5 conclusions from La Vuelta Femenina
The first edition of the revamped La Vuelta Femenina concluded with Annemiek van Vleuten securing the overall title for her home team Movistar.
Seven days of action-packed racing with a mountaintop finish atop the iconic Lagos de Covadonga has given way to a new phase for the event that started eight years ago as a one-day race in Madrid.
It marked the closing of the Spring Classics and the kick-off to the late spring and summer stage racing season, setting the stage to see who is on form for multi-day racing in the high mountains.
Cyclingnews highlights five main conclusions from the 2023 La Vuelta Femenina, ahead of the next two top-tier stage races in Spain at Itzulia Women from May 12-14 and Vuelta a Burgos from May 18-21.
Van Vleuten's first win of the season
Annemiek van Vleuten patiently worked her way into winning form, after struggling through the Spring Classics without a victory and her form constantly under the microscope, she has secured her first victory of the season as the overall winner at La Vuelta Femenina.
The victory comes later in the season than what is usual for Van Vleuten, who has won races Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, Tour of Flanders, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the past. She was uncertain about why her form seemed to be lacking this spring but also felt that the increased overall depth and strength of the peloton made it more challenging to win than ever before.
Movistar finished fourth in the team time trial in Torrevieja, and Van Vleuten kept herself in contention through the flatter stage 2 into Pilar de la Horadada, stage 3 into La Roda, a hilly stage 4 into Guadalajara as the race hit the bigger climbs.
Second in a sprint against Demi Vollering (SD Worx) on the first summit finish, Mirador de Peñas Llanas on stage 5 made way for a thrilling GC battle. Second again in a sprint against Gaia Realini (Trek-Segafredo) on the hilly stage 6 into Laredo, made way for Van Vleuten to take the leader's jersey from Vollering, who lost time after stopping for a nature break ahead of a decisive crosswind section.
Although Vollering made most of that time back on the stage 7 finale on Lagos de Covadonga, Van Vleuten had just enough to keep her overall lead by just nine seconds.
She may not have been the strongest climber of the week, but she certainly showed consistency across all seven stages, which bodes well for the summer racing season as her form continues to improve.
Vollering, Realini top climbers
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) may have won the overall classification, but she struggled at times to keep pace in the mountains with the event's top climbers, Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and Gaia Realini (Trek-Segafredo).
One has to wonder if the final overall classification would be different had Vollering not stopped for a nature break ahead of a decisive crosswind section on stage 6, just as Movistar planned their attack. In what was a controversial scenario, Vollering, who started the day in the leader's jersey, ended up moving down to second overall at 1:11 behind Van Vleuten.
Van Vleuten went on to create a two-rider breakaway and finished second to Realini. The Italian had already proved to be one of the climbers to watch this year, especially after finishing third at Flèche Wallonne, but her performances at La Vuelta Femenina confirmed that she is a real contender for the overall classification in the major mountain stage races this year.
Despite losing time on stage 6, Vollering pulled almost all of it back on the decisive Lagos de Covadonga, where she won 11 seconds over Realini, but 56 seconds to Van Vleuten.
It was this performance, coupled with her dominance to win all three of the Ardennes Classics, that points to Vollering and Realini as two of the overwhelming favourites for the targetted Tour de France Femmes, which tackles the Tourmalet in July.
Vuelta enters new phase
The event, formerly known as Challenge by La Vuelta, started as a one-day race in Madrid in 2015 and expanded to two stages in 2018, and a third stage was added in 2020. The race was further expanded in 2021 to four stages and then, last year, to five stages, where Annemiek van Vleuten won the overall titles in both editions.
For the first time since the inaugural event, the peloton competed over 700 kilometres with more than 8,500 metres of elevation across seven stages at the revamped event that organisers moved to May.
The mix of sprint and undulating early stages followed by three challenging final stages, which included the stage 7 grand finale that finished atop Lagos de Covadonga, a 16km ascent with an average of 7.4%, and which is the most featured mountaintop finish in La Vuelta’s history, marked a new phase of La Vuelta Femenina.
Many questioned how much the event's organisers were serious about their women's event and whether it could be considered a Grand Tour given its route history.
Previous to this year's event, Van Vleuten had stated that it wasn't challenging enough to be considered on the same level as the Giro d'Italia Donne or Tour de France Femmes.
However, the difficulty of the stages this year, coupled with the dramatic racing that took place across the seven days of racing, gave the event a whole new look and feel.
Whether the race stays in the May spot will soon be confirmed as organisers have indicated it could change dates again in the future.
Vos, Kool, Dygert
There were a few riders who took another step up in their form this season, and most prominent was Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), winning three stages and spent time wearing the overall race leader's jersey in the early stages of the event.
Vos' form was in question after a turbulent start that saw her recover from surgery to correct pelvic artery constriction, which sidelined her from defending her rainbow jersey at the Cyclocross World Championships.
Like Van Vleuten, she also took her first win of the season as part of Jumbo-Visma in the opening team time trial at La Vuelta Femenina. She finished second on stage 2, behind Charlotte Kool (Team DSM), to take the race lead and then went on to secure two more wins on stage 3 and stage 4, signalling that she is indeed back at her top form.
Kool's stage win into Pilar de la Horadada was also a sign that she is back at her best after a promising start to the season, where she took two stages at the UAE Tour.
Another rider who made a strong start to her European racing season was Chloé Dygert (Canyon-SRAM). The former time trial World Champion and seven-time track World Champion returned to racing after a 14-month break from road racing due to a variety of health issues, including a lengthy recovery from a leg injury, Epstein Barr, and heart problems.
La Vuelta Femenina marked her first stage race in Europe with Canyon-SRAM, and she helped the team to second place in the team time trial and two more podium finishes on stage 2 and stage 3. Although she pulled out of the race ahead of the mountains on stage 6, her performance showed a promising ahead of the rest of the season.
Ricarda Bauernfeind (Canyon-SRAM Racing), Évita Muzic and Loes Adegeest (FDJ-SUEZ) and Alena Ivanchenko (UAE Team ADQ) are just a few of the new faces that worked their way into the top results across the seven stages of La Vuelta Femenina.
As Jumbo-Visma stormed to the opening team time trial win, it was Anna Henderson who took the event's first leader's jersey.
As the race progressed, and many of professional cycling's familiar faces secured stage wins and podiums, there were some stand-out performances beginning with Blanka Vas (SD Worx), Rachele Barbieri (Liv Racing TeqFind) and Alba Teruel (Laboral Kutxa Fundación Euskadi), and Nina Kessler (Team Jayco AlUla), all sprinting into the top-10 on the second day of racing.
On the third day, Emma Norsgaard (Movistar), who had just returned to racing, and Tamara Dronova-Balabolina (Israel Premier Tech Roland) also were part of the finale into La Roda. Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), who returning from maternity leave at the Ardennes Classics, raced to sixth on stage 4, showing that she is easing into promising form for her targets later in the season.
On the climbs, Bauernfeind and Muzic challenged for the stage win on the first summit atop Mirador de Peñas Llanas, finishing third and fourth, respectively. And the pair, again, showed their climbing strength on Lagos de Covadonga, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively, and both securing top-10 overall.