Did the ‘big starts’ deliver? Rating the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a España’s overseas openers

Budapest, Denmark, the Netherlands: Racing action and spectacle, cash-cows and chaos, or necessary evil?

Photo: Getty Images

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The Vuelta a España will finally see Spain on Monday after three days of pedaling through bike-crazed Dutch crowds.

The Vuelta’s Dutch start completes a rare run of overseas starts for all three grand tours of the season – the Giro d’Italia went big in Budapest and the Tour de France grand départ stretched to Denmark.

So with the hat trick complete, did the three “big starts” deliver?

Depends how you rate them.

“You could really feel the energy coming through when you went through the city center. The director radioed through that we had to use that energy,” the Dutch veteran Robert Gesink said from Utrecht as the Vuelta hit his homeland.

Jumbo-Visma workhorse Gesink was in the privileged position of riding for a Dutch team on his home soil Friday. A gifted red jersey made it all the sweeter.

“It was really emotional, I’m still shaking as I’m sitting here and that makes it even more special to do what we did,” he said.

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There’s no denying the season’s three overseas adventures went with a bang, as far as carnival is concerned.

Early concerns were eased when Giro crowds showed up in droves in Budapest. Near-zealous Danes delivered tens of thousands of spectators and unprecedented television viewing stats at the Tour. And there could never have been a doubt about the Netherlands and its bicycle-driven denizens showing up for the Vuelta.

“It’s been unbelievable, these last three days in Denmark,” Magnus Cort said after he lit up his homeland during the Tour. “I never imagined it would be this big. It seems like a lot of the Danish spectators are very happy to have been visited by the Tour.”

‘We’re just happy to get through unscathed’

Home team Jumbo-Visma made hay in the Vuelta’s Dutch start, but will be glad to have kept things upright.

But the racing?

Maybe it’s best said that, for the Tour and Vuelta, the drama was reserved for the Danish and Dutch drinking-holes and roadside raves rather than the roadway itself.

Two straightforward sprint stages and one timed test meant the “real” racing only started in France last month, and should do similarly in the Spanish Basque Country on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Giro’s perfectly blended parcours of a hilltop, an upward-tilting time trial and one flat finish saved it from boring by-the-book dalliances between A and B as seen in the Netherlands this weekend.

Mathieu van der Poel and Mark Cavendish topping the Giro podium in the first three days of racing? Giro chief Mauro Vegni was purring with pleasure.

For GC racers, an overseas start can be seen as one more hurdle to leap before the racing begins. The nerves jangle harder under the extra hype, and the risk is raised as beers froth onto the roadway.

The stage 4 Etna volcano of the Giro, a harrowingly hard hilly stage on the North Sea coast of France, and the Basque blast on tap Tuesday means top teams mostly kept the fireworks at bay for after the transfer out of the oversees starts.

“We’re just happy to get through Holland unscathed,” BikeExchange-Jayco director Gene Bates said Sunday.

“We saw plenty of crashes again, even Carapaz went down, Michael Woods pulled out of the race. We’re happy to get through it without any crashes, so that was a good start.”

Transfer trauma

Cort became king of Denmark at the grand départ, but the team didn’t enjoy the trip to France so much.

The peloton will see Monday’s “rest day” with mixed emotion.

Hours on metaphorical planes, trains, and automobiles pulls a hard handbrake when the racing only just got started.

“It’s a rest day but you don’t really need it, so just kind of staying in the rhythm, I guess,” Sepp Kuss said of his plans for Monday’s transition day.

The Giro’s transfer from Hungary to Italy’s southern island of Sicily was almost silly this spring.

Riders got the easy option with a two-hour charter flight and a short shakeout spin on arrival. Logistics for team busses, cars, and campers were far more complex.

Bikes went in boxes in RCS-hired airplanes. Team busses and cars were divided ahead of time, with some bypassing Budapest altogether, while some smaller squads scrambled for hired help in Hungary.

At the Tour de France, the 950km overland trip for the race’s most northern grand départ was little less of a head-scratcher.

“I get tired just to think about it,” EF Education-EasyPost sport director Matti Breschel said during the Tour. “We have quite a long drive. Charly [Wegelius] is flying with the riders, the rest of us drive down. We will sleep halfway. We have people down there taking care of the riders when they get down there, a chef, doctors, soigneurs and others. It’s a big drive for the rest of us.”

Some of the Vuelta circus drove four hours out of the Netherlands on Sunday and slept in Paris before trucking a further nine hours Monday morning. 1,300km doesn’t transfer itself.

Teams and riders have become honed to traveling big miles on the bike, and big miles off the bike, as well.

But some will wonder about the unnecessary environmental strain created by a sport already under the green microscope during a season that saw unprecedented heat in France and climate change activists to match.

Nevertheless, for riders like Gesink, Cort, or Hungary’s Attila Valter, a grand tour home start is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The rest of the peloton may see otherwise.

Big business in the big starts

Budapest represents the 14th time the Giro will start beyond Italy’s borders. (Photo: Csaba Domotor/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Whatever the peloton may think, the grande partenza, grand départ and grande salida is here to stay.

Vuelta a España organizers boasted of one million roadside spectators through its three days on Dutch soil, and the TV figures will likely follow.

An overseas start can bring cash-strapped grand tour coffers a haul estimated to be between $7 million to $18 million, depending on when, where, and how many days. Accounts for local hospitalities and tourist traps will likewise light up after three days hosting a big bike race.

“The response by the warm and enthusiastic Dutch public has been very exciting. We felt at home,” Vuelta director Javier Guillén said Sunday.

“The project of La Vuelta Holanda has come true after two years of waiting and has exceeded our expectations We came to make history and we leave with one of the most incredible stories that, from La Vuelta’s perspective, we have ever experienced.”

Next season should see things more straightforward.

A rumored Abruzzo start for the Giro, a confirmed trip to the French-neighboring Spanish Basque country for the Tour, and a big city bonanza in Barcelona for the Vuelta will keep a lid on the air-miles and associated stress they entail.


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