Blog: the Vu-hell-ta a Espana

After a disastrous Vuelta in 2010, Andy McGrath vowed never to return. He’s back this year.

Words by Andy McGrath

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Saturday August 20

A little less than a year ago today, I promised myself I’d never return to the Vuelta, after a series of catastrophic cock-ups and logistical fiascos. It’s impressive how much can go wrong in five days, even if most of the things can be put down to personal incompetence and no small amount of bad luck rather than Spain or the race.

And here I am at the 2011 Vuelta, not having listened to my own good advice to stay away. That said, the Vuelta start is in Benidorm, which is like a kind of foreign Croydon (location of the CS office and some recent riots). At least I’m not intimidated by tall, ugly buildings. Or noise. I was kept awake until 4am this morning by techno thumping and the braying of Brits abroad.

Here’s what went wrong last year:

Missing the interview – and the photo shoot
Marya, the Garmin team PR, assured me the Julian Dean interview was ready and planned before we stepped on the plane to Spain. We not only missed Dean at the appointed time – he seemed completely unaware of any feature interview when we did sit down with him a few days later – but also a Joaquim Rodriguez photoshoot we had planned, because of missing a motorway turning (see below). Missing interviews occasionally happens, but it’s usually the rider standing up the journo, not the other way round.

Don’t blindly follow the satnav
Take me back to hand-held maps, brick-sized telephones and fax machines. I don’t know how much time we wasted circling poxy roundabouts in dead-end Catalunyan towns or retracing steps because the Garmin took us the wrong way.

Spanish scenery

Ennui is a long stage sat in the Milram car next to Gert-Jan Theunisse. A nice enough bloke – with a dodgy background and terrifying, shaven-headed appearance – but after the first hour of getting details for a feature, he wasn’t much of a talker. Playing ‘i-spy’ simply wasn’t on the agenda, given his demeanour and the unchanging scenery.
He got annoyed when I couldn’t get the in-car TV to work (I’m a journalist, not an electrician). Leaving more awkward silence and window staring at the same, Wild West countryside. And another thirteenth place for Milram.

Bad hotel choices
From the Tarragona hotel that necessitated walking up 100 steps to get there to this one: we explained one afternoon in the pressroom that we were staying in Sitges. Cycle Sport’s man in Spain Alasdair raised an eyebrow and queried why we had opted to stay in Spain’s biggest gay resort. Once there, we also had to pay 15 Euros for the privilege of parking in a labyrinthine underground car park, incidentally another common feature of Spain.

The policia

The Spanish police are scary, jackboot-wearing throwbacks from the Franco era who make French gendarmes look soft. We found this out to our detriment driving along through the Vuelta convoy ahead of one stage. We passed one police car – we must have cut him up – and he pulled us over and gave us a thorough bollocking. His English was so bad, we thought he was throwing us off the race. Luckily, our Spanish was even worse, and we played the increasingly well-worn “stupid English, cerveza cerveza” card to good effect.

Toll roads and roundabouts
Miss one junction and you end up spending 30 minutes retracing your steps, such is the distance between motorway exits. We missed the Vuelta deviation one day and extended our journey by ninety minutes, going cross-country on sinuous country roads.

Finding a restaurant in Lleida
Lleida is a beautiful old Spanish town, with grand sandstone arches protecting the old town, so it’s a shame that its selection of neon-signed restaurants seem to exclusively cater for deadbeats and teenagers [Ed: you should have fitted in perfectly, Andy]. After an hour and a half of wandering, I was ready to throw a rainbow-jersey-winning tantrum, give up and head for McDonalds until we happened upon a decent steak joint.

Apart from everything going wrong, it was a great trip. Now I know what to expect, how can it be any worse in Benidorm?