“It’s a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.” – cyclng legend Fausto Coppi
(Blog post by Tom Carter)
While professional cycling is a still niche sport in the United States, it is one of the most popular globally. Of the hundreds of yearly professional races sanctioned by the governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), roughly two dozen are in Spain, including at least one in each of Spain’s 17 Comunidads or regions. Our region, La Comunidad Valenciana, has its own pro race. And our Alicante province, one of Valencia’s three and Spain’s 50, is one of the country’s primary cycling centers.
The sport of cycling features a few dozen World Tour races that are each major events, including the spring classics, the annual world championships, and over a dozen multi-day races. But the crown jewels are the three grand tours: Le Tour de France, Il Giro d’Italia, and La Vuelta de España. Each covers 21 stages in 23 days, including a mix of time trials, relatively flat sprint finishes, and some of the most challenging climbs in Europe. The route of each race changes annually to maximize the challenge and to showcase the variety and beauty of its host country. While the Tour is the oldest and most famous, cyclists and fans see the grand tours as equally prestigious, and the Vuelta is regarded as the most grueling due to Spain’s steep climbs.
Cycling is a unique sport in a lot of ways. First of all, admission is free. All that spectators need to do is find a spot along the course and cheer on the riders, as professional cycling is contested in the real world rather than an arena or stadium. In fact, this means spectators are usually close enough to reach out and touch the competitors, although doing so is frowned upon and can be catastrophic for the riders. Many lucky Europeans can enjoy the sport by simply watching from their balcony or walking down the street in their city or village.
Cycling also tends to be a very civil sport: competitors respect each other—particularly the race leader—and are inclined not to take advantage of a flat tire or other stroke of bad luck. Except for the most intense moments of a climb or a sprint, riders will actually chat and joke with their competitors. Golf and baseball are the only other sports that come to mind in which this happens routinely. But those sports are rigorous only in short spurts, whereas cycling is arguably the most physically demanding due to its combination of intense effort over long periods for consecutive days.
If you don’t believe me, try to ride a bike 25 miles in an hour. Then do that for 6 straight hours over several steep mountains. Then do it again every day for the next three weeks. Just for fun, try hitting the pavement at high speed a time or two during those three weeks, shredding your skin and bruising your bones to an extent that would keep most of us on the couch for a week.
For the most part the fans are also civil, typically cheering for all riders who pass, from the top performers on a given day, to the stragglers suffering at the rear. Since teams are made up of riders from all around the world, someone from Spain, for example, might pull for the teams based in Spain but also the Spanish riders from other teams. Mostly, however, fans cheer for the cyclists who show the most courage, personality, and skill, regardless of their nationality. Peter Sagan, the most popular and talented rider in the world, is from Slovakia but has fans in every country. The sport’s star characters also tend to have the best nicknames: El Pistolero, The Cannibal, Superman, Panzerwagon, The Badger, Purito, The Shark, Captain America, Lulu, The Smiling Assassin, Vino, The God of Thunder, Tornado Tom, The Manx Missile, Spartacus, G, Dr. Teeth, Il Falco, The Terminator.
For all of these reasons, cycling is a wonderful sport to watch. During some stages of the Tour de France there are more than a million spectators on a single mountain and hundreds of thousands more at other points along the course, with the climbs and finishes being the prime spots. Cycling is as much about meeting other fans from all of the world and cheering for all the competitors than about rooting for one person or team and despising their rivals.
The 2019 edition of the Vuelta began with three stages in Alicante, and the next two were also in La Comunidad Valenciana. Several of my old Arlington bike group members came to visit during this period. Ever since moving here I’ve dreamt of showing them the beautiful roads and challenging climbs that I get to explore right outside our door on a daily basis. Combining that with watching the Vuelta live as well as riding parts of the course with my good friends checked off several of items on my wish list. Chris, George, Ed, and I got to explore much of the Jalon Valley, including a narrow street in the tiny village of Lliber where which each balcony was adorned with a bicycle. As we rode back into Javea we saw race favorite Miguel Ángel López and his Astana teammate Luis Leon Sanchez cruising along on a training ride. López got his nickname, Superman, not because of his considerable climbing prowess but because the 5’7” 130-pounder once fought off three thugs who tried to steal his bike.
We also climbed to the top of the exquisite, one-lane, freshly paved Camino de Vall d’Ebo. Ed, George, and I watched the opening team trial from the final turn before the finish, enjoying sangria and falafel at a Moorish café and standing every four minutes to see each team zoom by. As we walked back to the car, the pros, including Superman’s winning Astana team, weaved through the crowds on their way back to their team buses at the start.
Best of all, Pancho, George, Ed, and I covered most of the last 100 kilometers of the Stage Two ride, including the finishing stretch bombing down the intense 6K descent from Teulada to Calpe and through the barriers to the final meters. At the end of a long day in the saddle most of us took the less brutal—but still 8% grade—climb around Puig de Llorença. But our mountain goat Ed took on the challenge that shattered the professional peloton later in the day.
We finished early enough to ride home, shower, take a swim, and drive around the Puig, which we see from our house, to Benitachell, the town at the bottom of the descent. We enjoyed beer and bocadillos at a small café on the course and watched on TV as the riders sped towards us. Until they reached the steepest 15% grades of The Puig, when the world’s strongest riders slowed to a crawl. Only a few made it over the top together. As the leaders crested and bombed down to Benitachell, we stepped outside to watch them climb up the hill in front of our café. At this point there were only six leaders, including favorites Nairo Quintana, Primož Roglič, and the most excellently named Rigoberto Urán Urán. Most of the riders lost 10-30 minutes to the leaders on the 3K climb and technical descent. As the stragglers suffered up the hill we returned to the bar to watch the exciting finish, including the descent that we had experienced firsthand a few hours earlier.
Superman lost his leader’s jersey that day but has gotten it back twice in the first week of a thrilling race that is still unfolding as of this writing. If you ever have a chance to watch a professional bike race, particularly in Europe, you must do it. If you’re a cyclist, saddle up and experience the course. And if you’re riding with Ed, be prepared to watch him disappear into the distance on the steepest slopes.
This post is dedicated to Sal, Mark, Davable, D-Day, Claude, and Eben who we hope will join us next year.