Beginner’s Guide to the Cycling Grand Tours: Le Tour, Il Giro, and La Vuelta Explained

The pinnacle of road cycling, the Grand Tours are three multi-stage races taking place every summer: the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España.

The most important events on the cycling calendar, racing at – and winning – a Grand Tour is the ultimate goal for every professional road cyclist. Characterized by brutal climbs, stunning breakaways, and deep histories, the Tour, Giro, and Vuelta consistently produce some of the most iconic moments in the sport.

But if you’re new to the world of cycling, you might be wondering: what separates these events from other cycling tours? And how do they differ from one another?

Don’t worry! This guide will answer all of your Grand Tour queries. To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:

  • What Defines A Cycling Grand Tour?
  • What Are The Cycling Grand Tours For Women?
  • The Tour De France
  • The Giro d’Italia
  • The Vuelta a España

Ready to learn all about the cycling Grand Tours?

Let’s get started!

Cycling Grand Tours: Title Image

What Defines A Cycling Grand Tour?

Only three races are considered cycling “Grand Tours”: the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España.

The term “Grand Tour” in cycling was actually coined as recently as the ’90s, used to specifically describe these three races, which were already considered the most prestigious.

Each of these races has a lot in common, particularly in the format of the events. However, they also differ greatly from one another, each having its own unique character. It’s arguably these differences that make each of the three Grand Tours so engaging for spectators.

But if each race is so different, then how come other races such as the Tour of Britain, or the Tour of Slovenia can’t be considered Grand Tours?

A cycling Grand Tour must be included within the UCI’s “2.UWT” category, which signifies that it’s a stage race included on the UCI World Tour. This is insufficient as a definition, however, since in addition to the trio of Grand Tours, the Tour de Suisse, and the UAE Tour, for example, are both 2.UWT ranked. For those new to cycling, it can be difficult to see why these races in particular aren’t included in the definition of Grand Tours.

Not for the UCI, though. They have a specific set of criteria that a race must fit to be considered a Grand Tour. According to the UCI, a Grand Tour is a 15-23 day stage race that can be up to 3,500km long and consists of teams of eight riders, as opposed to the seven-member teams that enter the other 2.UWT races.

Notice though, that there is no mention of history or founding date in the definition. This is because some stage races predate the Grand Tours; for example, the Volta a Portugal and the Tour de Suisse were both founded prior to the inaugural Vuelta a España in 1935.

Having said all this, it’s not just a set of rules set by the UCI that defines a cycling Grand Tour. In fact, this definition was likely introduced specifically to fit the three already-established Grand Tours exclusively.

We’re talking about races that are not only of a certain length, difficulty, or founding date, but are cultural institutions in their own right, events of high national importance in their own countries – something that isn’t necessarily true of other stage races.

For example, the Tour de Suisse, although older than the Vuelta a España (and already a 2.UWT race) doesn’t hold the same status within Switzerland as La Vuelta does in Spain. You could attribute these differences to the popularity of cycling within each country. In France, Italy, and Spain, cycling is among the top three most popular sports, something that can’t be said for the UK or Switzerland, for example.

This is why any claim of a “Fourth Grand Tour” is largely ignored by the cycling world. It’s not something you can establish overnight. Even if you design a race or alter an existing one to fit the UCI definition, those rules can be changed at the drop of a hat, but the idea of the cultural significance of a race cannot, and that’s not something you can earn simply by claiming you have already.

What Are The Cycling Grand Tours For Women?

A more open question, however, is which races can be considered Grand Tours in women’s cycling.

Over the last couple of decades, women’s cycling has steadily been developing the status and prestige it deserves. The old-fashioned, unfounded, and sexist rules asserting that the abilities of women are not suited to certain cycling races are thankfully beginning to be overwritten, with elite individuals like Annemiek van Vleuten establishing their legendary status within the cycling world already.

But the women’s cycling calendar will likely not follow the men’s. With the most prestigious race in men’s cycling only introducing an official Tour de France Femmes this year, the women’s Giro d’Italia Donne already significantly outranks its French cousin, with an extra 32 editions of history to fall back on.

