Here we are at the start of this year’s Vuelta a España in the Galician Town of Vigo – if you don’t know where that is, its on the most westerly coast at the most northern bit, just above Portugal, in fact it’s only 30 kilometers from Portugal.

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Who said bagpipes were Scottish?!

The Night Before

The Start of La Vuelta… Galicia is very like Scotland, the hills are not so high, but they play bagpipes, and up the road in Asturias they also wear kilts!

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Vigo harbour.

Vigo is sat in a beautiful bay area with villages and houses dotted all around some very green scenery, so just like Scotland it rains here a lot, but not today: the sky is blue and clear.

I left home at 4am, the day before the temperature was 38ºC; Vigo is a much more comfortable 20ºC. Thanks to Iberia Airlines I missed out on a catamaran trip up the River of Vigo and a lunch at the Yacht Club, and I also enjoyed the broken air-conditioning unit on the plane from Madrid

The Team Presentation

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The presentation was well organised and pretty slick.

Thought I had better take walk down by the by the Royal Nautical Club to see what I had missed this afternoon… very high class area, so I was surprised to see Alan Buttler and Craig Geater, the two Discovery mechanics.

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Alan (l) and Craig enjoy some R&R before another 3 weeks of pressure.

They were on their second or third large Gin and Tonics, so I didn’t get much sense out of them, or a lift to the team presentation! But it was good to see them, and they both wanted to know how fellow VeloVeritas man, Ed Hood was getting on, and where is he?

So, it was on the bus for me and what a very nice journey it was through what is one of the most beautiful towns I’ve been to. Lots of trees and parks, rolling roads with glimpses of the sea to one side and the people were all talkative and helpful.

The most helpful would be the manageress of the Ancla Dorada Hostel where I am staying. Don’t be fooled by the word Hostel: its en-suite, TV, and even has Wi-Fi. Down at the docks there were lots of fishing boats – yes, the ones that go to Scotland and Canada!

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Paolo and the others sit patiently.

Team presentations look great on the television, but behind the scenes it’s completely different. Bored riders, tired Journo’s, uninterested team staff and stressed organization.

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I bumped into “Maggie” Backstead, looking fit, looking forward to the race, and looking forward to a change of team for next year (and also asking for Ed Hood!).

The teams trooped onto the stage as Pedro Delgado introduced them, the stages and this year’s Vuelta song, sung by a nice young lady whose name I can’t remember, but she was entertaining nonetheless.

Back to the Ancla Dorada to download my photos and write the article up. I’ve been on the go now for 20 hours, and tomorrow there is a race to watch and an night out in Vigo, I’ve been given the run down on the action from ex-Pro Fabian Jeker, he’s been here for a few days and knows where the action is. We’ll see!

Stage 1 – Vigo

After yesterday’s long, very long day I slept like a baby, a baby that lives next to a Night Club called Lolitas that is. I hadn’t seen it when I booked in to the Hostal Ancla Dorada; if I had I would have gone down to investigate, for journalistic reasons obviously! After I had closed the window there was no disturbance and it was back to sleep.

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Spanish coos.

Stage 1 started at the bottom of the street from the Hostal, so a bit of a lie in and then down for breakfast which consisted of café con leche, croissant and a tortilla with some nice fresh bread. At races it’s always better to eat a good meal early in the day because you never know what might happen later and there either isn’t the time for eating or there isn’t any free food at the finish village. Today there was more food and drink on offer than I could have dreamt of, but we will come to that later.

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Daniele Bennati (Italy & Lampre-Fondital) takes the first “chaqueta de oro”.

A short stroll down to the Royal Yacht Club and it was all happening, music, food, police everywhere, chaos (as all Spanish races are) and Podium Girls!

Nice surprise was to bump into Agata and Pierre of Pietro y Ducos; they are the suppliers of all the really cool casual clothing for La Vuelta staff and have posh clothes shops, this year they are also working in conjunction with Nono Villa clothing.

Three years ago they drove me round the prologue in Granada in their BMW; Pierre’s driving was very memorable. They couldn’t give me a lift this year, but they did give me a nice Polo Shirt, thanks.

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Scott Davis (T-Mobile) and Allan Davis (Discovery Channel).

Food was eaten, women were photographed, and drink was drunk, so I thought I had better take a look at this bike race thing. I spotted an Australian/Davis convention as Scott Davis (T-Mobile) and Allan Davis (Discovery Channel) were chewing the fat before the start.

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Spaniard Serafi­n Marti­nez Acevedo (Karpin Galicia) in the early break.

