If you follow competitive cycling you know that every July is the equivalent of the Super Bowl,World Series and Wimbledon all wrapped into one swirling ball of chaos, athleticism, and at times controversy. Of course I’m talking about the Tour de France.
The Tour de France is just one of the triumvirate called the Grand Tours: the Giro d’ Italia in May and the Vuelta de Espana in September. But why is the Tour de France considered the most prestigious of the three? For one the Tour de France has history on it’s side and has always been in July. Bike racing got it’s start in France and depending on who you talk to, the bike was invented in France as well. Also timing has everything to do with it. Summer in France is typically glorious. There is never a problem to attracting a crowd to watch anything outside during the summer months. But let’s take a closer look at the two Grand Tours that receive much lesser attention!
Considered the most beautiful of the three is the Giro d’ Italia. With stages that course through the Alps and Dolomites, along the blue Mediterranean coast, and in this year’s edition a start in Venice, what’s not too love? Unfortunately this beauty is lost on the riders who are forced to navigate through narrow towns and at times even narrower finish lines. And while the Tour follows a script of a week for the sprinters followed by the mountains and time trials, the Giro marches to its own drummer. The opening stage of this year’s Giro was a short time trial and then just three days later the peloton was in the mountains. Classically the Giro has had a reputation among journalists as a race that requires a certain type of climber in order to be successful. Personally I don’t subscribe to that theory. If a rider is motivated, like an Italian rider normally is, than it is not unusual that they do well. It is rare in today’s modern professional cycling a rider who is looking to peak for the Giro doesn’t go into the Tour expecting much in the way of results. Often a rider peaks for the Giro and reloads again for the Vuelta. Such is the case with Ivan Basso. He was looking to peak for the Giro, skip the Tour, compete in the Vuelta and contest the World Championships. Second place finisher Danilo DiLuca is also following that plan. The Team Astana Giro team went with the purpose of gaining racing form after a series of injuries. For Armstrong it was also a chance to honor a race that he had never participated in before.
The Vuelta is, rightly or not, the least regarded of the three and in the not too distant past was actually earlier in the year. But in an attempt to organize the racing calendar in a more logical manner it was bumped to the end of the season. Now often or not it is used as a training camp for those with an eye to the upcoming World Championships. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t hold any prestige. Spanish riders hold this Grand Tour in great esteem. And if a rider’s season has been marginal, the Vuelta is a place to shine and make sure there is a signature on a contract for next year. And like the Giro, the Vuelta- the youngest of the three Grand Tours- breaks from tradition. Often the stage finishes are hard scrabbles up sinuous mountain roads. Much to the chagrin of team mechanics last year’s race included an uphill time trial stage on a dirt road. The terrain is not just spiky mountains, but often rolling terrain through desert like conditions, followed by long transfers for the riders. Those days are brutal with dinner and massage not coming till the evening. But that has to be expected when the stages don’t start until the late mornings or early afternoons. And once racing begins no one is in a hurry to start racing right from the gun. The pace is more social and gradually ramps up to a crescendo of cheering Spanish fans.
All three Grand Tours are import ingredients in the recipe that is the professional cycling season. The Giro is fast and chaotic, the Tour is the respected elder of the group following a proven formula of success and the Vuelta is the spicy kick in the tail to end the season.
By Neil Browne, ROAD Magazine