Riding every kilometre of La Vuelta

Sylvain Lapierre

Dec / 21 / 2018

In 2018 I decided I wanted to ride every kilometre of La Vuelta. This was to be my 6th Grand Tour ride - I had already cycled every km and every stage of the Tour de France (4 times!) and the Giro d'Italia. So I thought knew what to expect. But there was one big difference - for La Vuelta, I was going to ride on the SAME DAY as the race itself. What a magic opportunity! As it turned out, it was also the most challenging and the most thrilling Grand Tour experience for me.

The "same day" experience was extraordinary in so many respects. Cycling on the same day as the pros - Yates, Mas, Sanchez, Quintana - gave our riding group a push to not get caught by the peloton each and every day. Chatting with Sir David Brailsford from Team Sky after dinner on one of the stages gave me a great insight into the life of pro-racing. Staying at the same hotel as La Vuelta organisation during our rest day allowed us to get inside the inner workings of the race. And best of all ... completing each stage with fans cheering us as we approached the finish line made me feel proud of our achievements each day. You really feel like you are riding for a pro team -:)

In my opinion there is only one way to ride a Grand Tour ... and it’s to ride every kilometre! And even better if you can ride on the same day as the race, as it makes the experience more exciting and interesting. To achieve this, the organisation supporting you must be solid, efficient and experienced to make it happen, as it can be a complicated and challenging exercise.

The team at Grand Tours Project were outstanding. Uri (our guide, and a recently retired pro cyclist) and Joe (our driver and mechanic) were totally devoted. They were always thinking about everything for us - all logistical and organisational aspects were there at the right place at the right time. This made things so much easier for the riders throughout a 3-week / 21-stage ride.

So what did we achieve over our 3-week ride? This may be best answered with the statistics: 124 hours on the bike, 3,214 kilometres of distance, 50,010 metres of climbing, 66,720 kcal of energy ... and countless espressos and back-pocket treats!

To maintain our momentum, we developed a good routine for each day ... wake-up at 5am, dress in our lycra, fill up our water bottles, prepare the day bag, bring our luggage and bikes to the lobby, eat breakfast, and start cycling at 6:30. It was typically dark when we started cycling, so we enjoyed the sunrise nearly every day. Ride and maintain the discipline of not stopping for a break until we passed the 100km mark - this was important both psychologically and physically. Once we finally crossed the finish line each day, typically around one hour before the pros, we enjoyed the satisfaction of the day's achievement, and then watched the race after our short rest. We then head off for the next hotel, have a shower, receive a briefing for the next stage, prepare a social media report, and finally bed at 11pm.

The first week was in the south and very hot, but also very scenic. After our first few stages, I was able to get into a good rhythm and routine, and was soon appreciating the spectacular views we had every morning. I also enjoyed getting to know my new cycling mates - Beardy, Christian, Keith, Uri, Joe and Keith - sharing great times during our coffee stops and over dinner. Riding with Beardy McBeard was a lot of fun ... as a professional photographer who was covering La Vuelta, he took some truly amazing photos. And every time he took his camera out for a pic, I did the same ... if Beardy was taking a photo it must be for something!!

For the final 3 stages of the first week, we were joined by Megan and her parents (Phil and Jenny). Impressively, Megan rode ever km of these three stages. The last stage before the first rest day was very hard, and the legs were starting to hurt. That morning Uri told us (because Uri has a sixth sense in cycling) that the pros would catch us around the 170km mark. And he was right! It was quite cool watching the peloton flying by, seeing the suffering faces of the pros under the hot sun. That stage finished with the very tough Col of La Covatilla. At dinner that evening, Christian’s wine glass was well deserved!

The second week was totally different. All our cycling buddies for the first week had to leave, so that left just me and Uri on thr road, riding every stage (with Joe driving). The next stages were mentally tough, and we had a hard time trying to analyze the profile of each day. Based on the profiles provided by the organisers, we were expecting 1,500-2,000 metres of climbing each day, but in fact it was always around 3,000 metres each stage! As there was only the two of us, we tried hard each day to maintain a good momentum - we started very early, and didn't stop for lunch until after 130km. And we had quick coffee stops. But it meant that each evening we could get the hotel early and we had more time to rest. Our toughest climb was the memorable La Camperona - 4km at 18%!

For the next stage 14 Beardy re-joined us ... he was missing us for sure! As he wrote in his blog ... " I was also keen to see how riding every km was for Uri and Sylvain. The fatigue was writ large across their faces as they pulled up out the front of my hotel at 6:30." I really noticed my fatigue that day, as I had difficulties sticking to the wheel of Beardy. The last climb of that day was Las Praeres, another steep col of 4km with a 20% gradient. Because of all the fans walking up the col to find a good spot to watch the pros, we had to zig-zag between the fans while climbing. It’s hard but very cool to be in that amazing atmosphere. Only one stage to the rest day, and the legs are still moving ... wow !

Starting the third week with a TT of 32km, we had the chance to gain access to VIP area. Franco, our friendly and very helpful contact at La Vuelta, hosted us to a drive in his official tour car and we drove behind one of the Team Sky rider. You can't be much closer to the action, it was a real buzz. For that last several stages to Madrid, David (who had already cycled a Grand Tour) joined us and he was a welcome addition to the team. I had many "coup de coeur" during the third week ... Col Balcon de Bizkaia was my favorite of the entire Vuelta, another ramp with some sections at 23%. The col was pure pleasure to climb and with all the wind turbines on top, it was spectacular. I discovered the town of Lleida with her beautiful castle on top, we had dinner at the restaurant next to the castle with the terrace overlooking the town. Stunning views! And with only one serious stage to go, we enjoyed a more relaxing evening.

We then headed up to Andorra for the 20th stage. This was the last mountain stage, and looking at the profile it was like a training intervals session, with 3,500m of climbing over a distance of 96km. While climbing la Gallina, we admired the valley of Andorra and suddenly we crossed the finish line with the feeling of "job done". The last serious stage and another Grand Tour in the back pocket. Proud!

The daily routes of La Vuelta are quite brutal for the legs, as there is virtually nothing flat! But that is the fun and challenge of this amazing race. And riding La Vuelta on the same day as the pros made me feel that I was really part of the peloton. It was an experience I will never forget.