Europe is home to Grand Tour cycling! Yes, those crazy 3 week long races where riders brave the high mountains, ferocious sprints, at times dangerous descents, high speed crashes and often extreme weather conditions. There are also all those magical moments of live television coverage as the peloton passes chateaus, fields of sunflowers, flowing mountain rivers, sites of geographical wonder plus crazed cycling fans screaming roadside for their favourite riders. Races such as the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and La Vuelta a España are all household names for those who follow professional cycling. This level of interest grows for those who then participate in recreational cycling to the point where one also wishes to experience the thrill of it all!
When it comes to contemplating which race is best for you one should first know that the Giro spans the month of May, the Tour pedals its way through July and La Vuelta spans August and September.
The Giro d’Italia is considered by many as the most beautiful of the 3 races. Why? The small towns embrace the race and the cyclists (both elite and recreational) are loved. Pink balloons and streamers line the streets adding to the atmosphere. It is the only grand cycling tour (up until now) where the locals have stopped me mid-ride offering cups of red wine and even grappa on a cold climb in the Dolomites. Bars and restaurants are also extremely welcoming to foreigners on a bike! For the most part the weather is comfortable but it is still spring in Europe so expect the unexpected. Begin with cycling layers in the morning which usually get stripped back as the day unfolds. The high mountain passes in the Dolomites (2000m + altitude) and the Stelvio/Gavia Passes at 2500m + mean freezing conditions are also possible. Just a few years back we had the Stelvio Pass closed half way up and the entire Giro cycling stage was changed to accommodate the low snow line. I wouldn’t let this put you off though if the Giro d’Italia is at the top of your bucket-list but potential changes to race and tour itineraries can and do happen.
Tour de France
Le Tour is ‘numero uno’ thanks to the publicity and media frenzy which is generated around arguably the world’s biggest annual sporting event. Access to the pro riders though is more difficult as chaperones guard them from team buses to start lines, team hotels and media arrangements. It is definitely the pinnacle for a cyclist though so the biggest names front up for the chance to wear the Maillot Jaune (yellow jersey). The thousands of dramatic sporting images help to promote this mythical event year on year on year. Most Sierra clients joining us for a pro-race cycling tour experience will first choose the Tour de France. Le Tour has a huge appeal and international spectators typically outnumber the locals as Belgians, Dutch, Norwegians, Australians, British and New Zealanders line up their camper vans in the best vantage points often days in advance!
La Vuelta a España
For those of you looking for contact with the locals then the Spanish ‘La Vuelta’ race provides this in droves. English speaking can be limited but the surprise on their faces as they find out how far our guests have travelled never gets tiring! Gestures and body language will get you a long way unless you would like some translation from one of our guides. La Vuelta a España race is also now run by Amaury Sports Organisation (A.S.O.) who also roll-out the Tour de France which means the image and organisation is first class. Over the last few years many big name cyclists also find their way to La Vuelta for a final chance to hunt a late season win while others get in some important training kilometres before the world championships. When it comes to following the Vuelta race stages there is definitely a more relaxed atmosphere. The police keep the roads open longer which allows us to design excellent cycling routes with more time on the bike rather than waiting roadside during a TDF road closure. The warm weather is another major advantage for many of our southern hemisphere guests who are looking to escape the winter and get a headstart on their cycling friends back home. Secret training!
Whatever you decide though and all three of the grand tour cycling races will provide a cycling travel experience full of memories that will last a lifetime. Meeting the riders, being treated yourself like a pro for a week, riding critical kilometres from key race stages, making new friends, epic mountain climbs, overnight stays in old convents, castles, agriturismo and casa rural establishments, dining on local cuisine and sipping delightful wines! What more do you want?
The Final Word – Which Cycling Grand Tour Should You Select?
So what is my favourite cycling grand tour? In my humble opinion La Vuelta is my favourite because it is more exciting. Most of the stages are attacking and riders are more aggressive because it is the final grand tour of the year. At the time of La Vuelta most of the riders have ridden a similar number of competition days so form is good and they have nothing to lose.
The Giro d’Italia is a close second for me as the big mountains in the north always provide a dramatic backdrop. Scraggy limestone peaks above green meadows just never gets boring! Furthermore, at the Tour de France one is applauded for finishing in the top 15. No one rides for the top 15 in the Giro so expect surprises all the way to the finish line.
The Tour de France comes in at third place but only based on a pure cycling tour experience. It is still a simply awesome event but more patience is required as external factors like the Gendarmeria (French police) and their at times unpredictable road closures come into play. It was fifteen years ago though that I first packed my bike and headed to Europe from Australia. The Tour de France was my first stop and the allure of Le Tour still continues to attract first time cycling tour adventurers. Late nights watching the peloton wizz through gorges, around switchbacks and sprint with the Arc de Triomphe in the background will do that to you I suppose!
Author: Paul D’Andrea (Owner of Sierra Sports & Tours)