Races such as the Tour of Britain, or the Tour of Norway (now expanded to the Tour of Scandanavia), which don’t command such esteem as the Grand Tours in the men’s editions, have already seemingly been attempting to establish themselves as primary events on the women’s cycling calendar.

So, it remains to be seen which races will gain the cultural significance needed to define themselves as Grand Tours in women’s cycling.

The peloton climb a mountain at the Tour de France.

The Tour De France

  • Founded: 1903
  • Number of Stages: 21, plus two rest days
  • Most Overall GC Victories: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain each with 5
  • Most Individual Stage Wins: Eddy Merckx and Mark Cavendish, 34 each

The Tour de France, or Le Tour, is hands down the most prestigious race in men’s cycling.

Dating back to 1903, it is the oldest of the three Grand Tours. It was originally conceived in order to boost the sales of a French sporting magazine, L’Auto, by Henri Desgrange. To this day, the race attracts large crowds to the roadside, as well as countless spectating from home.

The Tour de France usually begins in a nearby country for the Grand Départ and the first few stages. The bulk of the route, however, is through France, which generally includes a number of flat stages in the plains and along the Western coast, as well as mountain stages in the French Alps and the French Pyrenees. The race always (since 1975) ends with a ceremonial ride into the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The undisputed most successful rider in Le Tour is Eddy Merckx, not only sharing the record for both the most overall and stage victories, but he is the only rider to have ever won all three jerseys in a single Tour de France, which he did during his first Tour victory in 1969.

A cyclist in the maglia rosa at the Giro d'Italia - one of the cycling Grand Tours - starts a time trial in a stadium.

The Giro d’Italia

  • Founded: 1909
  • Number of Stages: 21, plus two rest days
  • Most Overall GC Victories: Alfredo Binda, Fausto Coppi, and Eddy Merckx, each with 5
  • Most Individual Stage Wins: Mario Cipollini, 42
  • Most Recent Winner: Jai Hindley

The Giro d’Italia, or Il Giro, has a reputation for being the most scenic, but also chaotic of the Grand Tours. Again, the Giro was originally founded with the intention of boosting the sales of another sports newspaper – La Gazzetta Dello Sport – in 1909.

Like the Tour de France, the Giro often begins in a nearby country for the first few stages. Unlike the Tour, however, the Giro doesn’t have a set location in which it finishes. The ceremonial final stage often takes place in Milan, but also sometimes occurs in other major cities, like Rome or Verona.

The Giro boasts some of the most legendary (and difficult) mountain stages, which are often the deciding factor of the race.

The most successful rider in the Giro is more disputed than in the Tour de France. Eddy Merckx has worn La Maglia Rosa the most, but Alfredo Binda has more individual stage wins. Fausto Coppi is also immortalized, having the award for the first rider to reach the highest point in the Giro each year named after him, the Cima Coppi.

Each having won the competition five times, it’s hard to separate these three riders.

The Vuelta a España

  • Founded: 1935
  • Number of Stages: 21, plus two rest days
  • General Classification Jersey: Red (El Maillot Rojo)
  • Most Overall GC Victories: Roberto Heras, 4
  • Most Individual Stage Wins: Delio Rodríguez, 39
  • Most Recent Winner: Remco Evenepoel

The newest of the Grand Tours, the Vuelta a España (or La Vuelta) is often considered to be the least prestigious.

Despite this, many argue that it is the most challenging of the three, with many consecutive brutal mountain stages ridden in the sweltering Spanish heat. The Vuelta doesn’t always attract those riding the Giro and the Tour, since riding all three in the same summer would be incredibly difficult.

Beginning in another European country, La Vuelta later makes its way around Spain, hitting some of the most challenging mountain regions in the process, such as the Pyrenees, the Sierra Nevada, and Asturias. Like the Tour de France, the Vuelta generally finishes with a ceremonial ride into the capital, Madrid.

The most successful rider in the Vuelta is Roberto Heras, with four overall victories. Many riders have reached three wins in the competition, Primož Roglič being the most recent with his three consecutive victories from 2019 to 2021.

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Jack has been a two-wheel fanatic since a very young age. He loves zooming around the local country roads in Sussex on his road bike, and more recently enjoys flying down MTB trails on his gravel bike. A supreme lover of bikepacking, Jack has ridden many long-distance cycle tours in the UK.

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