My Vuelta a España

Lagos de Covadonga in the 1989 Tour of Spain

It only took a few minutes’ TV watching of stage one to pique my nostalgic instincts and remind me how much I adore the Vuelta a España. It was the evening sunlight that did it, reflecting brightly off the lapping waves of the Mediterranean sea to create soulful shadows from eight bicycles and eight cyclists as each team pointed themselves down the start ramp in Torreviega and sped off to a roar of approval from a rapturous crowd. Just as those roars grew louder in the most populated areas of the town, so did the shadows grow longer and darker as the sun came closer to setting, as the faster teams began their own race, and as the snow-white pyramids of sea-salt added a further, unique, quality to the evening’s entertainment. And then came the spectacular crashes of UAE and Jumbo-Visma - perfectly timed in the second half of the stage just as excitement of the finale was building on TV. This jolt from beauty to cruelty may have shocked many, but not-so those of us who expect such things to happen in the Vuelta. Because these things always happen in the Vuelta. The chances of witnessing chaos and mishap linger permanently over a race that’s not as tame nor as the sleepy as one expects for the time of the year.

You don’t have to be a photographer, nor even a romantic traveller, to appreciate the summer ebbing away in Spain. What is required is a season-long work connection to cycling, one that’s seen you on the road since the cold months of February and March at a time when the Giro, Tour and Vuelta await many months down the road. I always loved the way the Vuelta acted as a way of seeing out the summer months and to ease our hearts and souls into autumn and the season’s end. It’s manic high pace, yet occasional lethargy, seemed just perfect for the period. The Vuelta celebrates the last week of summer when the beaches are still packed, the heat quite intense, and the hinterland of the country almost devoid of humanity when the Vuelta pedals by. The nights of that last week are crazy, noisy, raucous occasions, before the return to school that swallows up the nation’s youth as well as farewelling a million tourists too - that’s a Vuelta still in summer. Then we go north, celebrating a Spain much greener, cooler, quieter, a Spain that is ridding itself of those pesky tourists, tempting the locals to come out and cheer the race on themselves. To be near the ocean, particularly in the north-west of the country, to see the weakening sun set over the Atlantic, to experience dusk falling - that’s a Spain that is embracing the onset of autumn, with a powerful melancholy impossible to describe.

You cannot really be in love with the Vuelta without also loving Spain, and I fell head-over-heels on my first-ever trip to the country in 1985. It started in Oviedo after a six-hour bus ride from Bilbao, to where I’d flown from Brussels just a few days after seeing Moreno Argentin win Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Next morning the chaos began, that is to say the Vuelta stage began, with me on the back of a small, oily, 500cc moto driven by a guy called Ortega, with whom I could barely speak a word of Spanish. The chaos gradually became a bike-race as the Vuelta moved away from Oviedo and out into the hilly Asturian countryside. I warmed to the rhythm of the race as it sped along highways and by-ways, passing villages where every single inhabitant cheered the race on. I then captured a first image of Miguel Indurain as he descended a mountain road with the race-leader’s Amarillo jersey on his back. And before you knew it we were heading into the Picos de Europa mountains where a stunning church towered over the road we were on – the Santuario de Covadonga. Then the road climbed, past waterfalls, caves, forests, and even past grazing wild horses, until we emerged on to a spectacular plateau high above. I had seen some inspirational racing between Pedro Delgado, Robert Millar, Fabio Parra and Federico Echave, but my lasting memory was of the beauty of the climb, the way the road circled two crystal clear lakes near the top, and how dramatically snow-covered peaks rose high above the finish-line. Meet the Lagos de Covadonga – there could have been worse ways to start my Vuelta a España experience.

