Vuelta a España leader’s red jersey: everything you need to know

The Vuelta a España is the third and last Grand Tour of professional reason, and its leader in the general classification is designated by the red jersey – or red jersey. And like the yellow jersey of the Tour de France or the pink of the Giro d’Italia, the red jersey has become an icon of the centerpiece of the Spanish three weeks.

It has become a symbol of combativeness, warmth, mountains and the Spanish national flag, but it might come as a surprise to find that the Vuelta leader’s shirt took on its red hue as recently as 2010.

The history of the red jersey

Although the first Vuelta a España was held in 1935, the race did not become a regular fixture until 1955. During these early years various jerseys were used to identify the race leader, with white and orange versions appearing repeatedly. The first ever red jersey was introduced in the 1945 edition of the race, with a distinctive white version with a red horizontal stripe between 1946 and 1950.

With the regularization of the race in 1955, the leader’s jersey became similar. Aping the most famous Tour de France, the organizers opted for a bright yellow hue for the race leader.

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This continued until 1999. Potentially aware that they were selling the Spanish national race by awarding what was effectively an ersatz version of the Tour de France yellow jerseythe race organizers replaced it with a gold version, the golden jersey. Although it looked good, it wasn’t a significant departure – depending on the light, it still looked quite yellow.

The situation was finally rectified in 2010 with the introduction of the red jersey. At the time, race director Javier Guillén said he was inspired by the tradition of Spanish sports teams which usually compete in red.

Who won the first red jersey?

Mark Cavendish had the distinction of winning the first modern prize red jersey, claiming it by winning the first sprint stage of the 2010 race in Seville. Italian Vincenzo Nibali will eventually win the general classification in Madrid.

The women’s red jersey

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Since 2015, the Vuelta has organized a corresponding women’s road race. Known as the Challenge by La Vuelta, the first editions were limited to a single day of racing.

In 2018 this was expanded with the addition of a separate time trial. By 2020 it had expanded to cover two short stages plus a time trial. This expansion also saw the introduction of a women’s red jersey, which was first won by Germany’s Lisa Brennauer.

While it was still far from resembling a real Grand Tour, an extra day was added to the race in 2021, bringing the total number of stages to four. Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten won this extended edition, and with it the red jersey.

This year the race will expand again to span five stages and finish on the same day as the men’s event in Madrid.

The growth of the Women’s Vuelta will continue in 2023. This edition will be renamed “La Vuelta Femenina” and will consist of seven distinct stages.

While not quite on the scale of the Giro d’Italia Donne or Tour de France Women, this development means that the Vuelta will finally have a women’s version of scale comparable to its French and Italian equivalents.

Notable Red Jersey Moments

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While the Vuelta has produced many stunning spectacles since its first edition, we’ll focus on those since 2010, which involved the all-new red jersey.

Since then, a Spanish rider has won the race and made it to the final podium only twice with the modern red jersey, and each time it was Alberto Contador. Winner in 2012 and again in 2014, he ensured that Spain would not suffer the same psychodrama that is devouring France due to the inability of its riders to win their national race.

Below are three of our favorite red jersey moments.

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2010: Vincenzo Nibali and Ezequiel Mosquera clash on the Bola del Mundo

The fight for the very first red jersey was a cracker. Passed from Mark Cavendish to Philippe Gilbert by the high mountains, the jersey was now established on the shoulders of Vincenzo Nibali. The final climb of the race would be the Bola del Mundo, 21.8 km long with an elevation gain of 1,350 m.

Nibali had looked shaky going up, allowing second-placed Ezequiel Mosquera to attack with 3.5km to go. Surrounded by Spanish fans who were shouting at him, Mosquera pulled away and looked like he could move into the top of the overall standings.

However, as the mist closed over the summit, Nibali was able to chase him away, and as Mosquera took the stage, Nibali would bring the first red jersey home to Italy.

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2012: Contador ambushes Rodríguez before the cameras even start rolling

Returning from a ban, Alberto Contador had a lot to prove in the 2012 Vuelta. He was well placed at the start of the seemingly innocuous 17th stage, second 28 seconds behind race leader Joaquim Rodríguez. At the end of the day, however, he would lead the race by almost 2 minutes.

When English TV coverage began, commentators initially seemed to believe that Contador was reverting to following a mechanic. Then they realised: he had attacked alone with 50 km to go.

It was a tactical long shot, but it paid off perfectly, until Contador received a short tow from former teammate Paolo Tiralongo, whom Contador had already offered a stage. At the end of the stage, Contador held on tight to the red jersey.

Contador’s run may seem mildly remarkable to those who grew up watching Wout van Aert or remember Chris Froome’s similar move at the 2018 Giro. But back then it just wasn’t the thing to do. Add to that the scene’s unpromising profile, plus the fact that the move drove local fans roadside crazy, and it has all the makings of a classic.

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2020: Carthy takes the stage while Carapaz revamps Roglič on the Alto de l’Angliru

The Alto de l’Angliru has a plausible claim to be the toughest climb in professional cycling. With ramps at nearly 24%, his brutality drew protests from riders and managers, the most famous coming from David Millar, who refused to complete a 2002 stage that ended at the top of the climb. Instead, he retired his number and crossed the line.

It’s also produced incredible drama, like when Roberto Heras overhauled Oscar Sevilla to win the race in 2000. Contador’s farewell victory over a fierce Froome in 2017 is also worth watching.

However, we go with a newer appearance. In 2020, Primož Roglič arrived in Spain as defending champion, after narrowly losing the Tour de France to fellow countryman Tadej Pogačar. After donning the red jersey on the opening stage, he then handed it over to Richard Carapaz before reclaiming it four stages later.

However, in the queen stage of the race, he could not hold back the Ecuadorian rider. Carapaz’s attack helped him stay in a race that would ultimately be decided with an even more dramatic battle between the two on the final climb.

It wasn’t even for the stage win. British rider Hugh Carthy would finish just ahead of them to claim the accolade of beating the world’s best climbers on the world’s toughest climb.

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