A man walks into a bar in Spain.

Before you go any further, don’t worry, this isn’t a very bad joke.

“Excuse me,” the man asks, “is the Vuelta a España coming past here?”

“I don’t know,” replies a member of the bar staff. Half an hour later, the peloton speeds past the bar on stage five of the 2017 race.

And herein lies one of the big challenges facing the third of cycling’s ‘Grand Tours’ – how to promote itself and improve public awareness, particularly among casual fans and the non-cycling public. 

On a recent trip to Spain to attend a couple of stages of the 2017 Vuelta, this felt like the missing ingredient in what was otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable race which has a lot of potential for further growth. It doesn’t have the prestige of the Tour de France, the most famous cycling race in the world, or the history of the Giro d’Italia, which completed its centenary edition in 2017, but, as the youngest of the three by some way (2017 was the Vuelta’s 72nd edition), it arguably is the most fun, with the most relaxed atmosphere.

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The need to evolve the race has been recognised for some
time. Back in 1995 it underwent a significant calendar change, moving from late
April to August-September to extend the cycling season and increase the number
of top riders taking part in the race.

Then, in March 2014, ASO, the organiser of the Tour, completed its takeover of Unipublic, the Vuelta organiser. Its number one priority was to revitalise the race, something it has had some success with, as Laurent Lachaux, ASO’s head of marketing, told Sportcal Insight in July: “For the Vuelta there was a kind of disinterest but we saw that, by adapting to the Spanish market, we could get people to enjoy the advantage of the race back there.”

Though it will not reach the global popularity of its stablemate the Tour, steps are being taken to increase the promotion and reach of the race

Though it will not reach the global popularity of its
stablemate the Tour, steps are being taken to increase the promotion and reach
of the race. Live European coverage of the Vuelta by Eurosport has increased,
while the broadcaster has extended its deal in Asia-Pacific to 2021.

Sponsors such as Dimension Data and Skoda have deals in
place with ASO that cover both the Tour and Vuelta. The agreement with
Dimension Data as technology partner means that both races have a similar feel
when it comes to race information and real-time on-screen data for commentators
and viewers. This process has helped improve the look and gives the audience a
familiarity with the product through its association to the Tour.

This enhancement has already become an important part of the viewing experience, but with this comes the added pressure of managing expectations. During this year’s Vuelta, there were some instances where commentators for ITV4 in the UK were unable to definitively give time gaps for some of the leading riders. Dimension Data and TVE, the Spanish public-service broadcaster that handles production, will be keeping an eye on this for next year’s edition. Some live data was also absent from the Tour’s television coverage of the opening time trial, though it was present in later stages.

There is undoubtedly still work to be done. Walking around the stage five start town of Benicassim, there was little indication that a cycling race was taking place and what route it was taking. Even arriving in the town, our taxi driver didn’t realise the Vuelta was on until he found himself in the middle of a police road block. The enhanced police presence and road blocks were, of course, signs that something was happening, but there was nothing to explain what was causing the disruption to the daily routine. Following the crowds and amateur cyclists was the quickest way to the start.

As a spectator sport, one of the appeals of the Vuelta is
how much more relaxed it feels compared with other Grand Tours. The ease with
which you can move around the start village, watch the accredited media at work
and see the teams and riders warm up was refreshing. This is against the
backdrop of the Guardia Civil doing its important and, to its credit, largely
unseen job of controlling the crowds that line the streets and ensuring the
smooth passage of the race. The Tour does not give the same impression; it seems
to feel more pressured thanks in part to the stature of the event.

Another key factor for the Vuelta’s promotion is the competitors, some of cycling’s biggest stars who have the power to attract spectators

Another key factor for the Vuelta’s promotion is the competitors, some of cycling’s biggest stars who have the power to attract spectators. Here, the calendar change now seems to be reaping rewards for the race organisers as a mixture of riders come to the Vuelta for varying reasons and at varying levels of fitness, all with the aim of taking something from the race, which leads to exciting and unpredictable racing. In the 2017 season, there were eight first-time stage winners at the Vuelta, six at the Giro and three at the Tour.

Looking forwards, the Vuelta can promote itself in other ways, such as embracing new technologies that can capture public attention. Andy Miah, professor of science communication and future media at England’s Salford University near Manchester, has offered some interesting views on ways that technology can enhance the playing and viewing experience and interaction with sport, as he highlighted in an interview with Sportcal Insight.

Developing the third ‘Grand Tour’ will be no easy feat: there is a lot of potential for the future direction of the Vuelta, but with so much to offer it is vital not to lose sight of the key elements that make the race what it is – primarily its atmosphere and attitude. We are still relatively early into ASO’s full ownership of Unipublic and as it gets its feet further under the table there will likely be more changes.

Bringing certain aspects into line with the Tour for
familiarity is a good starting point, but the balancing act will be mixing that
with not losing the appeal and uniqueness of the Spanish race.