It is still too early for Vuelta a España boss Javier Guillén to assess how much his ongoing revamp of Spain’s national tour has impacted on the race, but at its halfway stage there are optimistic signs that the this 75th anniversary could turn out to be one of the best. The first 11 stages have brought 10 different winners, four changes of leadership and plenty for bike fans to feast on.
For Guillén, they have brought much more too. One of the most notable aspects has been the large numbers of spectators at the roadside. Although analysis of numbers via TV is hardly scientific, the crowds drawn out to watch the Vuelta do seem to be considerably bigger than for some years. Starting with the successful night-time team time trial in Sevilla, where fans were several deep at many points on the course, the stage finishes and key climbs have been busy, suggesting that interest in the race is on the up.
Sure, there are many sections where the race passes through empty and barren terrain where there’s not a soul to be seen, but that will always be the case given Spain’s geography. For Guillén, the decision to feature finishes in smaller towns such as Valdepeñas de Jaén, Lorca and Orihuela does seem to have paid off.
Guillén will be aware of other good omens too. The declaration of ceasefire by Basque terrorist group ETA can only boost plans to take the Vuelta back into the Basque Country next season. The region is one of cycling’s heartlands and still produces a huge amount of talent, including current Vuelta leader Igor Antón. With talk growing about the 2011 Vuelta featuring famous Basque climbs such as the Arrate and Urkiola, Guillén and his organising team will be relishing even bigger crowds turning out for next year’s race.
That prospect should be guaranteed if Alberto Contador follows through on his announcement earlier this week that he will ride both the Tour de France and Vuelta next season. Winner of his national tour in 2008 on his only previous appearance, Contador is sure to be riding to win, which will make for an intriguing battle against climbers of a similar mould such as Antón, Joaquim Rodríguez and Ezequiel Mosquera.
Of course, there is still a lot of racing to be done in this year’s Vuelta. Guillén has regularly underlined how impressive the second half of the 2010 race is, with summit finishes still to come at the Peña Cabarga, Lagos de Covadonga and Cotobello. Then, a day before the race finishes in Madrid, the riders will tackle the Bola del Mundo, a climb that Guillén believes could develop the mythical status of the Ventoux or Zoncolan. He may be exaggerating, but even if he’s just half right, the Bola del Mundo should become something special and leave everyone with the impression that after so many years of crisis the Vuelta is set for better days.