My big job of the day was to try to get in a car for some of the race, Fabian Jeker had no room, he said I could get a lift to the finish in another car, which was only about 5 kilometers away, but it would save me getting the bus or walking. In I jumped with Mauricio (Mauri) Rodriguez Quiroga, that’s when things took a turn for the better, he had to give two VIP’s a run round the first big lap and then to the finish and I had the front seat.

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Bettini, here to sharpen his form for the Worlds.

Mauri works for Vuelta organizers, Unipublic, full time and lives in Madrid, unlike most of the people who work on the race he was never a bike rider, but always a fan, a man after my own heart.

He remarked on how many good looking women their are in Vigo, driving back to the finish on the motorway he was driving at well over the speed limit on open roads, well, he had been doing this all day on closed race roads – his comment made sense; “all the police are at the race so…”. Fair enough!

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Bennati takes the sprint from Oscar Freire Gomez and Alessandro Petacchi.

So it was back to the finish to see the race and sample some more food, this time I accompanied the VIP’s into the enclosed area to see how the others live and yes they live very well. The usual scrum at the finish for the photographers and that was the first day over, the race part anyway.

Daniele Bennati (Italy & Lampre-Fondital) takes the first “chaqueta de oro”.

It’s now 10pm and time to go into town to see what’s happening in Vigo on a Saturday night and sample the local delicacies of any kind!

A Night Out In Vigo

By the time I had written about my day and sent the photos, it was 11 pm and hunger was kicking in big time, I manfully fought against the tiredness and with the help of Mila from the Hostel I headed towards; A) food and B) action. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it!

Vigo is built round a natural harbour area and climbs away from the sea offering great views. There is an island at the mouth of the bay and after that if you carry on the west the next bit of land would be around Boston somewhere, so it must get pretty windy here in the winter, but today was warm and sunny, “Specially for La Vuelta” more than one local told me!

The area I was staying in was a quite “Bohemian” lots of wall art, gay and lesbian bars and a few drunks in the street: this is not normal in Spain, usually the only drunk people you see are tourists who have been sunbathing all day and then had a bit too much with their dinner and the spirit measures here are always BIG, you need to be careful. So out the door and see what was going on? My first port of call was a place called Bardo, I was drawn in by the front, very nice art deco design, but I was drawn out again by the lack of clients, and well, it was nearly midnight, early yet for a Saturday.

One of the new sponsors for La Vuelta is Cantina Mariachi, a chain of Mexican Restaurants, this had put Mexican food in my mind, didn’t know if there was a Cantina Mariachi in town, but did find Viva Zapata, which said it was a Cantina, one problem it didn’t sell food, but the music was good.

Hunger forced me on until I found a cheap restaurant that did boccadillo with meat (I think beef), lettuce, tomato, cheese with a mayo topping for 3 euros, add to that a side order of Sepia (squid) and Patatas Brava that were so Brava I needed two Mahou (beer) to take the burn away. So fully stocked up with cholesterol I was ready for the fray.

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A pub singer, but not as we know it!

At this point the night got stranger. I found a bar called Bizarre, very lively, lots of people, in fact too many to drink inside, what I couldn’t understand was that it wasn’t bizarre inside, actually quite plain. But I did find the most bizarrely decorated bar ever. Plastic tables and chairs from the 60’s, lights under the floor, giant full wall mirrors and what looked like pointy bits of foam sprayed gold and silver on the ceiling. No customers, but the owner assured me it gets busy around 2.30 am! Well I wasn’t going to wait to find out; it was well past my bedtime.

I must tell you that there is a very good feeling at La Vuelta this year, new sponsors, new younger staff, more City center circuit finishes and a certain slickness that wasn’t there before, this will be the best Vuelta for a few years for everyone. I also think they now have a Vuelta Priest, he flew in on the same aero plane as me and I’ve spotted him quite a few times now at the stages. Maybe God is on La Vuelta’s side?

Well, that’s the Vuelta leaving Galicia after a very successful time here, lots of crowds and a home boy done good, smiles all round. If you are ever thinking of a touring holiday with your bike in a quiet area of Europe the have a serious look at Galicia, rolling hills, sea views, not much traffic, cheap accommodation, great food and the people are so friendly. I know I want to come back for a more relaxed visit.

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Tortilla for breakfast. Lovely.

Now its home again on Sunday and then back to the race when it comes more to the east of Spain, but that’s all for now. Hasta la proxima!

Stage 11 – Algemesi

In Vigo for the start of La Vuelta there was a great relaxed feeling at the race and lots of food, but today in Algemesi things were back to normal: stress, traffic jams, and photographers fighting for the best shots, and worse still – no food. But I did get my ugly mush on the TV!