Now, there’s a bit more to the Vuelta than mere sunsets and nostalgic prose. It’s an absolutely brutal bike-race that thrills its followers but scares even the greatest cyclists. It’s always been that way. I’m old enough and therefore lucky enough to have seen the old Vuelta before it became the new Vuelta - the version that switched from an April-May date to a late-summer slot in 1995. It would be easy now to ignore the older version because the quarter-century of Vueltas since ’95 accounts for one-third of the entire history of the race, a period that has quite obviously grown its separate history too. But there are so many elements of the old Vuelta in today’s contemporary version that to disregard the older race entirely would be wrong. It helps that there are still some human traces of the older Vuelta around, namely Pedro Delgado - winner of the 1985 and 1989 events – who is Spanish TV’s lead-commentator, as well as a phalanx of official car drivers like ex-racers Laudelino Cubino, Juan-Martin Oliver, Roberto Sierra and Inigo Cuesta. Ex-Vuelta ‘stars like Sean Kelly and Mathieu Hermans sometimes visit the race as guests on TV, while the biggest cheers of all are reserved for when Miguel Indurain pays a rare visit to a race he never won nor even liked.

Although I worked the new Vuelta for almost twenty years, and enjoyed every single edition, regardless of who won, it is the earlier years that I recall with greater fondness. Can I put that down to youthful, wide-eyed enthusiasm? Let’s face it, my first-ever Vuelta in 1985 ended with that contentious penultimate day’s racing which saw Delgado supposedly ‘steal’ overall victory from Scotland’s Robert Millar. 1986 was almost as good, with a TV moto clearly sheltering Alvaro Pino from the side-wind as he fought to protect his lead against the same Millar in the last day’s TT at Jerez-de-La Frontera. The diminutive climber from Galicia actually won this flattish TT, leaving Millar speechless. Foreigners did get the better of their Spanish rivals in the Vueltas of 1987 (Luis Herrera), 1988 (Sean Kelly), and 1990 (Marco Giovannetti) before Tony Rominger ran-in a consecutive hat-trick of victories in 1992, 1993, and 1994 to really silence the locals. Even then, victory in those years came not just by beating Spain’s top ‘stars, but by also thwarting the armada of other Spanish cyclists ranged against the foreigners. And because that armada often included Russian and Colombian mercenaries as well, it made for a thrilling, full-bore, three weeks of racing.

The Vueltas of '85 and '86 formed my early presence on what is now called a grand tour – I’d not make it into the Giro and Tour on a moto until 1987. By then I’d photographed most of the one-day classics from a moto, an extremely exciting experience. But the Vuelta opened my eyes to a different world with its day-in, day-out, dramas and spectacle. The tactics were different too – like watching a game of chess or poker on wheels sometimes - while the racing was mind-blowing, I couldn’t believe how fast and hard some of the stages were. I also discovered that a three-week tour allowed you to get to know your subjects just a little, which made the job all the more satisfying. Unlike in the Giro or Tour, the Vuelta follower is much more a part of the race, he or she can live and breathe the emotions, chat with cyclists on the start-line and often lodge in the same hotels. Travel around the country is almost a shared experience with long or disrupted transfers of equal discomfort to teams and media – particularly in the times when there was no fast autovia to drive on. Both in the older Vuelta and in today’s racy version, the cyclists are under less media pressure, which means a choreographed team press conference is not the only option for journalists and photographers needing to get close-up and personal with the cyclists.

Despite having a much smaller peloton than today’s 22-team monster, the Vuelta pre-1990 was a media extravaganza. Back then, although most households had a colour TV, radio was still the nation’s main link with news, sport and day-to-day affairs. Alongside the six Spanish TV motos were the country’s biggest radio stations – as numerous as TV but noisier, more intrusive, and often piloted by cowboy drivers who just wouldn’t make the grade today. There was also a Colombian radio-station moto, Radio Caracol, that stalked riders like Francisco Rodriguez, Luis Herrera, Fabio Parra and Martin Farfan all day long. Most radio stations did half-hourly transmissions from the roadside, while some radio commentators would carry out ‘live’ interviews in the race, powering up to an escape or a chase that had just crossed a mountain-pass, and demanding answers before the breathless cyclist had managed to recover. With four or five photographers’ motos in the mix as well, those old Vueltas must have resembled a free-for-all motor-rally, where only the luckiest of spectators got a clear view of the action. But with such a huge media presence, the Vuelta was, temporarily, the nation’s most important sport – it easily rivalled football despite the Vuelta clashing with the biggest end-of-season games. I felt extremely exuberant and privileged to be a part of it.

