Touchpaper: La Vuelta – Tough Love

It’s hard to think of another professional sport where, within minutes of finishing a shattering four and a half hours of exercise, the athletes would be wedged into a cable car pod along with a couple of journalists and a few lucky fans to be whisked away from the arena.
There was something uniquely low-rent yet brilliant about the whole scenario, as we juggled for space with bicycles and exhausted riders after stage 11 of the Vuelta in Andorra, the telltale thousand-yard stare present on every tightly-packed cyclist in our midst.
Coming in some half an hour after Mikel Landa had done precisely what he said he would do and crossed the line atop Cortals d’Encamp ahead of all and sundry, these men of the autobus had no idea who had won. And little could they have cared, either, it seemed. These guys were in full-on survival mode. What goes on up the road is another world.
Cyril Gautier of Europcar looked destroyed, a towel tightly wrapped around his neck to keep out the chill mountain air. Colombian Walter Pedraza gazed out of the window, perhaps wondering what he was doing in the company of the less-able climbers on this brutally hard day in the Andorran Pyrenees. Tsgabu Grmay, the Ethiopian with Lampre-Merida, managed to raise a smile for a selfie with one of the fans, which was good of him under the circumstances.
Martin Tjallingii of Lotto-Jumbo was in a chatty mood, however, having a jokey pop at the evil route planners who had concocted this short but savage day in the saddle. Then Canadian Antoine Duchesne, another Europcar man, joined in.
“So, who won today’s stage?” he enquired.
“Landa,” I replied.
“Good,” he came back. “Anyone but Rodriguez is good.”
“Yeah, anyone but Rodriguez,” Tjallingii agreed. “Anyone but Rodriguez,” they all agreed, laughing.
And what had little Purito done to offend them, you may wonder? Why was poor Joaquim the least popular rider amongst these cable car riders?
The Spaniard, it transpires, is a resident of Andorra. He is also partial to a savage climb or two. Who better to help design an all-day roller coaster of a stage around the principality’s mountains than a man who trains on them all year long?
Rodriguez, in his infinite wisdom, managed to cram six categorised climbs totalling 5,200m of ascending into a mere 138km – good going, but it will never win you a popularity contest.
I rode the Coll de la Rabassa the following day and lovely it was too. But five more of those on the same day? You’d have to be mad. Or a professional cyclist. And most of them, like my companions gently floating back down the mountain fifty feet above the rocks, also seem to think it’s mad.
At a celebratory lunch in Madrid earlier this year to mark the 80th edition of the Vuelta, there was unbridled glee in the voice of the ASO press man telling me of the nine summit finishes; the numerous climbs spread throughout the three weeks; the 21 stages of never-a-dull-moment racing.
Which is all great for the armchair spectator. The interminable transition stages of recent memory, crossing the featureless dustbowl of central Spain, have been banished from the parcours.
It has been a fabulously close race so far. Who will win? Any one of the top four could top the podium in Madrid on Sunday as things stand.
But where does this upping the ante by the three Grand Tours end? Recent editions of the Giro have sought out ever-more savage inclines on barely rideable surfaces to lay claim to being the toughest of the tough.
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme seems intent on ensuring every single stage is a mini-classic, battering the peloton into submission on a daily basis.
And now the Vuelta, seen by the riders until recently as a relatively civilised way to spend three weeks in September, has turned up the heat too.
Mark Cavendish, at his fifth Tour of Britain in a row, branded the Spanish race as “stupid now” when interviewed by ITV, adding “no one wants to go to the Vuelta any more unless they crashed out of the Tour de France.”
It is a valid opinion, made in typically forthright Cavendish style.
At some point, there has to be a truce called. Yes, it’s a Grand Tour. And yes, they’re supposed to be hard. But there are limits and all of the ‘big three’ are pushing the boundaries.
If the only riders capable of getting something out of a three-week tour are the mountain goats, where does that leave the rest of the peloton? Exhausted, empty-handed and grumpy; fighting for survival on a daily basis.
There appears to be some common sense on the horizon, however, if Giro d’Italia director Mauro Vegni’s comments this week are anything to go by.
“We’ve become more careful with regards to rider transfers, for example, so that we can help with the recovery time for riders. There’s no willingness on our part to make the race extreme,” Vegni told Cyclingnews. “What’s most important for us isn’t having an extreme route but having a balanced route.”
‘Balanced’ is the key word. That way the Grand Tours can again become races that top riders aspire to race with feeling, rather than survive, or even seek to avoid.
And my cable car of exhausted professionals could, once again, raise a smile, and not just for selfie-takers.
We visited the Vuelta as guests of Sports Tours International and Visit Andorra. Sports Tours International will be offering trips to the 2016 Tour de France, including the stages in Andorra. Details at in October 2015, when the full route is announced.

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