Here I am in Algemesi, not far from the City of Valencia, and again I have missed lunch. This time it was a Paella for the press and race staff, they were eating it while I was sat in a traffic jam, all because I wanted to see what the last kilometer looked like. Today is going to be a sprinters day, for sure.

The last five kilometers are so flat, but with quite a few roundabouts, the most worrying aspect of the run-in is the street furniture and the speed ramps.

The Press Room

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It’s not all grumpy old hacks in the Press Rooms.

The Press room today is the local sports centre, a big basket ball hall, with as much atmosphere as a morgue! I am accosted by a TV crew who want to interview a member of the International Press, there was no escape, and I was the only one there, so that was it, the longest 5 minutes of my life.

At least when I was married in Spanish I had a rough idea what was going to happen, but a TV interview in Spanish was a little more nerve racking! I wish they had given me a clue to what they were going to ask me.

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What’s it called?

Algemesi is set on flat land with mountain behind and the sea in the distance, to get there you pass the town of Cullera, it likes to be seen, so they have the town name in enormous letters on the hillside above the town and of course they have had it repainted for today.

This is rice growing country, wet lands all around and this is where Paella was invented, but none for me today. I’m hungry so I need to go to the finish area to see what the VIP area has to offer.

The Finish

Well, nothing on offer, not for me anyway! Very poor, nothing worse than a hungry Journo/photographer. Not to worry though, there’s lots to look at. I bumped into one of the Saunier Duval girls, cleaning the van!

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Saunier make sure their PR girls have plenty of chores.

So it’s not all handing out T shirts and looking pretty. She cheered up a bit when the TV crew that interviewed me earlier asked her some inane questions.

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That’s a pair of legs.

Alessandro Tegner, the PR man for the Quick-Step team was there at the finish, I thanked him for the photo of Peter Van Petegem drinking a Leffe at his last race. Alessandro pointed out “Peter will be able to drink more now he has retired”. I suggested he been having a few all his career.

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Petta and Zabel show the others how it’s done.

The race was unfolding in it’s own time, as two hopefuls were being pulled back very slowly. You could see Milram wanted the win today by the amount of work they were doing, so it was no surprise when Petacchi and Zabel hove into view with Bettini close by. Nice win for the big guy, who had a smile on his face for a change.

Talking of big guys, Magnus Backstedt was asking for Ed Hood again, and Eros Polli, who now works for Polar, still looks fit as I saw him later giving someone a hard time on the bike.

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The Fab!

Mauri, my chauffeur in Vigo was with my near neighbor, Fabian Jeker. There was time to see the podium presentation, and then it was back to the traffic jams, until I got “on the wheel” of Fabian who was driving one of the VIP cars. Best not say how fast we got home, but a word of advice: never try a car race against an ex-Pro! We flew down that autopista, doing turns on the front… I’m just waiting for the speeding fine to come through the post. It’s all fun, and there’s more tomorrow.

Stage 12 – Hellin

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Pettachi again.

What a day! Mr. Petacchi took another great stage win with a big sprint – a happy man again. The most surprising thing was that I was surprised about being surprised. You’re confused. Well, let me explain….

Today I drove to about the middle of the stage and then onto the course from Ontinyent, to the finish in Hellin. Lots of mountains and valley roads with flat views across plains of vines and olive trees, and all very pleasant. Then I saw what looked like a western cowboy scene, very odd. Mind you, they did film some of the spaghetti westerns near here.

Surprise!

Your wondering when I am going to explain my surprises? These are all personal, remember.

The first surprise was in the traffic jam in Ontinyent. I managed to get lost, and so I had to ask a policeman. I have lived here quite a while now, and I am still surprised when a policeman or Guardia Civil salutes you when you approach him.

This policeman must have been in his 60’s. Anyway he smartly saluted me and sent me in the correct direction, and I was suitably impressed.

My second surprise was the feeling of excitement when driving in a race; I turned onto the course and got goose flesh down my arms, not the same as the Worlds, but a nice feeling.

My third surprise was the amount of people watching today’s stage. It wasn’t going to be an exciting stage and there aren’t many people inbetween the villages, but all over the place there were little groups of bike fans, eating, drinking and having fun. Everyone shuts shop, closes factory, stops school and comes out to watch – any excuse for an afternoon off.

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The local fans are super-friendly.

I found a group that had the wine, olives and crisps set out on the table. The best was the group at 10 kilometers to go, they had it all; wine, beer, cheese, sausage, olives and a big pan of..? What is that? Conejo (rabbit), in olive oil and lots of garlic. A feast!