Back then, when Spain was re-discovering itself following General Franco’s reign and his death in 1975, few families owned cars, with the result that the mountain roads were virtually deserted, but that the towns and cities were packed ten-deep at the roadsides. The Guardia Civil trucks would descend on such areas with a visible menace, disgorging their armed riot-squads to quell any imaginary protests or un-rest as the race passed, before climbing back into their trucks and actually overtaking the peloton once or twice a day. Even as recently as the early-2000’s, if the Vuelta ever went near the Basque Country, an autonomous region that was considered hostile to a very Spanish event, Guardia Civil snipers would suddenly appear atop hills or buildings, their masked faces and long assault rifles giving off an eerie and false representation of this wonderful country. There was rarely any trouble, but in 1990 a high-ranking officer raised his hand-pistol and fired shots above a gathering crowd in Pamplona – a city half Basque, half Spanish (though they describe themselves as Navarran). The man, dressed in full ceremonial uniform complete with a three-cornered hat called a tricornio, had panicked when he saw the crowds gathering, when all they’d wanted to do was cheer the Vuelta as it passed by.

Because I cut my photographic stage-racing teeth in the Vuelta, I’ve always had an affinity with the roadside fans in Spain. There was a time trial to Valdezcaray in the Rioja region in 1990, and a few hundred Basque fans made the short trip to cheer on men like Marino Lejarreta, a potential winner of the race. It was wet and cold all day on the mountainside, and especially so for any ill-prepared fans. Then Lejarreta hove into view, his slender shoulders bobbing, him digging deep as the gradient increased – I readied myself to get a decent shot. That’s when I noticed one guy, well overweight and maybe in his 40s, running manically alongside Lejarreta - that’s what younger Basque fans are meant to do. What made me laugh was the way the fan was holding a big umbrella over Lejaretta as he pedalled along, determined to protect his hero from the rain for as long as he could keep pace, which was a good few hundred metres. So many times since then have I seen and photographed similar moments of magic - the Vuelta wouldn’t be the Vuelta without its entourage of crazy fans.

Spain was becoming wealthier in the early-1990’s, meaning younger people could afford cars, and so the mountain-top roadsides began to fill, and fill even more. In the 1980’s a climb like that to Cerler - a ski-resort above Benasque in the Pyrenees – or Alto Campoo - a 20-kilometres-long ascent inland from the Cantabrian coastline – would be raced with very few roadside fans to enjoy the spectacle. The Vuelta could finish a stage at Sierra Nevada in April and only have need of crowd barriers in the final 100-metres, and only then for the main sponsor’s branding to be seen. Come the early 1990’, a newly-found ability to drive far from home and see the Vuelta in the mountains became something of a must-do adventure. When Delgado won at Lagos de Covadonga in 1992, he did so in front of a massive public, tens of thousands of fans were there, a quantum leap from when I’d seen Delgado win at Covadonga in 1985 when just a few hundred fans looked on. The Vuelta’s popularity continued to grow even through the ‘Rominger years’ and by 1993-94 I began to notice many of the fans were riding their bikes up the mountains, heralding in a newer, bigger, enthusiasm for the race that still astounds us today.

One of the most positive effects of the Vuelta moving to its summer slot in 1995 was the chance for the Spanish race to venture onto higher climbs, something that had been impossible in April and May with winter snows still covering the ski-areas that the Vuelta needed to reach. Whereas the older Vuelta had stuck to its ‘safe’ havens in Sierra Nevada, Cerler, Covadonga and Andorra – if the fickle weather actually let them into the tiny Pyrenean country – the newer one spread its wings to all parts of Spain. Summertime racing also meant the Vuelta, by then managed and owned by younger, more ambitious people, but still known as today’s Unipublic, travelled less into big cities and more to the coastal regions where cash-rich tourists awaited to be entertained. Many Spanish cities empty out in summer anyway, so now the Vuelta had to take the race to the people, a switch of strategy that opened up the potential for some truly great race-routes. The Vuelta we enjoy today is based on the adaptation the organisers made in the late-90’s, and they are still discovering newer and harder climbs to race up, often near those heavily populated coastal resorts.

