• Fun in the sun - spectators on the way to Caminito Del Rey, Stage 2 of the 2018 La Vuelta a Espana (AAP)Source: AAP
It might not be the biggest of the grand tours, nor can it boast the highest calibre field. But is the Vuelta a España the most enjoyable? A slightly red Kieran Pender certainly thinks so after a few days at his first tour of Spain.
Kieran Pender

Cycling Central
28 Aug 2018 - 10:08 AM  UPDATED 28 Aug 2018 - 10:14 AM

The fierce Spanish sun is beating down on chef Iñaki Albistur, but he seems unperturbed.

He is deep in concentration, preparing a tapa for me on a makeshift kitchen table near the start-line of an early stage of the Spanish grand tour.

The Tour de France might have Taste Le Tour (well, on SBS at least). But in Spain, they have the official tapa of the Vuelta – a play on words, as etapa is Spanish for ‘stage’.

This year it is a sea-inspired concoction: cod with onion, carrot and tomato on a bread base.

It was submitted by a chef in the Basque country (where the Vuelta heads in the coming weeks), and won a popular vote on social media by a landslide.

Albistur loves the culinary creation, almost as much as he enjoys his job cooking up a spread for the great and good (and me) who grace the VIP village each stage.

“It’s an honour, a pleasure and a challenge to feed everyone coming to the Vuelta each day,” he smiles.

The enthusiasm of Albistur, and almost every member of race staff at the Vuelta, is infectious. It’s partly what makes this conclusion to grand tour season so special.

With good-humoured personnel, great racing, beautiful scenery and sun – so much sun – it’s impossible not to enjoy the Vuelta.

After a few calendar shuffles, the grand tours are now sufficiently settled it’s hard to envisage major change – or indeed recall it was any different.

That’s particularly so because their ordering, atmosphere and individual race ethos complement each other.

Once the spring classics are over, the hard stuff starts with a bang. The Giro is serious racing, followed by Italians who are passionate about the sport.

“The Italians are very proud of their race and how it’s raced,” Mitchelton-Scott boss Matt White tells me.

White began his career in Italy and retains a love for the country. “People on the side of the road are real fans of cycling,” he says.

The Tour is without doubt the king of the grand Tours. It is the biggest and the boldest. But that has its ups and downs.

“At the Tour you can’t move, there are people everywhere, it’s more claustrophobic,” muses White.

The Tour is a grand circus, with everyone invited. Attracting non-cycling fans is obviously important for the sport, but it gives the race a markedly different feel.

“If you asked someone on the side of the road who’s leading the bike race, or who won yesterday’s stage, they probably couldn’t tell you,” White adds.

Last, but – certainly in recent years – not least, is the tour of Spain.

“The Vuelta has a different feel,” he says. “It’s a lot more relaxed – the most relaxed of the three grand tours.”

These iconic three-week races may thrill – both personally and professionally – but the stresses and strains of a demanding workload means they can be hard to enjoy, for all involved.

This is particularly true for Le Tour, which sometimes feels like it operates in a pressurised bubble.

For riders, team staff and journalists, the Tour is so intense it’s often not until the racing is over participants truly appreciate the magnitude of the experience.

Following on from Le Tour, and with the season drawing to a close, the Vuelta is an opportunity for everyone to relax a little.

That’s not to undersell the preparation and performance of the riders, the quality of the racing, or the regard in which success at the Vuelta is held by the peloton.

But after the seriousness of the Giro and the hype of the Tour, the Vuelta has a calmer edge.

“This is my favourite Grand Tour – you can actually have fun!” one journalist confided to me over more tapas at the press buffet.

I doubt he’s the only one.

Sadly my (short) stint in Spain has come to an end. But I’m already hooked. Hasta luego, La Vuelta! I’ll be back. I might even have a tapa recipe for you.

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