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Viva la Vuelta! Third Edition, by Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell

Published by Mousehold Press in 2018


(Note: I have not read the previous editions of this book, and so cannot make any comments on any additions, deletions, or other changes the authors may have made from previous editions, beyond noting that the previous—second—edition only covered the race up through the 2013 running, whereas this edition covers the race through the 2018 running.)

At first glance, this hefty volume (449 pages including apparatus such as the Foreword by Sean Kelly, the tables of podium finishers etc., and a bibliography) seems to be much in the tradition of the dual two-volume histories of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia by Bill and Carol McGann. And it is true that, like those latter titles, Viva la Vuelta! consists in the main of fairly detailed year-by-year descriptions of the Vuelta from its first edition eighty-five years ago through the 2018 edition. The differences, though, are important.

First and foremost, this book spends more time than those of the McGanns on the social and historical contexts of the race. Founded in 1935, the first few decades of the Vuelta corresponded with the reign of the USA-supported dictator Francisco Franco. Pertinent details of how the race was run under that government are salted in throughout the race descriptions and discussed more fully in the front matter of each chapter. Likewise, the “transition” period after Franco’s death that saw Spain integrating itself into the community of nations, especially the community of European nations, is discussed, followed by just-extensive-enough remarks on how Spain, and the race, was affected politically, socially, and economically, by such events as an attempted coup, the election and downfall of a Socialist government, the terrorist attack of 2004, and the worldwide economic downturn beginning in 2008. There is also a fair amount of content about the separatist movements in various regions and provinces of the country, especially in the Basque region.

One characteristic the book does share with the McGann histories is the sprinkling in of anecdotes—sometimes colorful, sometimes tragic, always interesting—about the various personalities who have animated the Vuelta since its founding. These are mostly about riders, of course, but organizers and team directors have their day as well.

But the meat of the book is the description of the races themselves. Here, the authors have leaned heavily on contemporary newspaper accounts for the earliest editions, though it is obvious that they read widely and watched whatever archival film and television footage is available, and there are frequent quotes from interviews (which may be secondary sources, it’s not entirely clear whether or not Fallon and Bell directly interviewed any of the main players). The writing in these sections is fairly vivid—never approaching the stylistic excesses of some sportswriters, but deploying just enough color and energy to make the race descriptions more exciting than the fairly dry recitation of facts to be found in the (otherwise excellent) McGann books.

There are many larger than life figures here, including Fedrico Bahamontes and Jaques Anquetil among the riders, and of course the story of the modern Vuelta could not be told without reference to the colorful and controversial director Manolo Saiz. To mention these names alone is to barely scratch the surface—suffice it to say that it is a rare Spanish cycling stakeholder indeed who does not appear in these pages.

The book went to press before the exciting 2019 edition of the Vuelta, and also before Chris Froome was retroactively awarded the first of his two general classification wins for the 2011 running of the race, following the Juan José Cobo case. These details will no doubt be included in a future edition, as the writers are not shy of discussing the use of performance enhancing drugs and the fallout from same (one of the chapters is titled “In the Shadow of Operation Puerto”).

If there is anything to say which may be considered negative about this otherwise excellent volume it is largely in the area of editing. There are frequent misspellings and sometimes odd usages. For roughly the first half of the book, for example, riders from Great Britain are referred to as “Britains” instead of “Britons.”

Beyond that, the authors have made the choice to pay comparatively little attention to sprints and to the Green Jersey points competition (in much the manner of the Vuelta itself, at least in recent editions). At one point, they end the discussion of a particular year’s race by, almost casually, tacking on the fact that Alessandro Petacchi had won five stages, none of which they mentioned in their narrative description of that year’s race. The authors are much more forthcoming with details of the King of the Mountains competition. To be fair, this approach may mirror the newspaper accounts they used as sources, as there is more attention paid to the Green Jersey as the book goes on and enters the era where the authors no doubt watched the race themselves.

Overall, though, this is an excellent book and one I’m glad to have read. There are many small details (such as the fact that Mario Cipollini abandoned the race in 1997 to go home and judge the Miss Italia beauty pageant) of which I was previously unaware, and which a casual rundown of the historic results on a website would never provide. There are also introductions to Spanish riders not widely known outside of the Iberian Peninsula who may have achieved great things in other historic circumstances.

Highly recommended.
 
That will also be coloured by the fact that very few in Spain really cared much about points competitions and that Spanish riders did not tend to get involved in the sprints too much, save for a few riders like Poblet, until the post-El Correo-El Pueblo Vasco days. Back in the formative years of the race the GPM was considered the second most important thing to winning the GC, and this was why, until the Colombians of the 80s, when you thought of wispy, talented, mercurial but unreliable climbers, you thought of Spain, famous for providing the likes of Julio Jiménez, Vicente Trueba, Jose Manuel Fuente and their ilk. As a result, you can put a pretty substantial amount of money on there being very little attention paid to the largely overseas-rider-dominated points competition in the coverage (especially during the Franco days) and much more paid to the Spanish riders' playgrounds of the mountains.
 