I most definitely was not a fan of the new Vuelta when it moved in 1995. I’d come to relish my late-spring visit to Spain and all the fun and entertainment that came with it. The racing was superb, with Spain’s entire brigade of climbers fresh and eager to defend national pride. Spain also had its own small clique of sprinters, as eager as the climbers to take on legendary riders like Sean Kelly, Eddy Planckaert, Jean-Paul Van Poppel, Mario Cipollini, Mathieu Hermans, Uwe Raab or Malcolm Elliott. Spain in April and May was a photographer’s dream, with landscapes created from vibrant green valleys, madly flowing rivers, and bright, snowy mountains. Even the castles of Castilla y Leon and famous windmills of La Mancha had an extra sparkle to them back then - the crisp spring light had an irresistible quality to it. And the weather was at its most un-predictable best the whole time, another asset which photographers cherish. As for the atmosphere of the country, so vibrant as Spain awoke from its winter slumber and launched its first fiestas of the year, well there was nothing quite like it. R.I.P the Vuelta – or so I thought.

It took a while to warm to what was basically a completely new race. Being a lover of cold, wet, un-predictable racing didn’t help much, either – this new race saw little rain, had scorching temperatures, and offered only barren landscapes to its photographers. The stranglehold then placed on the Vuelta by the ONCE team made it all the more difficult to sway my judgment. Laurent Jalabert won five stages and the ’95 Vuelta overall, and was followed in 1996 and 1997 by his Swiss teammate Alex Zulle. The racing was clinical, too controlled, ONCE smothered the racing, and the Vuelta struggled to breathe. No-one used the word ‘boring’ but if this was how the new Vuelta was shaping up, it left a lot to be desired. At least the race had begun using newer climbs like Alto del Morredero, and it had already gone over the Pyrenees for a French stage-finish at Luz-Ardiden. But in 1999 the Vuelta showed an even newer, daring, face by introducing the Alto del Angliru to the cycling world. It wasn’t a complete success, with thick fog and heavy rain spoiling the occasion. But victory that day by the popular Jose-Maria Jimenez and the eventual overall victory by Jan Ullrich really set out the Vuelta’s stall for good. The acute steepness of the Angliru changed the face of the Vuelta forever – the race has spent the twenty years since then discovering similarly crazy ascents, it was that significant.

In 2001 came the Alto Aitana, a clifftop military road above the Costa Blanca near Alicante. The Sierra de la Pandera in Andalucia followed in 2002, the year when the Angliru was assailed for a second time. Roberto Heras won both these stages to increase Spain’s growing acceptance of the ‘new’ race. In 2003 a stage finished at the 2,400-metre summit of the mighty Envalira – the highest paved ascent in the Pyrenees. The 2004 Vuelta raced to La Covatilla ski-resort in the far west of the country, using a newly-surfaced road out of Bejar. That 2004 Vuelta featured no less than five summit finishes, including a first-ever ascent to the Calar Alto Observatory high above the Almerian desert. It seemed that just about every region of Spain had its own Angliru to unveil, a fact that eventually led to the Vuelta having as many as eleven summit finishes in its route in 2013. As the Vuelta grew in stature, and as the Giro and Tour looked on with a mixture of envy and curiosity, it was also noted that the Vuelta had introduced short, sharp, mountainous stages into its repertoire. Originally put on to combat the intense heat of a Spanish summer, these short stages started a trend that has long-since been adopted by the Giro and Tour to achieve the most exciting racing over three long weeks. It all began in Spain, at the Vuelta.

