The inside story of the Vuelta a España's cursed flight: 'It was clear things were not OK'

How a post-stage flight turned disastrously wrong for seven teams and its staff

Vueling
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Shortly after 9pm on Sunday, September 3, just hours after stage nine of the Vuelta a España, a chartered flight carrying seven teams and members of the race organisation left the city of Murcia. The riders and other passengers, however, didn’t arrive at their destination of Valladolid until after 3am, due to heavy rain, wind and a thunder and lightning storm causing a mid-flight diversion to Madrid. 

This is the inside story of the cursed flight to round off an ill-fated first week of the year’s final Grand Tour.

A hellish night to cap off a nightmare week

Stage nine of the Vuelta was the latest day to be disrupted by weather and unforeseen circumstances, with the general classification times being taken two kilometres before the stage finish at Collado de la Cruz de Caravaca due to muddy conditions on the road. The day had begun wet, and though rain didn’t fall on the riders during the stage, the sky was a hazy orange throughout. One team insider told Cycling Weekly that “it was like the end of the world up there.”

Following the conclusion of the stage, riders and four staff members from each team were loaded onto several buses to take them to Murcia airport. Riders had been given a prepared recovery meal in the immediate aftermath of the stage, but were expecting to have dinner in their hotels at around 11pm.

Race organisers therefore handed everyone a packed lunch that consisted of a small bottle of water, an apple, a packet of cookies, and a ham sandwich. “The sandwich was squashed, it was white bread with its crusts cut off, and it was the sort of thing a mother would give their three-year-old child going to nursery,” one team insider said. “Everyone left the sandwich on the bus.” One source reported how, when departing the bus at the airport, some hungry passengers rummaged through unopened picnics and stole cookies.

Arriving at Murcia airport at around 8pm, 15 teams - including race leaders Jumbo-Visma and defending champions Soudal Quick-Step - packed into the first flight that left at 8.45pm. Seven teams, plus race organisation staff from Unipublic, crammed onto the second Vueling Airbus, expecting to take off five minutes later. Present were: Arkéa-Samsic, Alpecin-Deceuninck, Burgos-BH, Caja Rural - Seguros RGA, DSM-Firmenich, Lotto-Dstny and Lidl-Trek.

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The second flight didn't take off until 33 minutes after it was expected to. A red alert for severe weather was in place over large swathes of central and southern Spain, with one team reporting how their staff had received a serious weather notification on their mobile phones in the mid-afternoon, warning them that they shouldn’t leave their house unless absolutely necessary. Flooding had damaged properties to the south of the capital city. 

Once up in the air, the second flight headed north-west towards Valladolid; estimated flight time was just under one hour. One team insider said: “You could tell it was a bit windy and there was a weather front coming in because we were getting slapped around a bit.” Not long after the first flight had touched ground in Valladolid, the second plane tried to land at the city’s airport, but failed to do so. “It shot straight back up,” one passenger remembered, while another commented that “we must only have been 20 metres from the floor. We began climbing really quite quickly.”

They added: “It caught quite a few people off guard. The nerves went up, there was a bit of confusion, and the turbulence got serious for around 20 minutes. The pilot tried to have another go, but you could see the lightning storm out of the window. It was clear things were not OK. The pilot then came on the announcer and said that due to the storm he couldn’t approach Valladolid safely. We were going to have to re-route to Madrid.”

The atmosphere on the plane was described as “50/50”, with some passengers fearful, and others said to be jovial. Many made the joke that they were arriving into Madrid two weeks earlier than planned, and people were trying to work out which rider on the flight was the best-placed on the general classification and who therefore had won the race. The answer was Cristián Rodríguez of Arkéa-Samsic, who sits 18th overall.

After aborting its original plan, the pilot then headed south-east in the direction of Madrid. On the ground, race organisers frantically tried to arrange onward travel plans for the convoy. As they approached Madrid’s airport at close to 11.15pm, the pilot informed the passengers that they had a choice: the organisation could provide hotels in Madrid, or they could put on buses to take them to Valladolid. All teams opted for the latter option.

Upon landing, the plane broke into a spontaneous and universal round of applause for the pilot. “It was quite funny,” one person present said. “Normally I’d hate that, but I was laughing and people could see the funny side of it.” Some passengers started singing the Ryanair theme tune and repeating the airline's automatic messaging: “Last year, over 90% of our flights arrived on time,” they impersonated.

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Within 40 minutes of stepping off the flight, riders and passengers were loaded onto two buses to Valladolid. “I have to praise the organisers: we didn’t wait long, the buses were there for us, and everything went smoothly in Madrid,” one person said.

The buses left at just before midnight, but with people still not having had dinner, the buses made several stops at service stations en-route. Due to the time and weather warning, all were closed. “Riders were buying food at vending machines because they were hungry,” one source said.

Teams were dropped off at the hotels one by one, with one person present quipping that “it was like a package holiday where you stop at all of the different hotels.” Some teams didn’t arrive at their hotels in Palencia, 50km north of Valladolid, until 3.15am. Not all riders went straight to bed, with several having a 3am dinner, freshly cooked by the respective team chefs. “It was a late one, but it was better to be in the hotel rather than having to do the transfer from Madrid on Monday,” one person said.

Another reflected: “I just think we were unlucky and there was nothing the organisers could have done: the other plane had landed, and if we were 10 minutes earlier, we would have done too. I’m not sure how the race organisers split the plane, but it’s lucky the way it worked out in that there were no big GC leaders on the second flight with us. If there had been it would have been a much bigger fuss."

It still caused issues, though. Teams delayed their rest day media press conferences, some riders cancelled plans to recon stage 10’s time trial, and no rider has had the rest they had earned after a gruelling and at times brutal first week of what appears to be a cursed Vuelta a España.

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