Gears, Guts and Glory: The Grand Tours of cycling

4/6/2023 – Danny Holman

Gears, Guts and Glory: The Grand Tours of cycling

The Grand Tours of cycling - the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, and La Vuelta - are considered the most prestigious events in cycling. They're revered by riders, fans, and media. But what makes them unique and how does La Vuelta compare against its two older rivals?

"The Grand Tours are more than just races, they are cultural events that bring people together from all over the world to witness the triumph of the human spirit." - Greg LeMond

The special appeal of the Grand Tours

The FIFA World Cup, the Olympic Games, the Superbowl, Le Mans, Wimbledon. These famous events all represent the height of achievement in their respective sports. And for cycling, it is the Grand Tours. The three separate races of the Grand Tours are considered the absolute pinnacle of the sport, attracting the very best cyclists from around the world to compete in the race, and winning brings sporting immortality.

"The Grand Tours are a reflection of life itself - they have their ups and downs, their triumphs and setbacks, but in the end, it's the journey that matters most." - Chris Froome

But despite obvious similarities, the three events are distinctly different with their own character and flavour. Their fame has grown over the decades for different reasons but why are they so important and revered by cyclists?

1. Tradition and History:

The Grand Tours all have a rich history, dating back over a century. The Tour de France, first held in 1903, is the oldest, while the Giro d'Italia and La Vuelta were first held in 1909 and 1935, respectively. Over the years, these races have become an integral part of cycling culture - both nationally and internationally, with fans and riders alike eagerly anticipating each edition of the race.

2. Difficulty and Challenge:

The Grand Tours are purposely designed as incredibly tough and demanding races. They typically last over three weeks and cover thousands of kilometres over 21 stages, with riders facing gruelling mountain stages, flats, and time trials. Winning a Grand Tour requires not only exceptional physical ability but also mental toughness, tactical astuteness, as well as teamwork.

3. Prestige and Recognition:

Winning a Grand Tour is one of the greatest achievements in professional cycling. It is an indisputable mark of excellence and places a rider among the sport's elite. But while honour is great, the financial rewards cannot be ignored either. The media attention and public recognition that come with winning a Grand Tour will help a rider secure sponsorship deals and significantly increase their earnings.

4. Cultural Significance:

The Grand Tours are also important cultural events, with each race featuring stages that pass through historic cities and landmarks. Each Tour is seen as a reflection of the soul of the country. They showcase the beauty and diversity of the host countries and attract millions of spectators each year.

"The beauty of the Grand Tours is that they are not just races, but journeys. They take you on a physical and emotional rollercoaster that is both exhausting and exhilarating." - David Millar

The peloton climbing the road to Col de Pailheres in the Pyrenees during Le Tour de France

The Tour de France

The Tour de France, or the Tour as it is affectionately known, is undoubtedly the most famous of the three races, and is considered by many to be the most prestigious. Usually held in July, the race covers a distance of around 3,500 kilometres over 21 stages (in 2023 it will be 3404 km). The original purpose of the race was to boost newspaper sales but this has evolved over the decades to boost the culture and heritage of the country. It's quite a progression. The Tour features a mix of flat stages, mountain stages, and individual time trials, but it is most famous for its mountain stages, where riders must climb steep peaks such as the Alpe d'Huez and the Mont Ventoux. The Yellow Jersey, or Maillot Jaune, is worn by the race leader and has become an iconic symbol of excellence in the sport and even beyond that. There are other jerseys to battle for: the green jersey, or maillot vert, is awarded to the rider who accumulated the most points in the intermediate sprints and stage finishes. The polka-dot jersey, or maillot à pois rouges, is awarded to the rider who accumulated the most points in the mountain stages and the white jersey, or maillot blanc, is awarded to the best-placed rider under 25 years of age. The race attracts millions of spectators every year, who line the roads of France to fervently cheer on their favourite riders. The most successful rider in the history of the Tour de France is Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, who won the race five times between 1969 and 1974.