The insanely-steep finishes formed a defining image of the newer Vuelta and established its present-day reputation as a race the greatest want to win, but which many other cyclists want to avoid altogether. La Camperona, Mas de la Costa, Bola del Mundo, Peña Cabarga, Valdepeñas de Jaen, Coll de la Gallina, Mirador de Ezaro, Cuitu Negro and Ermita del Alba are just a few of the climbs introduced into the Vuelta since the Angliru was un-veiled in 1999. Even some of the older, more established ascents have been exploited to extend their length, with gravel roads suddenly re-surfaced with tarmac or concrete to take the Vuelta to greater heights and an even greater legend. As a photographer it’s a thrilling but scary vocation to be on the back of a moto just a few metres ahead of the world’s greatest climbers. The cyclists are on their limits, barely riding at a walking pace, but so too is the powerful moto, for such low speeds are perfect for stalling on the very worst gradients. The Angliru has some really nasty bends, so too the Mirador del Ezaro – there’s even a cruel sign that shows a ‘30%’ gradient on some sections. Some of my shots down the years actually show other motos, especially the heavier ones from TV, toppling over if the photographer or cameraman has so much as moved a leg while he was shooting. But the images one gets of the racing are often sensational.

Though some folks might not appreciate it - having seen a whole series of race-accidents since stage one of this 2019 Vuelta, as well as that mis-use of a gravel road in Andorra - the roads the modern Vuelta races on have a dance-floor quality to them in comparison with older times. Just as fewer people drove cars in the 1980’s so was there fewer roads, or at least roads fit to drive a car on. The country had a wonderful network of national roads, at least in the proximity to cities and large towns, but I really do not remember ever seeing an autopista or autovia anywhere. Car drivers avoided the side-roads for fear of damage to their precious tyres and suspension, for those roads were bumpy, rutted, pot-holed and extremely slippery with agricultural spillage just waiting to conspire with falling rain and create accidents. These were the roads the Vuelta’s cyclists used to race on. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t see one fall or another, and sometimes mass pile ups at that. The twisty mountain roads were the worst of all, with the lack of car traffic nullifying any need to get the cracked surfaces fixed. It was little wonder that Sean Kelly won the Vuelta in 1988 against some serious climbing opposition. The Irishman, a farmer’s son who trained and raced on slick, muddy roads back home, showed little fear at descending to close any gaps. It was when Kelly attacked on such roads and won time, that’s when the locals knew they had found trouble.

Some of the greatest racing tactics today stem from older editions of the Vuelta, where they were designed, owned, and operated primarily by Manolo Saiz, the forceful ex-manager of ONCE who was at the centre of the Operacion Puerto scandal in 2006. On a stage to the Puerto de Pajares in 2005, Saiz’s team (now called Liberty Seguros) managed to get four riders in the main escape as part of a plan to propel Roberto Heras to a stage-win and maybe the race-lead too. Heras attacked race-leader Denis Menchov on the penultimate climb, the Alto de la Colladiella, and tore down the wet descent several minutes behind the day’s earlier escape, but half-a-minute ahead of Menchov. All four Liberty riders dropped back on hearing the news with two of them actually stopping for a call of nature while they waited for Heras. Heras came off the descent to be scooped up by the Liberty quartet who then towed him along the valley towards the final climb, all the while distancing Menchov. Heras then took off on the final climb and soloed to what was possibly his greatest stage-win in any Vuelta. Liberty had utilised a master tactic rarely seen before, but that has since become the preferred weapon of choice of any powerful team. I believe that 2005 stage of the Vuelta was the first time it was used in combat, and it was impressive to see it so vividly and with such perfect execution.

