The three Grand Tours are the crown jewels of cycling, a trio of behemoths dominating the calendar, taking up a full three months of the year and devouring the column inches as coexisting races flounder in the shadows. The three-week marathons through Italy, France and Spain are the longest, toughest and most talked-about races in our sport.
But, of course, we all know that the GTs don’t stand shoulder to shoulder. The Tour de France is by far the biggest – the most important and most coveted – while some way behind the Giro d’Italia follows. Lastly comes the black sheep of the cycling world, the youngest of the Grand Tours, the Vuelta a España.
It’s place in the GT hierarchy approximating a runt of the litter, the Vuelta remains the only race of the import to be shunted across the calendar. Back in 1995 the UCI and race organisers Unipublic moved the Vuelta from late April/May all the way to its current late August/September slot, partly in order to avoid competition with the Giro and attract a more international field.
It would be an interesting thought experiment to ponder what an April Vuelta would look like today (the weather would surely be more tolerable, and a Vuelta-Tour double would certainly be more attainable than the Giro-Tour double), but things are as they are for a reason, and instead we have our delightful epilogue to the stage racing season.
Once the grand aim of native riders, the Vuelta really isn’t a race anybody builds their season around now – save for the Spanish wildcard teams Caja Rural-Seguros RGA and Burgos-BH. Instead it’s something of an afterthought, one for the men who didn’t have the Tour de France they wanted, or for those building for the World Championships.
For obvious reasons, this year is a bit different from usual. With the Giro and La Vuelta overlapping for the first time since the '80s, there will be no riders whose calendars will include both races. Which doesn't mean we don't have plenty of riders with something to prove.
The field in Spain this year seems to be split between those teams who are going in all guns blazing, and those who will take opportunities if they present themselves but will be equally happy to simply stay upright for three weeks.
Top of the former list is the defending champion, who goes in as a very strong favourite for the race. Whether or not they have gotten over the shock and aww of the Tour, his Jumbo Visma team will settle for nothing less than a second victory in two editions.
Roglic's biggest rival for rojo will be last year's Giro d'Italia champion, Richard Carapaz of Ecuador. The Ineos rider nominally goes into the race as joint team leader with Chris Froome, but realistically is the only one of the two with a chance of overall victory. Further down the list of favourites, after Roglic's own team-mates Tom Dumoulin and Sep Kuss, you have Cofidis' Guillaume Martin, Enric Mas and Dani Martinez. Thibaut Pinot demands a mention as well, but whether the Frenchman can deliver on the Spanish stage any better than he managed his home one seems someone speculative.
But perhaps he'll be able to handle the (reduced) pressure. EF have Mike Woods and Hugh Carthy should it not work out with Martinez; Felix Großschartner is Bora's man, and smiling Esteban Chaves goes into a Grand Tour as Mitchelton-Scott's out and out leader for the first time in a while.
Jersey-protectors at the Giro, Deceuninck-Quick Step are back on familiar ground as stage hunters in Spain. Sam Bennett will be expected to add to his Grand Tour tally in the sprints, while Zdeněk Štybar and Remi Cavagna could be given plenty of freedom on the hillier stages. Don't rule out Andrea Bagioli snatching a stage, either. The Italian might be young, but he also finished an impressive second in Settimana Coppi e Bartali.
The startlist is not the strongest we've ever seen, which is only to be expected in this bizarrest of seasons, but that doesn't mean that the racing will be any lesser for it. The first stage is even a summit finish. Fireworks from day 1?
Since the turn of the Millennium, the race has frequently thrown up bizarre and inexplicable results. Looking back to 2002, Kelme’s unremarkable stage racer Aitor González – fresh from an unexpected sixth at the Giro – smashed the field in the final time-trial to overhaul Roberto Heras for his only GT win.
A year later Isidro Nozal, the rider famous for not showering during Grand Tours but not much else, demolished prime David Millar in the race’s first two time-trials. He would hold the then-golden jersey for much of the Vuelta until he fell apart on the final mountain TT to end up second overall.
2004 saw Phonak’s Santiago Pérez come from nowhere to finish just 30 seconds behind Roberto Heras in Madrid, winning three stages along the way. His other career GT results? DNF, DNF, 44th, 49th, 65th.
And it doesn’t stop there either. Later on there would be Andrey Kashechkin’s 2006 podium, the Ezequiel Mosquera years, Martin Velits’ sole Grand Tour podium, old man Chris Horner and of course the 2011 Juan José Cobo vs Chris Froome battle we all definitely expected. The race also holds the dubious honour of hosting the only GT wins of Alexander Vinokourov and Alejandro Valverde.
But aside from the freak (and let’s get real, often dubious) results that have made the race as intriguing as anything else on the calendar, the racing itself throws up surprises and entertainment in equal measure too. Who can forget the ambushes from Alberto Contador to Fuente Dé, or from Fabio Aru to Cercedilla, for example? Or those battles Vincenzo Nibali fought with Mosquera and Horner?
For that we can partly thank circumstance, partly the route. Unlike the more formulaic Giro and Tour, with their yearly routes geographically bound by the location of various mountain ranges, the Vuelta can dip in and out whenever it feels like.
Blessed by hills and mountains almost everywhere, the 2019 Vuelta starts on the Costa Blanca, before tracing a counterclockwise route up the coast towards the Pyrenees, into Andorra and France, with an individual time trial that finishes in Pau – how novel – then onward through the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias.
In fact, this year features even more uphill finishes than usual, with mountain stages dotted throughout the race. Throw in a whole bunch of other lumpy stages and there are plenty of stages on this year’s route with the potential for the GC battle to erupt. And the wild thing is that this is not out of the ordinary for the Vuelta at all.
Throw in an entirely different style of racing to what we’ve seen just a month before and it’s easy to see why the Vuelta is an appealing prospect.
Sure, nobody sits down at the start of the season and plans their year around winning the Vuelta [Are you sure? – Ed], but maybe that’s part of what makes the race so special. It’s the Grand Tour of second chances, the Grand Tour of endless mountains, the best Grand Tour of the year.