Pain & Glory: A Brief History of the Vuelta a España

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reviewed by Rory McAllister
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The Vuelta a España is the last of the cycling calendar’s three Grand Tours – and arguably the toughest.

Coming at the end of the racing season amid high humidity and stifling temperatures, you could be forgiven for thinking fans and cycling teams alike must have run out of energy to make the Vuelta a España exciting.

One look at the history of the Vuelta a España shows nothing could be further from the truth. 

A race that never fails to disappoint, La Vuelta guarantees stunning views as it weaves in and out of Spanish countryside, drags riders up eye-watering ascents, and promises unforgettable crescendos with uphill finishes that go down to the wire.

But how exactly did La Vuelta come to be? How has it changed over the years? And why does the race leader wear a red jersey?

Everything you need to know about the exhilarating history of the Vuelta a España is covered here. We’ll be covering:

  • The Basics: When and Where is the Vuelta a España?
  • How Did the Vuelta a España Begin?
  • The First Vuelta a España
  • Early Vuelta Years
  • The Modern Vuelta
  • The Vuelta a España Red Jersey
  • The Tour’s Most Successful Riders
A Brief History of the Vuelta a España: Title Image

The Basics: When and Where is the Vuelta a España?

La Vuelta a España takes place predominantly in Spain, at the end of the racing calendar from late August to September.

In its early days, this wasn’t the case. When it first began it took place in April, shortly before the two older Grand Tours (Tour de France and Giro d’Italia).

To avoid direct competition with the Giro d’Italia and to ensure the attendance of the world’s finest riders, it was moved to late August.

Although the routes change, the format remains largely the same with countless steep ascents, a passage through the iconic Pyrenees mountain range, and (usually) a concluding stage in Madrid. 

The race has taken riders into other countries such as Andorra, the Netherlands, Portugal, and France. 

The Vuelta really pioneered short, sharp stages often featuring touch ascents that are becoming the feature of more races throughout the year.

The peloton rounds a corner in Madrid at the Vuelta a Espana.
© Unipublic/Charly López

How did the Vuelta a España Begin?

The Vuelta a España was the last of the three Grand Tours to be established, beginning in 1935.

After witnessing the roaring success of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, former cyclist Clemente López Dóriga and Juan Pujol, the director of a Madrid daily called Informaciones, set up the Vuelta in 1935 in an attempt to emulate the successes of the other tours. 

Similarly to the other Tours, there is strong suspicion the Vuelta was also created to aid falling newspaper sales too.

The First Vuelta a España

The first edition of the Vuelta a España in 1935 looked dramatically different to today’s tours

Starting and finishing in Spain’s capital Madrid and visiting the mountains around Bilbao, Zaragoza, and Cáceres along the way, the race totaled 3,400km in just 14 stages. The average distance per stage was a massive 240 kilometers.

To put this into perspective, this year’s Grand Tours will average between 147 and 166 km per stage.

Add to this heavy bikes that punctured constantly and damage that had to be repaired solely by the riders themselves, and that’s one grueling race!

A dramatic duel in the first edition between the Belgian Gustaaf Deloor and home-favorite Mariano Cañardo in sideways downpours and horrendous weather saw the Belgian take home the inaugural winner’s jersey.

This nail-biting contest on the grueling mountain stage meant the Vuelta had announced itself in a manner and style still emblematic of the Tour today.

The Early Vuelta Years

The Vuelta encountered plenty of turbulence in its younger years. 

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the Second World War (1939-45) naturally meant no events were held, although a couple of editions were staged during the latter.

Interestingly, one Spanish talent unearthed during the 1936 Vuelta, Julián Berrendero, was taken prisoner during the Civil War, spent time in several concentration camps, and then won the Vuelta in 1941 and 1942.

The postwar economic situation led to difficulties funding the Vuelta and an absence of global riders on the tour.

1955 was a very important year, as Basque newspaper El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco took over organisation. The Vuelta saw increased stability and it has been run annually – without interruption – ever since.

