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

Tour de France hosts: Up pops Pau again!

After Paris and Bordeaux, Pau is one of the most-visited staging posts in the Tour – it has previously hosted a start/finish 64 times – largely, it has to be said, because of its proximity to the Pyrenees. The list of riders who’ve won on Tour stages into Pau reads like a Who’s Who of cycling, so I’m going to be dipping in and out of Tours where either the Tour, or that stage, or both were won by some of the biggest names  in the sport.

Pau was first visited in the 1930 Tour, which introduced a number of firsts in its 24th edition. For the first time ever, teams were organised by country, with ten riders apiece, plus there were sixty touriste-routiers (amateurs and pros not allied to a national team) organised into French regional groupings. The entire peloton raced in either approved national jerseys or plain ones – no advertising whatsoever – and they all rode on identical yellow bicycles. This proved to be a successful format for the French, six of whom placed in the top ten overall. Andre Leducq, the star of the French team, won the overall while Charles Pelissier, ninth overall, achieved a stunning eight stage wins. [An early incarnation of Peter Sagan? – Ed]

Alfredo Binda (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Alfredo Binda (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

This wasn’t the only piece of modernisation. 1930 also saw the introduction of the publicity caravan and the abandonment of the rule whereby cyclists had to do their own repairs. Team time trials were given the heave-ho for a few years and an overall team classification was introduced based on the times on GC of the three highest-ranked riders. The Tour was broadcast live on the radio. The organisers named the Tour’s  ‘best climber’, an unofficial precursor to the current King of the Mountains competition. One of the more notable foreign cyclists taking part was Alfredo Binda who had, in recent years, dominated the Giro d’Italia with victories in 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1929. He was paid not to compete in 1930, so started the Tour instead winning stages eight and nine, which finished and started in Pau, before being forced to abandon the following day probably due to injuries sustained on stage seven where he lost over an hour, and all hope of Tour victory.

The Tour visited Pau every year thereafter up until 1939, returning post-war in 1947, 1949 and 1950. It was back in 1952 with a Tour which saw the introduction of more innovations – mountain finishes on stages 10, 11 and 21 – including the now iconic L’Alpe d’Huez and Puy de Dome. The overall was won by Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, the first cycling superstar who was now managed by Binda. In 1952 he was at his zenith, winning five stages, including stage 18 into Pau, the mountains classification and was a member of the Italian winning team.

The charismatic Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The charismatic Fausto Coppi (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Such was his dominance that the Tour organisers had to double the prize money for second and third places to retain interest. Coppi won by a margin of almost half an hour – such a margin hasn’t been seen since. Coppi’s domination aside, the 1952 Tour saw the introduction of the daily combativity award and TV coverage started.

Thereafter, the Tour stopped off in Pau every year. In 1964 it featured on stage 16, a mountainous parcours won by the 1959 Tour winner, Frederic Bahamontes –  known as the Eagle of Toledo – who went on to finish third overall and win the mountains classification. Trade teams were back on the menu, after Tour organisers succumbed to financial pressure in 1962. This was the only Tour to have included a mid-stage climb to Alpe D’Huez. The race was eventually won by Jacques Anquetil, his fifth Tour victory, following an epic battle in the mountains with eternal runner-up Raymond Poulidor. Having earlier won the Giro, Anquetil emulated Coppi’s Tour-Giro double.

Bernard_Hinault (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Bernard Hinault (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Fast forward to the late 1970s and the start of the reign of ‘The Badger’, Bernard Hinault, France’s last Tour winner. The 1979 edition started, most unusually, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, visiting Pau as early as stage three, where Hinault emerged victorious, having taken the maillot jaune on stage two. He went on to win the Tour, his second of five victories. He also won the points’ classification and his team won the overall team classification, which required them to wear yellow caps, and the team points competition. In fact, the 1979 Tour had a total of 16 competitions, each with its own sponsor!

1979’s Tour was also notable for a number of modifications and firsts. Doping tests performed in a Cologne laboratory were now able to detect anabolicals. Those found guilty of this transgression typically lost points and were given time penalties. It was the only Tour to ever visit Alpe d’Huez twice. US TV broadcasting of the Tour started, split-stages were banished and, as a consequence of the unwarranted attention given to the lanterne rouge [the last rider on general classification – Ed], a new rule was introduced for the following year whereby the last-placed cyclist was removed from the race every couple of stages.

From the 1980s onwards, the Tour halted in Pau most years and in 2005 it also became, as it is again this year, the location of one of the Tour’s precious few rest days. This was to be Lance Armstrong’s seventh consecutive Tour victory and, at the time, it was thought his final Tour appearance. This edition was notable for a number of reasons. It commemorated the death of one of Lance’s former team mates, Fabio Casartelli, who had crashed and died ten years earlier on the Col du Portet d’Aspet. Additionally, it commemorated the Tour’s first official mountain climb in the Tour, the Ballon d’Alsace, 100 years after its first inclusion in the race. For the first time, the race was part of the UCI’s recently introduced ProTour circuit and required to invite – albeit begrudgingly – all 20 ProTour teams. The Tour granted a single wild card to AG2R.

Oscar Pereiro (image courtesy of Oscar Pereiro)

Oscar Pereiro (image courtesy of Oscar Pereiro)

As a consequence of Michael Rasmussen making a complete balls-up [is that a technical biking term? I can’t find it in the glossary – Ed] of the penultimate stage’s individual time trial while lying third – he dropped to seventh – the race jury invoked the “rain rule” for the final stage on the Champs Elysees meaning Lance won the overall the first time the race crossed the finish line, rather than the eighth and last time. Additionally, it was the first and only time since 1994 that the stage didn’t end in a bunch sprint, rather it was won by Alexandre Vinokourov after a trademark escape in the final kilometre, a move which saw him rise from eighth to fifth in the overall. During the award ceremony, the winner was for the first time allowed to address the crowds, a practice which has since continued.

The mountainous stage 16 into Pau was won by Oscar Pereiro who also took home the race’s overall combativity prize. He was belatedly awarded overall victory in the following year’s Tour after the previous winner, Floyd Landis, was convicted of doping. Pereiro suffered a serious crash in the 2008 Tour and never really recovered his nerve. He retired in 2010 and achieved a boyhood ambition playing football for Coruxo FC in the Spanish second division. He now works as a race commentator and runs his own sporting foundation.

Will Pau be the setting for some interesting stories in this year’s Tour? The rest day is preceded by stage 15’s 158.5km run from Samatan to Pau – one for the sprinters, albeit those who can cope with a slight uphill to the finish. Here’s Chris Boardman’s  preview of the stage: