Journalist, producer and media consultant based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and the tourism industry. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
The Vuelta Ciclista a España aka The Tour of Spain takes place for a 70th time at the end of August. The event starts on August 22 in Puerto Banús and – after some brand new challenging climbs and hot flat runs – ends in Madrid on September 13. Spanish riders are particularly strong this year – think Valverde, Contador, Mikel Landa – as are Spanish teams (for example, Movistar with Nairo Quintana . . . and Valverde), and it’s about time that everyone got out and lined the roads to cheer them on.
Major towns and cities get into the swing of it whipping up a party atmosphere, but perhaps if the race sponsors put more effort into stocking up the publicity caravan, there would be an even better turnout and feel good spirit along the hundreds of kilometres of twists and climbs in between, as in France. The prospect of collecting the bounty – key rings and packets of Haribo bears, hats, beanies, t-shirts, pens, inflatable pillows, sausages, breadsticks – definitely puts a spring in the step of Tour de France fans young and old, without taking away from the serious business of riding a bicycle.
Here’s how a race day goes for fans: You stand on the outskirts of a ville, you wait all day, you share a bier with a Dutchman dressed as Santa Claus, carnival floats appear, you get stuff, the cyclists go past. Bon temps. In Spain, it is more likely you will be sat on a rock on a bank in a pine forest above a lonely road, anxious as to whether you have the day right.
Sometimes the big day can feel a bit ho-hum. Last year I found a venta with a TV tuned to the right channel and good access to a long, flat stretch of the route. Eventually there were around twenty of us, half aged under 10 but enthusiastic, the cyclists of the future maybe. To be sure not to miss any of the action, everyone moved out to the shadeless road the moment the Guardia Civil showed up on motorbikes which as it turned out was an hour or so early. Temperatures and excitement built under the pulsing sun. The helicopter (which set off a cattle stampede in the neighbouring field) was promising, then there was a longueur. After half an hour or so, a two van caravan appeared like an exotic mirage and children hugged each other with joy, but it swept on past the small throng, a handful of biros shoved through a half-opened window bouncing on the tarmac in its wake. That was sad. Actually, compared to the giant ducks, giant hotdogs, dancing girls, wobbling cockerels, the monumental cyclist in his yellow jersey, Mickey Mouse, the speeding bread basket, jockeys and riders and dragons that are now synonymous with the Tour de France and all the attendant spoils, that was deeply depressing. Children were still scrabbling in the dust as the riders shot past in a soft whirr of spokes.
The Vuelta is worth making more of a song and dance about. It is event, one of Europe’s three Grand Tours, a challenging challenge attracting the best cyclists in the world, and we should be out there cheering and supporting them. Obviously there are sport enthusiasts who will argue that they get a better view of the race on their television at home, and their non-enthusiast partners who are dubious about travelling a long way just to see some bikes go by, and children who always have better things to do than stand and wait for a pen – so lay on a caravan, make it tackily magical, lure us in and make it fun. Investing in some bobbing ducks and branded giveaways may seem an odd way to get people interested in a sport, but ultimately it works. As any mother knows.
It shouldn’t be that hard to turn the Vuelta into a nationwide major family – and tourist – attraction. This year’s 3374km route takes in some of Spain’s most spectacular countryside, some of the most beautiful in europe, and if there is anywhere in the world where people are naturally inclined anyway to set up camp in the middle of nowhere, eat good food, and watch crazy things go past on floats, it’s here.