Photo-shoot: Cycling - The pain in Spain lies mainly in the hills

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The Tour of Spain, one of cycling's great stage races, ends tomorrow. As Robin Nicholl reports from Madrid, this year's contest has enhanced the event's rapidly rising status.

Miguel Indurain won the Tour de France five times and the Giro d'Italia twice. How ironic that one of the great cyclists of the modern era never won his own country's national tour.

The Vuelta a Espana - the Tour of Spain - regards itself as second only to the Tour de France. Although Indurain never made the race his personal fiefdom like he did the Tour, Spanish cycling braced itself when he retired.

It need not have worried. When this year's race ends tomorrow after 22 days and 3,578 kilometres it will have confirmed its growing popularity and stature within the sport.

Cycling has risen to No 2 in Spain ahead of basketball and bull-fighting, and the Vuelta is widening its global TV coverage.

"We are the second biggest tour. We have grown more than the Giro," said Lucho Gonzalez-Aller Gabriel, the director of communications and international relations.

Three years ago the Vuelta moved from May to September in a move to ease a jammed February-October calendar. Often the Vuelta, now in its 52nd year, and the Giro, founded in 1909, overlapped.

"When the move was offered to the Giro they thought it would be a mistake. Now they are sorry," said Gonzalez-Aller. "It has been an important issue in our growth.

"In 1992 the Vuelta was seen world-wide by seven million viewers daily. That audience is now 500 million in 142 countries. Television has given us almost 70 per cent of our revenue."

Despite the event's growth, the Vuelta remains firmly in second place behind the Tour de France, which is 32 years older and is the colossus of cycling.

The Tour has an annual budget of 148 million French francs (pounds 15.7m). The Vuelta expects to spend 2,000 million pesetas (pounds 8.5m). The Tour has 3,000 workers to the Vuelta's 2,000. The Tour has more of everything including stress.

"The Tour is the biggest annual sporting event," said Neil Stephens an Australian with 11 years' experience of the Big Three. "It is a lot more spectacular, and much colder. We are touchable here, but on the Tour we are cut off like superstars."

It is calculated that 15 million watch the Tour from the roadside, but apart from the package holiday costas and tourist traps the Vuelta takes in the vast parched cragginess of the Extremadura where only circling vultures and shy wolves exist.

It can claim to be the fastest tour. Last year the average speed topped a record 40 kph. That could fall by tomorrow.

"This underlines the fact that the Vuelta is right to be in September," said their media executive, Fernando Rojos. "The riders are not so tired that they cannot be competitive."

The one key factor that the Spanish can do nothing about for the moment is the lack of a major Spanish contender to evict the new Swiss invaders who are heading for their fifth victory in six years. Alex Zulle is hours away from his second triumph in Madrid tomorrow. He does, however, ride for a Spanish team, so let the fiesta begin.