La Vuelta a España: ten years after a British triumph

History.  Handing out bicycles in the 1963 Vuelta.
History. Handing out bicycles in the 1963 Vuelta. / SUR
  • In 2011 Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins made history by being the first Brits on the podium in the Spanish tour

Spain's cycling tour, the Vuelta a España, was held for the first time in 1935. Now 86 years have passed, accumulating numerous anecdotes and curious facts. Here are a few.

The role of newspapers

The media has played a significant role in the development of the three major cycling events in the world - Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, and La Vuelta a España. The newspapers, L'Auto and La Gazzetta dello Sport, established the tours in France and Italy, in 1903 and 1909, respectively.

The promotional races were aimed at increasing sales for the newspapers. In this period there were already two races in Catalonia - the Volta a Tarragona and Volta a Catalunya. However, Spain wanted to host its own international version. It appears that the idea for the Vuelta was first proposed in 1913, but only in 1935 did it become reality thanks to the conservative Spanish newspaper, Diario Informaciones, and its owner, Juan Pujol.

The Spanish race, however, needed to gain the stature of the renowned Grand Tours in France and Italy and the organisers of the Vuelta apparently lured foreign superstars with generous participation fees.

Foreign participation

The celebrity cyclists often used the Vuelta as little more than a training exercise for the Giro or Tour de France. The organisers were aware of this, and therefore flexible with dates; the event was finally moved to the end of August.

The first Vuelta in 1935 gathered together 18 foreign cyclists from France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, who successfully competed alongside 32 Spanish riders. The Belgian Gustaaf Deloor was the best in the Andalusian stage - from Granada to Seville, and later won the entire race. Incidentally, Gustaaf Deloor made history because he came first for two consecutive years.

An unstable period

The birth of the Vuelta coincided with the first years of Spain as a republic. That political regime resulted in the Civil War, and the Vuelta was suspended for four years, from 1937 to 1940. Eighty years ago the Vuelta was reborn in a 'new' Spain led by Franco. The races of 1941 and 1942 had no foreign cyclists. In 1943 the Vuelta was suspended again due to World War II, and was later continued but with very few international cyclists until 1955.

That year was marked not only by the exclusion of Andalucía from the route, but also by the inclusion of representatives of new countries. Five cyclists came from West Germany and the "brave six" presented Great Britain - Ian Brown, Joe Christison, Ken Mitchell, John Pottier, Leslie Scales and Ian Steel. All of them were apparently following the Olympic principle 'not to win but to take part', and none of the British cyclists actually finished. The following year Britain sent half as many cyclists as a part of the mixed Swiss-British team. Only Brian Robinson was able to finish and came in eighth. Incidentally, Brian was also the first Briton to finish the Tour de France.

British success

After 1956, British cyclists stopped participating in the Vuelta for some years. Meanwhile, competing Irish cyclists gave noteworthy performances in the race.

It took more than 50 years for a UK cyclist to achieve success; in 2011 two Brits stood proudly on the podium in Madrid. Chris Froome was second and Bradley Wiggins third. However, the 'winner', Juan Cobo of Spain, was later disqualified due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the period between 2009 and 2011.

He was therefore considered ineligible, and on 17 July 2019, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) announced that it recognised Chris Froome as the 2011 champion.

Bradley Wiggins was elevated to second place, and Bauke Mollema from Holland promoted to third.

Nevertheless, by that time the UK had already completed its mission to gain victory in Spain. In 2017 Chris Froome was honoured as the first British winner of the Vuelta a España. Now he (with his two victories) is listed in the Top 10 great cyclists of the Vuelta.

Highlights of the 2018 race were its start in Malaga (for the first time), and a British win (for the second time in a row). This time it was Simon Yates from the team Mitchelton-Scott who was the fastest and strongest.

The representatives of Ireland and the USA also became winners of the Spanish race. Sean Kelly won in 1988 and Chris Horner in 2013.