Viva La Vuelta!

This week I had the pleasure of attending an incredible cycling event. Its official name is La Vuelta Lighthouse Tour of Puerto Rico, but most people simply call it La Vuelta. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t there to ride — there’s just no way I could handle an event like this (at least not right now). Instead, I rode along in the Tour Director’s comfortable and air-conditioned mega-truck, which gave me the absolute best seat in the house from which to watch the whole ride unfold. I’ve often wondered what it would be like be in a team car in the Tour de France or La Vuelta a Espana. I think this was probably pretty close. Either way, it was amazing.

The Ride

Calling this event a “bike tour” is kind of like calling the New York Marathon a jog. I imagined it would be something like Cycle Oregon where people cover a lot of ground, but have the chance to stop, chat with the locals, snap a few photos and, perhaps, get an ice cream cone at some point. It wasn’t like that at all.

La Vuelta seems more like a multi-day stage race minus the sprint finishes. If you’ve ever fantasized about riding in the Tour de France and happen to be an extremely fit and capable cyclist, you will simply love La Vuelta. They hammer all day every day with a few quick stops for water and fuel.

Hammering hard and loving every minuteIn 3 days, La Vuelta encircles the entire island of Puerto Rico. The total distance is 375 miles. The shortest day’s ride is 94 miles. And, while the total elevation gain for the entire ride is only 11,000 feet, the few serious climbs on the route are STEEP. Some of the grades exceeded 15% and go on long enough that they’ve got to hurt. Riders are divided into three pelotons. The fast group rode at 25-30 M.P.H., the middle group at 20-25 M.P.H. and the “slow” group at about 18 M.P.H.

Police escorts and emergency vehicles formed rolling roadblocks so the pelotons could keep moving. Motorcycles carrying photographers darting everywhere and, for a while, even a helicopter added ambiance.

Barely breaking a sweat on the steep climbsThe Riders

Every rider – including the slow pokes in the 18 M.P.H group – is an elite athlete. The only place you are likely to see more Iron Man Triathlon bracelets, jerseys, shirts, skullcaps and tattoos is at an Iron Man Triathlon. They are beautifully sculpted and bronzed and are a sight to behold in cycling gear. Most were wearing full team kits, which did a lot to add to the illusion of this being a stage race. Watching them ride was educational and inspirational. Most of them barely seemed fazed by the heat, mileage and difficulty of each day’s ride (though I’d like to think that at least some of them were at least a little tired). I do know that the maniac who founded La Vuelta got up at 3:00 a.m. the day after the event for an hour-and-a-half “spin.” I suspect he wasn’t the only one to do so.

The Bikes

The 30-person pre-ride the day before the big event was representative of the kind of bikes ridden in La Vuelta. High-end bikes all around. Many were pro team models. I’ve never seen this many Colnagos, Pinerelli’s, DeRosas and custom Ti bikes in one place in my life. Specialized was also well represented. To my surprise, there were very few Treks. It would seem style plays as important of a role at La Vuelta as does performance. There were also three Bike Fridays, which stood out like turds in the proverbial punch bowl. However, all three foldiphiles rode admirably, which I’d bet gave them a great deal of satisfaction.

The People

It is clear that, as a spectator sport, cycling gets more respect in Puerto Rico than it does in the U.S. Cheering fans lined the streets in most towns. More importantly, most of the drivers caught in the rolling roadblocks, many of whom were more than a little inconvenienced by the ride, took it all in stride. It would sure be great if that same sort of attitude worked its way to the States someday.

The Island

While there was very little time for sightseeing, there are many beautiful parts of Puerto Rico. Some of the most stellar towns apparently get very few foreign visitors. Instead, they serve as weekend retreats for locals.

Puerto Rico is definitely a place I’d like to go back and visit. Who knows, if I remain as inspired by the whole event as I am right now, I might even someday attain the level of fitness required to ride this mother. That would be something. The travel editor from Bicycling Magazine who was there to write about the event old me if I ever did, he’d come back again and ride with me. Be careful, Bill, I just might cash in on that promise someday.

To see more photos, check out my flickr page. There’s a great photo montage done by a real photographer in 2009 on La Vuelta’s Website. To see the short posts I did during the ride, check out La Vuelta’s blog.

Update: I checked with some of the riders who were using Garmin bike computers. The steepest bits were somewhere between 17% and 20%.

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20 Responses to “Viva La Vuelta!”

  1. contessa says:

    La Vuelta looks to be something worthwhile to dig in and shape up for. I marvel at the end result of disipline and passion. As a new-bie in this sport; events like these can give me the impression that I am just posing in lycra and clip ins, but these events are filled with people. Scuplted, tan and brilliant riders true, but just people. Not out of reach I guess. Well written and nice photos Dean-O.

  2. Jay Guerra says:


    Thank you sooooooo much for this recap and your fine words for La Vuelta, Puerto Rico and William. I’m a member of IronIsla triathlon team and feel very proud to be part of this event.

