into the bullring like proverbial sardines for the Vuelta team time trial (image courtesy of RDW)

Caja Rural in local dress confront the red carpet first (image courtesy of RDW)

The teams were bookended by the two Navarran squads Caja Rural and Movistar. The former wore a special all-white time trial suit with red accents to mimic the outfits worn in the Fiesta. Thankfully no blood was spilled and they sat briefly in the hot seat before being swiftly dethroned. Mishaps to team time trial specialists Garmin-Sharp and world champion Tony Martin’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step left Rabobank cooling down in ice vests in the hot seat until the final denouement by local boys Movistar, whose Basque time trial specialist Jonathan Castroviejo crossed the line first to take the leader’s jersey. Everyone was happy!

Basque Jonathan Castroviejo is the Vuelta’s first leader, next to Miguel Indurain (image courtesy of Monike Prell)

Sunday’s second stage finished in another historic Navarran town, Viana, the last stop before the Camino de Santiago (pilgrim’s route) descends into the oven of La Rioja. There’s a surprising grave marker in front of Viana’s beautiful Inglesia de Santa Maria – that of the Machiavellian Cesare Borgia, who was placed under the protection of the King of Navarra. The race passed through town twice but it was clearly going to be one for the sprinters and Argonaut John Degenkolb didn’t disappoint. He looks rather fetching in that red scarf, doesn’t he?

John Degenkolb, lapping up the applause, lobs his bouquet into the crowd (image courtesy of Monika Prell)

For the first time this year, the Vuelta has introduced VIP villages du départ and arrivée aping those of the Tour de France, where there’s shelter from the sun, seating, toilets, refreshments, television screens and a sprinkling of former riders and very attractive leggy hostesses in short shorts. [Why didn’t you tell me this before?!? – Ed] I noted Abraham Olano, Pedro Delgado, Miguel Indurain and Oscar Pereiro but no doubt there were others. These villages are set up alongside the sign-on and adjacent to the finish line, providing welcome havens of hospitality for not only us but also the guests of the many sponsors and the press corps.

Everything at the Vuelta is slightly lower-key than the Tour, a point which is probably appreciated by the largely local fans who have greater access to the riders and by the riders themselves who have much less pressure and hassle. There’s also a caravan but it only numbers a dozen or so floats and is much more modest than that of the Tour, but it does feature a number of common sponsors which prompted the thought of whether ASO sold the two – the Tour and the Vuelta – as a package. However, the logistics and organisation of the Vuelta are no less impressive than the Tour, just on a smaller scale. Sadly one of the common sponsors isn’t Haribo, so no Gummy Bears, although my husband did collect an impressive assortment of caps, keyrings, books and scarves.

Alejandro Valverde wins stage three by a whisker (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)

Having departed from a well-known wine producer in Rioja [other alcoholic beverages are available – Ed], Monday’s stage three finished atop a hill with which my husband and I are quite familiar and where Samu Sanchez triumphed in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.  We were grateful that our passes enabled us to scale Arrate by car but were impressed by the sheer number of fans who’d ridden or walked up to cheer on their Euskaltel team and who were enjoying leisurely roadside picnics in the shade. The stage had the required fireworks among the leading contenders, a Spanish victor (Alejandro Valverde) but sadly not a Basque one.

Tuesday’s stage four started just south of Bilbao in a suburb housing Bilbao’s Exhibition Centre before heading south once more to La Rioja via Burgos and Alava. As always at the start and finish there are plenty of kids, many clad in kit from local teams. Here’s Juan Mari chatting to a group of young cycling fans and, maybe, future Vuelta winners.

The future of Spanish cycling (image courtesy of RDW)

Colombian climbing star and 2012 revelation Nairo Quintano (image courtesy of RDW)

The immaculately coiffed Maxime Bouet (image courtesy of RDW)

Everyone wants Valverde’s autograph (image courtesy of RDW)

Bertie at the start in Barakaldo (image courtesy of RDW)

The stage was won from a breakaway and handed Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) his first professional win.

A very happy Simon Clarke gets ready to shower everyone with Cava (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)

More excitement in the form of echelons, falls, accusations, counter-accusations, confrontations at team buses, plenty of comment on social media and even more discussion. Should Sky have waited for the leader Alejandro Valverde when he fell? Opinion was divided. One of the leading Spanish newspapers canvassed eight ex-riders for their opinion. Only Pereiro, a former teammate of Valverde’s, felt that the peloton should have slowed to allow Valverde to get back on. Valverde’s loss was Joaquim Rodriguez‘s gain. He took the red leader’s shirt by a second over Sky’s Chris Froome.

Purito launches his bouquet into the crowd (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)

One of my VeloVoices’ colleagues Panache commented early on that the Vuelta looked unbalanced as it was being held almost wholly in the north. On reflection, I suspect that this merely reflects which areas can or cannot afford to stage the race in the current economic climate. The north is the industrial and agricultural heartland of Spain, plus they’re making a concerted effort to increase tourism in this area. I can attest to the sandiness of their beaches, the diversity of the landscape and the cultural heritage which will unfold on our screens as the race progresses. Oh, why didn’t I say I wanted accreditation for the whole race?

Link: Vuelta a Espana official website

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