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Same equipment, rain or shine!

These guys are bike mad, they don’t ride, but they love to watch.

The Feed Zone

When I got to the Feed Zone the masseurs had it all set up; mussets, bottles, etc. The CSC masseur was for sure the coolest, he was reading a Robert Ludlam book, and said if he got some peace he would finish it by the end of the Vuelta!

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You gotta grab your ‘me-time’ when you can.

Down to the finish and I had that feeling again, the one you get when the police wave you through or they lift barriers out the way so you can go where no one else dares to drive.

Problem was they sent me where I didn’t want to go, so I walked to the finish line. Seeing all the podium girls and all the VIP food, all the things that I can look at, but can’t touch.

Eros Polli

I managed to congratulate Eros Polli on his form as I had seen him give a the poor kid a hard time on the bike the day before, he said “You should have seen me last year, I was 14 kilos over weight, but it’s nearly all gone”. Apart from working for Polar, he is setting up bike holidays in the Venice region of north east Italy. Good luck Eros!

It was time for the rugby scrum of photographers at the finish to catch Petacchi winning another stage, and the problem of finding my car. There was a drum band in the street and I couldn’t get the car out without killing them. The drive today was very calm compared to yesterday, so no speeding fine.

Stage 13 – Torre Pacheco

Today I thought I would go to the start and then drive the whole course to the finish, see the lot, and in some ways I wished I hadn’t, but then I wouldn’t have seen some of the worst roads and rain that I have ever encountered, or had a really nice breakfast (well, early lunch) and met some interesting people.

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Pleasant hostesses on this race certainly help.

Hellin is a nice place, I got there just before 12 o’clock, it’s best to get there before they let in the unaccredited people, the old women are the worst, get in their way of the food and you’re dead!

What’s On Offer?

My first port of call was the Castilla La Mancha tent for some beautiful wine along with migas, which is made by frying breadcrumbs and sausage and other bits. Then it was the paella stand and there were also some pieces of tortilla on bread. A great menu for almuerzo (morning snack), sets you up for the day.

I still have not had any Mexican food from the sign-on sponsor, Cantina Mariachi.

Bumped in to Craig Geator, one of the Discovery mechanics – he had just recovered from the gin and tonics on the first day in Vigo! The Discovery Team might only have three rider soon because of crashes and riders going home to prepare for the Worlds. He has had work offers for next year, so things look OK for him.

Into Murcia

Murcia has some bad roads and La Vuelta had managed to find the worst, from Cieza over the climb of the Puerto Espuña and down to the sprint in Alhama de Murcia, it was all bends, ups, downs, narrow bridges, and rough sections – a bit like how I remember Scottish roads.

The climb was twisty, but the descent had rocks on one side and a big drop on the other. None of this was helped by the downpour of rain, my windscreen wipers have never moved so fast, and I still couldn’t see where I was going. It also went cold, I had to turn on the car heating, which I hadn’t used since February.

As you get to the flat land towards the coast there is either farmland or building work, and the Vuelta would be using new roads that were not open to the public yet.

Even with accreditation, I had a terrible job to get onto them. Long sections with nothing to see. I once asked someone what they thought of Spain? They said (looking at the building going on) “It’ll be nice when it’s finished!” Well this is how I felt now.

The Finish

To the finish and the usual chaos. The break away was going to succeed, Andreas Klier had stayed away from the peloton, and Peta didn’t even get the bunch sprint – that went to Bennati, and Ed Hood’s mate Magnus Backstedt had a good 8th place.

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Stage 13, and it’s Milram again.

I had been trying to have a word with the young Ag2r Irish rider, Philip Diegnan since his great ride to the top of the ski station at Cerler when he only finished 2 minutes behind the winner Piepoli.

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Philip Diegnan, looking forward to a hot shower.

A wet and dirty Diegnan rolled up to the team bus, I asked “Hard day, Philip?” “Yeah, real hard!”.

How do you feel?” I could have bitten my tongue off; the young Irishman had just ridden 150 kilometers in a thunder storm, but he took it in his stride. “I feel good, I was terrible in the first week, but I’m improving as the race goes on.” He could have given me the brush off, but he didn’t.

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AG2R’s BTwin bikes.

It only left me to see the girls waiting to do their podium stuff and then I was off to send in my story and photo’s.

That’s 2,000 kilometers on my car in three days, and thanks to Murcian roads my car now has a new rattle… well, that’s bike racing!

Now my travels are over for this Vuelta and its home to write the race reports from the comfort of my TV. I hope you enjoyed my Vuelta.