Ever since 1995 when the Vuelta a España was moved from it’s original slot in April to it’s current position in September there have been cries to have it moved back to late Spring where it started. Another suggestion which seems to be voiced more and more frequently (and has been rumoured as already confirmed) is to have it reduced from a 3 week stage race down to just 2 weeks. Both of these schools of thought aim to make the Vuelta a more attractive proposition for the big names of world cycling.
The 2009 Vuelta a España however, is proving that it can still attract a top quality field with intriguing racing. Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans, Robert Gesink, a rejuvinated Tom Danielson, Ivan Basso and Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez are all fighting it out at the top of the GC, and all within 63 seconds of each other.
There are closely fought battles unfolding for all three main classements. Particularly refreshing is the battle for the King of the Mountains which, in recent years in Grand Tours, can all too easily be reduced to a one horse race. David de la Fuente is making sure that David Moncoutié doesn’t have it all his own way.
All this is good news, but as I see it, there are still two major problems currently hampering the Vuelta. Firstly, the current rule by the UCI ,that rider transfers can’t be discussed until after September 1st needs to be looked at. This date falls within the first week of the Vuelta every year. The constant announcements of rider transfers disrupts teams and surely has an adverse effect on the hierarchy of ‘diricteur sportif – team leader – domestique’. Take last year’s Vuelta for example; during the race it was announced that Carlos Sastre was to be leaving Team CSC. Surely this made it difficult for Sastre’s domestiques. Why should they motivate themselves to ride at the service of a rider who’s just announced that he’s abandoning them for a new team at the end of the month? The date of these announcements need to be pushed back to the end of the Vuelta to maintain the integrity of the race and to keep the focus on the racing.
The second problem facing the Vuelta is the willingness of top riders to abandon the race after 12 or 13 days to head off in preparation for the ensuing World Championships. In the past 2 editions of the Vuelta riders such as Freire, Rebellin, Ballan, Cunego, Boonen, Gilbert, Chavanel and Bettini have all abandoned the race before the finish to focus on the World Championships Road Race. This season, already the Schleck brothers have retired. Andy claimed to be suffering from an illness but still intends to race in Mendrisio while Frank is heading off for some overdue knee surgery. Even though both have legitimate health issues, one wonders whether they would be as willing to walk away from the Tour de France as easily. With big mountain stages looming over the weekend, more and more riders who are poorly placed in the G.C. will start calling it a day.
To curb this problem, instead of moving or reducing the Vuelta, my suggestion is that the World Championships be moved from its current position at September’s end to a new slot towards the end of June in place of the National Championships which could be distributed elsewhere. Riders would all be on top form in preparation for the upcoming Tour de France, which might mean that more big names would compete. In recent years, the major Tour de France contenders tend to stay away from the Worlds. The last Tour winner to win the Worlds was Lance Armstrong in 1993 but even that was pre-cancer when he was more of a classics rider.
Since then, the only major Tour contenders that have consistently performed in the World Championships are Alejandro Valverde (if you could call him a Tour contender), and Miguel Indurain. Staging the Worlds in June would give the likes of Contador, Evans, the Schlecks and Menchov real incentive to compete, and what better race than to debút your new rainbow jersey than the Tour de France?
Some might say that a move to late June would alienate the classics riders who would have lost form by then. But having taken a look at the winners of the Monument Classics over the last 3 years, the only rider who (voluntarily) wasn’t at the start line of the Tour this year was Damiano Cunego. The argument could also be made that such a move would remove an end of season focus for the riders. But I would argue that the end of season focus would then become the Vuelta. Thus the calendar adjustments boosts the attraction of both the Vuelta and the World Championships, and who knows, perhaps we might again see a rider win both the Worlds and the Tour in the same year, a feat not achieved since the days of Greg Lemond and Stephen Roche more than 20 years ago.