As a rule, we try not to quote rival publications, but Française des Jeux director sportif Marc Madiot’s one-word verdict on the 2007 Vuelta a Espana in the latest issue of a certain other monthly mag gets my vote for soundbite of the year.
That one word, in case you’re wondering, was “shit”.
The masses tended to agree with Madiot, albeit in slightly more diplomatic terms. Crowds at the Vuelta have been lamentable for years, but seemed worse than ever as Rabobank’s Denis “Charisma Bypass” Menchov plodded to victory this September.
The racing per se may only have been part of the problem: so scandal-fatigued were we after the latest Tour de Farce that no-one was in the mood for the kind of hero-worship which was once a key element of the major tours narrative. You could say what goes around comes around, because nowhere more than in Spain and in the Vuelta have performances stretched and finally broken through the bounds of credibility.
The question now is, where do race organisers Unipublic go from here? One clue came his week as a local official in the Asturias region announced that the Alto de l’Angliru will return to the race route in 2008. Unipublic chief Victor Cordero declined to confirm the news ahead of the official race presentation on December 5, but dropped a heavy hint when he admitted “unfortunately, we need the Angliru to catch the public’s attention”.
This doesn’t bode well. The Angliru is a spectacular sporting theatre, as terrifying a climb as anything in pro racing, but it is also a gimmick which does nothing to address the Vuelta’s long-term problems. Forget a 20 percent mountain-top finish on a weekend afternoon – Cordero should be racking his brains about how to get the punters out on a Wednesday afternoon on the plains of, say, La Mancha or Extremadura. Or how to stop cycling’s galacticos either packing after two weeks or deciding they’d rather prepare for the Worlds at the Tour of Poland and the GP Plouay. Or how to restore some semblance of integrity to a race whose recent palmarès reads like the guest list to cycling’s Hall of Shame.
My personal view is that, of cycling’s three major tours, the Vuelta always looked the most likely fall-guy. It has neither the history, nor the romance, nor the fans which make the Giro an Italian national institution, and it’s difficult to see how that gap can be plugged. When plans to cut the Giro and Vuelta to two weeks were mooted earlier this year, it wasn’t just the die-hard tifosi in Italy who were in uproar. In Spain I believe the reaction was more muted; in fact, if the Vuelta got the chop tomorrow I don’t think anyone would be huffing and puffing, except perhaps Eufemiano Fuentes or David Duffield.
That, ultimately, might be the best solution. The international calendar is now too congested to accommodate a three-week tour at any other time of the year. Make the Vuelta two weeks and, all of a sudden, the exodus of world championship contenders to Poland would stop, and with more quality in the field would surely come more interest and more revenue for Cordero.
Who knows, you might not even need the Angliru.
© BikeRadar 2007