He stood back, taking a hard look at me before saying that he thought I was built like Indurain. I took it as a compliment, seeing as “Big Mig” was his country’s cycling superstar for the first half of the ’90s. My new acquaintance spoke with trepidation when using the few English words my uncle had taught him during their language lessons, but his great enthusiasm for our shared interest in cycling rolled off his tongue in a flurry of Spanish.
I found that this excitement was consistent with many of the Spaniards I met during my visits to Spain over the past few summers. Just mentioning cycling seemed to light up people’s eyes, serving to both break the ice with an American traveler and open up a discussion about their experiences with the sport. The stories they shared about watching the Vuelta over the years with their friends and families seemed to take them back to a good place in their minds, as though they were reminded of scenes they’d long since forgotten.
My aunt was born and raised in Valladolid, a city about an hour north of Madrid, where her father used to sit for hours and listen to la Vuelta on the radio with religious-like devotion. On the days that the race was scheduled to pass through town, he told her and her brother they could join him on the side of the road to watch the race in person. One year she decided to tag along, describing how it was terribly hot as they waited for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the peloton sped past. “Zoom, zoom, zoom!” she said, while jabbing her straightened hand forward with each “zoom” that she spoke. “That was it! All of those hours of waiting for just a few seconds.” Needless to say, she didn’t join her father out on the road again. But the experience made an impact on her, showing how certain Spaniards, like her father, revere cycling as something holy. Even if she hadn’t felt the attraction herself, she was able to witness firsthand what the sport and the country’s race meant to the people of her city.
As I write this, there’s less than a week left in this year’s edition of the Vuelta, but you wouldn’t be alone if you didn’t know it. Without the buzz generated for the likes of France and Italy’s big races, the seemingly red-headed stepchild of the grand tours sort of gets forgotten. Hell, even in our office it seems that most people’s attention has drifted elsewhere. Cyclocross is right around the corner, the road calendar is winding down, and, after Froome’s humdrum robotic-like dominance at le Tour a couple of months ago, it’s not hard to see why the whole grand tour thing might feel a little stale.
But I’ll argue all day long that the Vuelta is still as fierce, if not fiercer, than those other two races. When you combine the hot, dry, never-flat, and always-windy conditions that face the riders day after day, this race is anything but bland. As it stands today, on the second rest stage, there are two riders within thirty seconds of each other — two other (Spanish) riders are within a couple of minutes. This comes with three crucial mountain stages still looming between tomorrow and Madrid on Sunday. Boring? I think not. For the cyclists involved, the race means just as much to them as Europe’s other two big tours and, quite possibly, even more so for the Spanish people who make the race part of their lives each year.