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The Opening Stages Of The Vuelta a España Have Been A Big Mess

Team Bora ride during the first stage of the 2023 La Vuelta cycling tour of Spain, a 14,8 km team time-trial in Barcelona, on August 26, 2023. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP) (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)
Pau Barrena/Getty Images

The photo at the top of this post, shot by Pau Barrena, is compelling art: the Bora team car lighting up the shot from behind, the rain adding a sense of dramatic heft, the grim rictus of the one rider whose face is visible, showing the toll of this ride. The photo is also evidence of a hazardous scene. The team time trial that opened the 2023 Vuelta a España took place in the dark and the rain, angering everyone involved and causing all sorts of chaos.

The Vuelta's reputation as the wildest of the cycling calendar's three Grand Tours is rooted primarily in the ultra-demanding parcours. This year's edition stocked with huge climbs and relatively few flat stages, but the race has also seen its share of organizing errors and weird self-inflicted disasters in the past, like when a TV helicopter flew too close to the race and caused a crash in 2018, or two years earlier when more than 90 riders missed the time cut and organizers let them stay in anyway. Through three stages, the 2023 Vuelta has followed that pattern. Organizers scheduled the opening team time trial for the evening, hoping for a beautiful sunset finish on primetime in Spain. Instead, a thunderstorm hit Barcelona, changing the usually precise discipline of TTT riding into a ragged, bloody mess. By the time the final few teams left the starting blocks, it was dark.

It's a small miracle that only one rider crashed out on the first stage, though the entire peloton was furious. Defending champion Remco Evenepoel, whose team had to go last, was especially pointed in his criticism.

"We don't see any shit, super dangerous. Ridiculous. We're not monkeys in a circus," he complained immediately after the finish, batting away a reporter's microphone. "It’s like driving your car 200 kilometers an hour on the highway in the full dark without any lights," he said in a media scrum, adding a sarcastic message to the organizers: "Just know that it can be dark at night, in the evening." The dark and the rain forced riders to slow down. As Louis Vervaeke said after the race, riders couldn't see the corners and had to rely on team radio telling them when to start turning. Juan Ayuso said he had to race without his visor because he couldn't see anything. Geraint Thomas echoed Evenepoel, saying, "We’re just pawns in the game, aren’t we?"

Thomas and Evenepoel were the two most famous riders to speak up, though nobody had anything positive to say about the disastrous time trial. Things got worse the next day, when more bad weather forced organizers to truncate the planned finish of the twisty, hilly circuit in Barcelona twice before the start of Stage 2. According to GCN, the riders were so mad about the disorganization and the lack of communication that they began discussing a protest. The organizers were defiant that the only issue was rain and that they were powerless in the face of the elements, but the stars weren't satisfied. "There was no sort of apology or anything," Thomas said. "I think we deserve a little more respect, but it seems like they don't want to listen to us," Evenepoel said. When several big names crashed in the run-up to the finish of Stage 2, the peloton's leaders called for a truce, neutralizing the racing in order for everyone to make it home safe.

Stage 2 ended without further disaster, tensions eased, and the planned protest, which reportedly had the support of all the major general classification riders, fizzled out. Stage 3 featured the first summit finish of the race, a beautiful, arduous climb in Andorra that Evenepoel won in real style, outracing two huge clumps of UAE and Jumba-Visma riders to take the red leader's jersey. Finally, some quality racing! Within five seconds of crossing the line, Evenepoel slammed into a throng of people at decent speed, opening up a big cut above his eyebrow. "It's a bit breaking my balls now," he said of the third straight day with a big mess at the Vuelta.

The bummer here is that the 2023 Vuelta is one of the more intriguing editions in recent years, with Jumbo going for a sweep of all three Grand Tours, and Evenepoel testing himself one last time before he makes his Tour de France debut next summer. At least the Stage 3 drama happened after the racing, that's an improvement. The next big test for Evenepoel and the other general classification riders comes Wednesday on Stage 6. The peloton will finish at the Astrophysical Observatory of Javalambre, which boasts a huge telescope that will hopefully not fall on any of the riders.

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