    We welcome you next year along with as many friends you might bring along. It’s interesting to read en “outsiders” perspective of the event.

    Thanks once again.

  3. Luis Munoz says:

    I’m the rider you spoke to at the Santa Isabel rest stop ( the one before getting to Ponce. Guy in the Pinarello kit, aka uniform and the matching Pinarello bike). I just want to thank you for your laudatory remarks about La Vuelta. How refreshing to see the perspective from the other side of the handlebars. I for one am always thinking that I’m not good enough for this ride and for the past two years I have been surprising myself. I’m always hearing how “strong” I ride but I guess since I always train at this level I don’t see it. Can’t wait for the article on Bicycling magazine to come out! Thank you again!

  4. admin says:

    Yes, I remember you. I suppose no cyclist is ever satisfied with their current performance and aspires to be better. However, if you can complete this ride you are among the top of the heap of recreational hobbyists.

    Thanks for the background on the difference between the various Pinerello bikes. Of course, it is important to remember that not all bad ass bikes are made of carbon fiber.

  5. Shannon says:

    Thanks for posting your photos, what a great experience!

  6. Loved this gem:

    “There were also three Bike Fridays, which stood out like turds in the proverbial punch bowl. However, all three foldiphiles rode admirably, which I’d bet gave them a great deal of satisfaction.”

    Why turds, why not, uh, strawberries? :o)

  7. admin says:

    Next to all that Italian hotness? Bike Friday’s are a lot of things, but beauty queens they are not.

  8. Rick Studley says:

    Hey! Why not French vélos?!!! French bikes do not scream for attention… they simply have that unmistakable je ne sais quoi… I was riding an all white Look 585 Pro Team, named Stella… She was by far the most beautiful, if not understated ride of the Vuelta! Mariette Vanderzon’s white, black and pink 585 was a close second… I saw a smattering of 595’s and they were as pretty as anything out there. Agree with your assessment of the Bike Fridays… they are about as attractive as a mud fence! Ah, no offense to their able pilots…

    See y’all next year!

  9. admin says:

    Yes, there were some French lookers as well.

  10. Tarn says:

    “not all bad ass bikes are made of carbon fiber”… or steel, or Ti, or Al. A composite of bubinga and curly maple made for great ride around the island. I too am looking forward to seeing the coverage of this ride in Bicycling. I know you must have some great photos for the article, hopefully the ones that don’t make it in will be available.

  11. admin says:

    I had already talked about your wood in the previous post, so you, too are covered. There were a load of photographers covering the event. Mine are up on flickr for the world to see. The two photographers that were part of the Vuelta team will probably make many photos available online (I don’t really have the details). The photographer from Bicycling Magazine probably will not be posting any of the unused pictures anywhere (nor would he be expected to). Either way, there will be no shortage of photos.

  12. joel dechter says:

    I was happy to be on my Bike Friday … they are great bikes for other reasons besides their looks and make a great addition to anyones stable ..but as I often say “its not the wand , its the magician ” thanks for the write up . Joel

  13. admin says:

    And you proved that point with aplomb! I was happy to see two Oregon bike manufacturers represented at this amazing event.

  14. Jim Bob says:

    Sounds like a very nice ride, however, I believe the author is WAY over-estimating the average speed of the groups. Even the BEST cyclers in the world as a group barely average in the mid 20’s for a ride.

  15. Robert says:

    The best material to ride La Vuelta is aluminum. Yes aluminum cans of a cold Medalla Beer( the local beer ) while strolling thru those majestic beach front roads. Great blog!!!

  16. admin says:

    The author might have been over-estimating the speed, but not WAY over-estimating. I know what time the fastest group left and I know what time they arrived at the end and I can do basic math.

  17. Kip Pierson says:

    Dean, great job with the article. If you come back, I’ll be sure to take a ton of pictures of you. 🙂

  18. Walter Bostwick says:

    Well written piece. As a member of the “slow” group, with the rest of my club in the middle group, your speed estimate is right on for what people were riding on the flats. The real average, including the up-hills was lower, but you better be ready to do 20 plus for a while in the B group!

  19. Jay LaBonne says:

    I’m doing the ride this year- reference to the speeds of the groups, were those speeds overall averages over the three days, daily, or on the flats only? Just checking to know which group I fall into.
    “The fast group rode at 25-30 M.P.H., the middle group at 20-25 M.P.H. and the “slow” group at about 18 M.P.H.

  20. admin says:

    Group C averages 15 mph, Group B averages 18 mph and group A averages more than 20 mph. The way the averages are calculated is based on when the group leaves in the morning and arrives at the final destination in the evening so all stops are part of this calculation. Some people find it hard to believe because the speeds of group A approach the speeds of professional stage racers. Believe it.

    Make sure you say hello. I’ll be one of the guys riding around in the huge Ford F-150 hanging out the windows shooting photos.

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