As was seen in this year’s Vuelta, there’s no such thing as an ordinary day. The Vuelta is, after all, the most un-predictable race of the three grand tours, and a big reason why most observers love it. If it’s not an avoidable incident like that in the stage one TTT, or un-avoidable race-crashes like those on stages four and nineteen, there might be a dozen other issues to affect the racing and stir the emotions. I said earlier that many elements of the older Vuelta exist in today’s modern re-incarnation. The TTT crashes of UAE and Jumbo-Visma – I recall the Prologue of 1999 in Murcia, when rider after rider skidded off on a greasy off-camber corner in the rain. The course was planned in a city where it hardly ever rains, and for sure not in August – but, yes, that day it rained. The windblown stage 17 to Guadalaraja reminded me of a dozen older Vueltas when the big boys put the hammer down and ruined many a climber’s aspirations. Specifically, I recall the 2001 Vuelta on a stage to Zaragoza. Then, it was the infamous U.S.Postal team who attacked into the wind and destroyed the overall chances of Marco Pantani, Alex Zulle, Fernando Escartin and Jose-Maria Jimenez - and helped ONCE’s Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano claim a stage-win at a speed of 57.14-kilometres per hour! Even the off-script gravel road in Andorra this August had me checking my old photos. I came up with an uphill stage-finish to Sierra de la Demanda in 1994 where the road was covered in snow in the morning but cleared to a one metre’s width in time for the race’s finale that afternoon. Yes, the Vuelta took risks back then as well.

Probably the biggest talking point of the 2019 Vuelta was the bust-up on stage-nineteen when Movistar attacked right after a huge crash had taken down most of their closest rivals. It came on a day that seemed right out of the older Vuelta pre-1995, with rain, winds, slick-roads and barbaric tactics compounding the misery. I’ve honestly been enjoying my retirement since January 2017 – I can see just about every top race on satellite TV here in New Zealand, so little is missed. But this was a stage I would have loved to have been photographing and observing, and then later speculating on who did what to whom, and how, and why. Part of me silently joined the debate on social media and decried Movistar’s actions, for they’ve always played hard, always pushed their luck, always applied the most brutal tactics against their rivals. But a part of me would have loved to see their attack at the head of the peloton continue, for it was old-style racing at its cruel best, the likes of which we rarely see now. And it came in the Vuelta, perhaps the only grand tour where they might have got away with such a move. I can even imagine the team’s ready-made, yet unspoken excuse: “well, this is Spain, this is the Vuelta, this is our race - anything goes!” In fact, watching how other teams came up to Movistar and pressured for a case of sporting ethics and political correctness, it made me realise what a great sport it is – when everyone plays fair.

So, I can hear some people asking, “what is my all-time favourite Vuelta – and why?” It seems a strange choice, but I’d go for the 2011 edition, won initially by Juan-Jose Cobo over Chris Froome. This was a 'star-filled Vuelta that climbed vicious ascents like Valdepeñas de Jaen, Mirador de Ezero, La Covatilla, La Farrapona and Peña Cabarga – as well as the terrible Angliru. Stage wins on those climbs went to Joaquim Rodriguez, Dan Martin, Froome himself, and then Cobo on the Angliru. Peter Sagan won three stages in his first-ever Vuelta, and Tony Martin beat his most-feared TT rivals Froome, Bradley Wiggins, Taylor Phinney and Fabian Cancellara in the race’s only timed individual stage - there was something for everyone. This was the year that the Vuelta went back to the Basque Country after 33 years away and received an absolutely fabulous reception. Local hero Igor Anton won into Bilbao, racing for the locally-sponsored Euskatel team, to make the Basque fiestas that night even noisier. I was convinced Wiggins would win the Vuelta, yet Froome took the race-lead in that Salamanca TT. Wiggins then took the red jersey the following day, obliging Froome to support him. But on the Angliru, when Wiggins couldn’t match a Cobo attack, Sky told Froome to pace Wiggins, a mistake that let Cobo win, and which saw Sky lose. Although the result was recently overturned, with Cobo testing positive in a retro-active drug-test, it hasn’t diminished the fact that this was a most special and highly competitive Vuelta. A Spaniard won. Then a foreigner won. How good was that?!

