Barcelona receives first Vuelta a España visit for 13 years

Barcelona is one of Spain’s most important cities, but for 13 years the Vuelta a España has failed to visit it. Why? A riders’ strike back in 1999, protesting over dangerous race conditions, caused what had been a good relationship to cool enormously – and for over a decade Barcelona has not received the race.

Back on stage 14 of the 1999 Vuetla, there was a start and finish in the city, with the riders due to race several laps of the Montjuic Park circuit in Barcelona. But as the heavy showers continued, making the roads a skating rink, a strike led by Manolo Saiz’s ONCE team, combined with another now-defunct team, Vitalicio Seguros, led to a mass go-slow.

“Heavy rain overnight led the organisers to shorten the stage from 135 km to just 94 km, taking out the famed Montjuic hill, because of fears about the dangerous conditions,” says the Cyclingnews report from the 1999 race.

“A riders’ protest, instigated by Banesto rider Leonardo Piepoli, had attempted to get the stage cancelled or not counted in the overall standings, failed in these aims but did persuade race officials to reduce the distance, and delayed the start by 36 mins.” The race leader, one Jan Ullrich, limited himself to stating the blindingly obvious - not for the first time in his career - saying that the conditions “had been the same for everybody.”

Fabio Roscioli, famous for being one of the few riders who wore glasses rather than contact lenses, finally broke away to claim the stage. But the lack of racing during the stage meant the Vuelta’s relationship with the capital of Catalunya was seriously damaged.

Although the Volta a Catalunya’s last stage regularly finishes in Barcelona, the last Grand Tour to visit the city was the Tour de France in 2009 (also in heavy rain, as it happens) with the win going to Thor Hushovd after a memorable break by David Millar was reeled in at the foot of a short, winding, ascent through the Montjuic park.

Today concludes with a third category ascent of Montjuic, short but not excessively steep (1.1 km at 8 percent) with a very fast sweeping descent to the finish. The Spanish sports daily MARCA names yesterday’s stage winner Valverde as one favourite, but other top Classics specialists should be up there as well, along with the overall contenders. Perhaps fortunately, no rain is expected and conditions at the finish are currently warm and dry.

Just 90 minutes after the race has finished, the first of two planes carrying riders and back-up staff takes off from Barcelona El Prat airport to Vigo in Galicia – a 1,200 kilometre transfer, the third longest in the race’s history after a start in the Canary Islands in 1988 and in the Netherlands in 2009.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.