That will also be coloured by the fact that very few in Spain really cared much about points competitions and that Spanish riders did not tend to get involved in the sprints too much, save for a few riders like Poblet, until the post-El Correo-El Pueblo Vasco days. Back in the formative years of the race the GPM was considered the second most important thing to winning the GC, and this was why, until the Colombians of the 80s, when you thought of wispy, talented, mercurial but unreliable climbers, you thought of Spain, famous for providing the likes of Julio Jiménez, Vicente Trueba, Jose Manuel Fuente and their ilk. As a result, you can put a pretty substantial amount of money on there being very little attention paid to the largely overseas-rider-dominated points competition in the coverage (especially during the Franco days) and much more paid to the Spanish riders' playgrounds of the mountains.
Fascinating. Thanks for that information. I guess it should also be said that the race hasn't traditionally attracted the best sprinters pretty much for the very reasons you enumerate. The list of Green Jersey winners, while it does contain some well-known sprinters, probably has as many general classification riders winning. There's also the difference in rules between the Vuelta and the other two GTs, apparently, as in France and Italy the points in that competition are weighted in such a way that fewer are on offer in, say, a mountain top finish than in a flat stage, that not being the case in the Vuelta. At least I believe that has been the case in the past, and may still be so.
 
Fascinating. Thanks for that information. I guess it should also be said that the race hasn't traditionally attracted the best sprinters pretty much for the very reasons you enumerate. The list of Green Jersey winners, while it does contain some well-known sprinters, probably has as many general classification riders winning. There's also the difference in rules between the Vuelta and the other two GTs, apparently, as in France and Italy the points in that competition are weighted in such a way that fewer are on offer in, say, a mountain top finish than in a flat stage, that not being the case in the Vuelta. At least I believe that has been the case in the past, and may still be so.
An interesting note for la Vuelta's Green Jersey. There are two riders who have won it 4 times (the record). Those two riders are Sean Kelly and Alejandro Valverde.

The 2020 Vuelta has more "flat" stages than typical editions. A few years ago la Vuelta had a stage near Murcia that was listed as "flat". Valverde was laughing at it being listed as flat and even said that if anyone thinks that stage is flat they are in for a major surprise. These are my training roads and they are anything but flat.
 
"Spanish flat" is a well-known term, Magnus Backstedt has referred to it when discussing País Vasco too - lots of ramps and repechos in smaller Spanish races that are deceptively difficult, often more due to inconsistency than particular steepness or difficulty, just because it's a lot harder to get into a rhythm. With regards to the sprint-weighting of the points classification, that was something the Giro only recently changed, as until recently it operated on an identical system to the Vuelta - with the effect that in the early 2000s it was dominated by sprinters as RCS included several flat stages to capitalise on the status and popularity of Cipollini and Petacchi, then Menchov (originally di Luca), Evans, Scarponi (originally Contador) and Purito in four years before it moves back toward the sprinters. It was in 2014 that the category was adjusted to offer different points scales for different stage types and make it more suitable for sprinters.

In the Vuelta and especially in smaller Spanish races, the jersey awarded for the clasificación per puntos is often known as the maillot de la regularidad ("consistency jersey"), and I suppose that this conflation of the jersey with consistent performance is a reason for a reluctance to switch it to a more sprinter-favouring points distribution, even as the race increasingly marginalises the sprinters in the past decade. A problem for the Vuelta's points classification since 1995 has been the fact many sprinters and classics men - the kind who might usually look to compete for such a jersey, looking at Bettini, Freire or Sagan in recent years - will withdraw from the Vuelta to prepare for the World Championships, so the jersey often goes to somebody who's picked up decent placements but isn't a frontline sprinter but who has got into the jersey and stayed until Madrid as a result (take, for example, van Avermaet in 2008 or Felline in 2016), or a GC man by virtue of being the best finishers willing to stay until Madrid - in the last 9 years only Felline and Degenkolb have won the classification but not finished top 10 in GC. However, for almost all of the decade preceding that, sprinters held dominion, from 2002 to 2010, but before that again it was GC men, with Heras in 2000 and Jiménez in 2001.

Of course, the other problem for the Vuelta is that the points jersey has had some downright hideous designs over the years that realistically nobody would be proud to have in their collection. In fact, Roberto Heras' greatest accomplishment, the Pajares mugging, was completed while wearing the eyesore that was the 'fish' jersey, that Paolo Bettini refused to even wear when second in the classification and asked to look after the jersey, with the organisers rolling the clock back to the 60s and 70s when the big name riders and teams would bully the eager-to-please organisers and acquiescing on the justification that the rainbow jersey superseded caretaking the points classification...
 
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If you race or ever have raced, then Tim Krabbe's The Rider is the only cycling book you'll ever need to read to.

And if you're a poseur, then this book will mean absolutely nothing to you.
+1 for The Rider. Excellent read.

A book that I read early in my years as a cycling fan, and subsequently read cover to cover and back again, was “Kings of the Road” by Robin Magowan. It was published in early 87, and so is a bit of a snapshot of the mid-80s cycling scene, and very much from an Anglo perspective (it gives a few chapters over to the likes of Lemond, Kelly, Millar, Roche, Anderson) but also is where I first heard of names like Raas, van Looy, Moser, and races like Ghent Wevelgem and Het Volk and the Dauphine. It’s kind of coloured my idea of how cycling should be ever since.

Graham Watson’s amazing photos help, too. I spent hours staring at pictures of La Vie Claire and Skil jerseys and Peugeot and Basso steel frame bikes with silver Campag and black Mavic and Modolo components against backdrops of Pyrenean and Dolemite and Ardennes vistas and miserable Belgian and Dutch weather.
 
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