During the ’60s the Vuelta began to build in strength and status, attracting global recognition and attracting stars from the international cycling scene.

An iconic moment came in 1963 when Jacques Anquetil won the General Classification (GC) making him the first rider to win all three Grand Tours, sometimes known as a Grand Tour Career Triple Crown. 

This achievement has only been accomplished by six other men: Felice Gimondi (1968), Eddy Merckx (1973), Bernard Hinault (1978), Alberto Contador (2008), Vincenzo Nibali (2010), and Chris Froome (2018).

The Modern Vuelta

Remco Evenepoel celebrates becoming a Vuelta a España winner in 2022.
© Unipublic/Charly López

Up until the 1990s, the Vuelta had avoided being dominated by a single rider.

Huge names in the cycling world had claimed victories such as Luis Ocaña (1970), Eddy Merckx (1973), Freddy Maertens (1977), and Bernard Hinault (1978, 1983) but none had yet made it their own.

That was until Tony Rominger arrived.

The Swiss legend took three overall titles, consecutively between 1992-1994, also becoming the first rider to win the overall, points, and mountains classifications in the same year.

This astonishing achievement has only been matched once since, by Laurent Jalabert in 1995.

Since then periods of hegemony have been fairly regular, with the Spaniard Roberto Heras winning his fourth record-breaking title in 2005, and others such as Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, and Primož Roglič taking multiple titles.

The Vuelta a España red jersey

Remco Evenepoel celebrates winning the 2022 Vuelta a España.
© Unipublic/Charly López. Edited from the original.

Every Grand Tour needs its iconic jersey.

The Tour de France is iconic for its yellow jersey, worn by the race leader (cyclist with the lowest overall time). 

At first glance, the maillot rojo (“red jersey”) would appear to be Vuelta’s equivalent. But dig a little deeper, and there is a more interesting history.

During the Vuelta’s early years from 1955 onwards, various colors were donned by race leaders, including white and orange.

Eventually, race organizers decided on a yellow jersey, akin to that well-known from the Tour de France.

Seeking a more unique brand at the end of the 1990s and conscious of not simply being a copy of France’s maillot jaune, the Vuelta’s organizers opted for a gold jersey before finally settling on the now iconic red jersey.

Race director Javier Guillén stated that it was inspired by the tradition of Spanish sports teams who generally compete in red.

Mark Cavendish had the honor of being the first rider to win the maillot rojo after winning the initial sprint stage in Seville in 2010. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy won the overall classification.

The Tour’s Most Successful Riders

Roberto Heras: 4 Wins

Local legend Heras proudly flew the Spanish flag and still holds the record for most Tour wins almost 20 years after attaining it in 2005.

Between 1997 and 2005, he finished in the top 5 every year except 1998, when he finished 6th. He was a specialist on Spanish soil, not achieving similar success at the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.

Tony Rominger: 3 Wins

The first man to really dominate the Vuelta, Rominger made the early 1990s his own in Spain, while also winning the Giro d’Italia in 1995.

He retired in 1997 after badly breaking his collarbone. 

Alberto Contador: 3 Wins

One of the most successful riders of his era and another Spaniard, Contador is one of only seven riders to have won all three Grand Tours.

Despite being embroiled in doping scandals and being stripped of some career victories, he returned and won the Vuelta twice more and the Giro once again.

Primož Roglič: 3 Wins

Securing his third Velta in a row in 2021, the Slovenian will hope to become the second-ever rider to win the Vuelta four times in 2023.

What are your favorite memories in the history of the Vuelta a España? Let us know in the comments below!

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Dom's spent most of his cycling life cowering in the slipstream of his far more talented and able friends. Despite his distinct inability on a bike, he still ventures far and wide with his friends, enjoying the hidden gems and beautiful locations one can reach on two wheels. Recently Dom has found a passion for writing about sport and does so from Italy, where he currently resides.

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