Cycling Tour: Giro d’Italia , Tour de France or Vuelta?

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.

Not to be outdone the Gavia Pass is a tough ride

Sierra guests at the top of Gavia Pass after climbing from Bormio

Giro d’Italia

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!

Fun times on the oversize TDF bikes on the Aubisque

Always time to have some fun at Le Tour – this time at Col d’Aubisque!

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!

Chilling out at La Vuelta

La Vuelta allows outstanding behind the scenes access!

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)

Tour de France – Assessing the Race Rumours

The Tour de France is arguably, year after year, the world’s biggest sporting event! With that attention brings constant speculation as to where the following year’s route will travel, which climbs will be featured, any new climbs to be revealed, innovations to the race structure, any gravel road finishes like recent editions of the Giro d’Italia or any narrow ‘goat-like tracks’ to lofty summits as rolled out at La Vuelta a España??

Team Sky and Geraint Thomas arriving to Carcassone at the Tour de France

When it comes to waiting for the next edition of the Tour de France most cycling enthusiasts resort to keeping an eye on the A.S.O. website (Le Tour race organizers) for the date of the following race route presentation. The 2019 TDF race edition for example was presented just a couple of weeks ago on 25 October 2018 in Paris. This approach seems the most sensible as trying to hunt-down start and finish towns over 21 cycling race stages is a somewhat ‘Mission Impossible’ task.

But surprisingly enough there are cycling fans out there whose curiousity gets the better of them. As soon as the bikes zoom around the Champs d’Elysees for the final Stage 21 sprint finish their attention must quickly turn to the next Tour de France race edition! It was not until we begun our cycling tour business Sierra Sports & Tours that we uncovered an incredible website dedicated to TDF race route rumours which tracks down information piece by piece. The website in a way takes the small pieces of information it collects to try and create the full Tour de France jigsaw puzzle well before the official presentation in Paris. The website creator is not affiliated with the A.S.O. race organisation, is not a professional or ex professional cyclist nor works for any of the pro cycling teams but just another cycling fan like you or me.

So how does the website do it?

  1. When you look at the stage by stage TDF analysis you find that they have been scrolling the local French newspapers with a fine toothcomb looking for details. The Tour de France is a magnet for national and international tourism so the towns and cities are very proud when selected to host a stage start or finish. So broadcasts to the media (print or radio) are excellent ways of finding out TDF race route information.
  2. The Tour de France is also a moving road show with the professional teams, race organizers, media circus and sponsors all requiring huge amounts of accommodation along the race route. An in-depth analysis of hotel reservations over the ‘July TDF pilgrimage period’ is another way of either finding out or confirming possible stage start or finish towns!
  3. At times social media plays a part with the A.S.O. organizers uploading a photo or comment to their feeds. Such details are often ambiguous and require further examination and if you are lucky one might uncover some further race information following these avenues.

Alpe d'Huez, Bourg d'Oissans, French Alps, French Alpes, Tour de France, European Cycling Tours

So did hit the mark with the 2019 Tour de France race route?

It wasn’t until 24 September 2018 that began to publish its possible 2019 Tour de France race route which was still one month before the official race presentation. At this time A.S.O. had already released the first two stages in Belgium. During October 2018 made additional modifications as they uncovered more information. At the end of the process it is quite remarkable that 24 hours before the official release had 41 of the 42 start and finish locations correctly reported. Only the Stage 15 start in Limoux was erroneous (they reported nearby Foix) which I think we can forgive them for!

To take the analysis back to the first 2019 TDF rumour release on 24 September 2018 and they had 10 stage start and finishes correct out of 19 possible stages (2 stages were already confirmed for the Belgium start). Another 6 stages had either the start or finish town correct which again provides very useful information for a tour operator like Sierra Sports & Tours looking at planning Tour de France cycling tour itineraries!

We would love to know the number of hours spent by as they sit and research the highly anticipated Tour de France route every year. They take what seems to be an almost ‘forensic science’ approach to revealing the TDF route for everyone. To take things full circle and you can even watch a livestream of the official TDF presentation in Paris straight from their very own webpage. If only we could find a similar webpage dedicated to Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta a España rumours and race leaks. Chapeau!!

Cycling with TDF Royalty – Big Mig!

The Sierra peloton received a special treat cycling an organised 150km stage with Miguel Indurain from Urzainki to Formigal through the Spanish high country. The ride took us from the Irati Forest before finishing above Formigal, one of Spain’s most recognised ski stations in the Pyrenees, and only 5km from the Spanish/French border.

Big Mig’ stepped onto his first Tour de France podium in Paris on 28 July 1991. During the 1991 Tour de France, Miguel Indurain gained more than 7 minutes over Greg LeMond during the ‘Tourmalet’ stage to receive his first yellow jersey (Stage 12 from Jaca to Val Louron). The rest as it goes was history and he held it all the way to the Champs Elysees and started a 5 year Tour de France winning sequence through to 1995!

As our day surrounded by cycling royalty was heading to a close we arrived to the valley approaching Formigal. The final 16km climb at 4% average grade, while long, is not overly taxing unless of course you are riding with a past TDF champion! To add some interest we left the main road mid-climb to cycle the winding road which follows the reservoir through to Sallent del Gallego. Spectacular scenery with multiple 3000m+ peaks surrounding us! After leaving the town centre one is met with a sudden transition of 4 kilometres around 8%. The final ramp on the backroad to the Formigal ski resort was 25% and required one last effort.

On arrival Miguel Indurain spoke to the local newspaper that had gathered to ask him about his famous day on the Tourmalet in 1991:

“My idea was not to attack in the mountains.  When I launched my downhill attack on the Tourmalet I simply wanted to see what happened. At the outset I was not prepared. My intention had been to try and maintain my presence during the mountain stages and to arrive to the last time trial with an opportunity”. You already know the rest of this story.

The Sierra peloton continued to chatter away excitedly in the presence of an international sporting hero!