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The Giro d'Italia

The Giro d'Italia, or the Tour of Italy is perhaps the second most well-known race in the world of cycling with the Pink Jersey, or Maglia Rosa worn by the race leader. The Giro is famous for its challenging mountain stages, which often take riders through the Italian Alps. The race usually takes place in May and so the weather is often unpredictable at this time of the year. Snow can be encountered at some of the higher altitudes. The Giro has become famous for its sprint finishes, where riders battle it out in a final dash to the finish line. This race attracts a large international following and has been won by some of the greatest cyclists of all time, including icons such as Eddy Merckx and Marco Pantani. The race has seen its fair share of drama over the years. In 1949, the "Fight of the Century" took place between Italian riders Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. The two were fierce rivals, and their rivalry reached boiling point during Stage 17, where Bartali punched Coppi. Bartali went on to win the race, while Coppi finished second.


La Vuelta a España

And then there is La Vuelta a España, or the Tour of Spain. It's the youngest of the three Grand Tours, having been first held in 1935. The race covers a distance of around 3,000 kilometres over 21 stages, often with challenging mountain stages through the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada. The race is also famous for its gruelling time trials, where riders must push themselves to the limit against the clock. Despite a shorter history than the other two, La Vuelta has still featured some of the greatest cyclists of all time, including Miguel Indurain and Alberto Contador.

"La Vuelta is a race that captures the spirit and passion of Spain, and is one of the greatest events in professional cycling." - Eusebio Unzue

What makes La Vuelta special?

Initially overshadowed by the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, La Vuelta struggled to establish itself as a major race in the cycling world in its early years. The race suffered from financial difficulties and an inability to really establish its own identity. However, in the 1990s, the race underwent a transformation, with new organizers and a renewed desire to define the race's unique character. The organizers introduced new routes through less obvious regions that showcased the many beautiful and varied landscapes of Spain. The new approach worked and a new generation of riders and fans were drawn to the race.

La Vuelta has ultimately found success by trying to be different from the other two Grand Tours, rather than an imitation. So how does it stand out? La Vuelta is usually the last of the Grand Tours in the calendar year, running from late August to September. That means it misses the scorching heat of the midsummer that characterizes the Tour. But the heat still plays a key role in the character of the race - it's often perfect weather for both cyclists and spectators but it can still get hot on La Vuelta and with that heat comes passion.
Earlier versions of La Vuelta included lots of long, flat stages. These were the safe but uninspiring options. What audiences and spectators really love are the shorter, punchier mountain stages such as Alto de l'Angliru. The introduction of these stages has reinvigorated the race, which now attracts huge crowds of enthusiastic hardcore fans, known as "aficionados", who line the stages to cheer on their heroes.

Aficionados gather on a mountainside to watch the race go past

The Tour that showcases Spain

The race often passes through ancient cities and historic landmarks, giving fans a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of Spain. The race also has a strong emphasis on food, with each stage featuring local cuisine and delicacies. La Vuelta is a celebration of Spanish culture, and the race is seen as a symbol of national pride. The race also features traditions unique to Spain, such as the daily siesta, which often results in later start times for the stages. This is also reflected in the atmosphere of the festival. It's perceived as a little more chilled and accessible than the others. La Vuelta is now considered by many to be the most exciting of the three Grand Tours. It has developed a reputation for being unpredictable, which is a good thing for audiences. There are some murmurs that the long flat 200 km+ stages of the Tour de France are boring. La Vuelta doesn't suffer from that perception. As the youngest of the Tours, it can be more adventurous and progressive.
The Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador has won all three Grand Tours in his career, but has often spoken about his love for La Vuelta. In fact, he has won the race three times (2008, 2012, 2014) and described it as the most beautiful and exciting of the Grand Tours.

"The fans in Spain are incredible, and the passion they have for La Vuelta is contagious." - Fabio Aru

The cyclists peloton go through the colon plaza in madrid.

"The beauty of the Grand Tours is that they are not just races, but journeys. They take you on a physical and emotional rollercoaster that is both exhausting and exhilarating." - David Millar

How you can ride La Vuelta for yourself

Each of the Grand Tour's has its own unique character that defines it, although it has changed over the decades. Here at ROUVY our favourite of the three is La Vuelta but then we are a little biased as we are exclusive virtual partners and have a proud relationship with this amazing event.
This means we are the only indoor cycling platform to give riders the chance to ride the routes of La Vuelta from their own homes. So if you want to explore some of these epic rides through Spanish towns and countryside, ROUVY can help you with the experience.

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