“Which Vuelta winners have impressed me the most, and why?” I’d pick Tony Rominger for his hat-trick of wins in 92, 93, and ’94 in the old Vuelta. And then Alberto Contador for his contribution to Vuelta history in the modern era. Rominger had tough opposition for all three of his victories, and he won in three very different ways. Against Jesus Montoya and Pedro Delgado in ’92, Rominger overcame a huge loss in the early TT by attacking in the mountains – their preferred terrain. He overhauled Montoya only in the last TT and spent just the last two stages in the race-leaders ‘Amarillo’ jersey. His toughest Vuelta was 1993, when a young and enthused Alex Zulle beat Rominger in three of the four time trials – Rominger’s speciality. That’s when we saw the nastiness in Rominger’s ice-cool temperament, attacking Zulle in the mountains on a filthy rotten day in Asturias, and provoking his rival to crash on a slippery descent. Zulle beaten, ONCE beaten, stage and overall victory to Rominger – quite a feat. Rominger’s third win was more sensational, the Swiss won the prologue in Valladolid and defended his lead for the rest of the race with a mix of mountain attacking and precision-like time trialling. He won by seven-and-a-half minutes!

Contador was the opposite of Rominger in that so little of his Vuelta success was planned or calculated. Contador was famous for his spontaneous style of racing, and Spain loved him all the more for it. 2008 was the most straightforward of his three wins, with superb team support, climbing attacks and solid time-trialling the foundations of overall victory. Contador came back to the Vuelta in 2012, after a short doping ban provided all the motivation he needed to win and win well. Starting way off his best pace, Contador gradually got into his stride at the halfway mark, then launched an outrageous attack to Fuente De with just four days to go. He’d pulled off a legendary feat, overtaking long-time race-leader Joaquim Rodriguez - this was possibly the sweetest of his Vuelta wins. Yet the 2014 Vuelta was no-less satisfying, because Contador came to the race having fractured his leg just six weeks earlier in the Tour de France. Chris Froome became Contador’s main rival in Spain, but the Spaniard managed to stay near him on all the early ascents, and then dropped Froome twice in the last week to secure an overall win by just over one-minute.

It is the collective domination of the Vueltas they won that puts Rominger and Contador equal at the top of my list. It’s never easy to win one Vuelta, let alone three, and not when you’re battling the toughest opposition of your generation. If I then had to choose between Rominger and Contador, I’d have to go for the latter because he won his three Vueltas during the same period when he was also winning the Giro (2008) and the Tour (2007 & 2009). Contador also made significant contributions to his last two Vueltas, in 2016 and 2017. Rominger won three Vueltas before switching to win the Giro in 1995. He also placed 16th in 1990, 3rd in 1996, and 38th in 1997. But he never won the Tour. Why did I not choose Robert Heras because of his four wins? The little climber from Bejar was so far ahead of all his rivals in that period, the only unknown was by how much he’d win. Yet Heras targeted the Vuelta without winning either the Giro or Tour, although he did win a stage of both races. It is impossible to put Heras above both Rominger or Contador, but if he had managed to win the 2002 Vuelta (he lost to Aitor Gonzalez in the last-day TT), then Heras would be a five-time Vuelta winner and most definitely at the top of my list.

This latest gem of a Vuelta would have been right at the top of my list if I were still shooting the race. There was enough quality racing and associated drama to fill a vault of cycling memories - observers were spoilt for choice! Upsets, heroics, surprises, plots and sub-plots, not to mention a whole deluge of controversy, put this race right up there with the very best. Hey, it could have been raced back in 1985 and 1986 and not appeared to be out of place or time. It was a Vuelta that found Primoz Roglic to be a very classy winner and confirmed the arrival of 20-years-old Tadej Pogacar at the top-end of the stage-racing world. Movistar once again won the team prize, but the Spanish squad were made to look extremely foolish with their in-fighting and arrogant way of racing. If I had been on this Vuelta, probably punch drunk with happiness after such an epic, I would have checked myself into a posh Segovia hotel after stage 20 and taken a very late meal in town. There are worse days when one finds oneself sitting at an outdoor restaurant at 10pm beneath the city’s eye-dropping Aqueducto, sipping a fine Ribera del Duero red and reflecting on a race of the utmost calibre which also had a most spectacular outcome. Just like the old days.

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