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Challenge by La Vuelta preview: Annemiek van Vleuten back in action and ready to defend title

Spanish race continues to expand with new five-day route.

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After beginning life as a one-day event tagged onto the end of the men’s Vuelta a España, the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta has developed into a fully-fledged stage race with a varied parcours.

Growing the race has always been part of the plan and days have gradually been added in recent seasons to up the challenge. It’s changing face is mirrored in the varied riders that have won the race, from Shelly Olds in 2015 to Annemiek van Vleuten last year.

If the 2023 UCI calendar is anything to go by, the race is set to expand to seven days for next year and it will have the new name of La Vuelta Feminina.

Whatever the plans are for 2023, the riders will still face a tough five-day contest from the north coast of Spain, down toward Madrid to coincide with the conclusion of the men’s Vuelta. It is the longest Challenge by La Vuelta to date, one more day than last year’s route.

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Finishing in Madrid connects the race to the men’s Vuelta, but it is a distinctly individual race that shows off the skillsets of the women’s peloton.

Some have dubbed it as one of the “grand tours” due to its connection with the men’s competition, but that is a contentious assertion given that there are other, longer and more prestigious races on the calendar. Nevertheless, a win in Spain this week will be a big one for whoever tops the podium.

The favorites: Can Annemiek van Vleuten do the double?

Van Vleuten stormed to a dominant and dramatic victory at last year’s La Vuelta. After losing time on the opening stage, she battled back in the time trial before going on a long-range solo attack on stage 3 to grab the overall win by 1:34 ahead of Marlen Reusser.

The Movistar rider comes back to the race following a triumphant summer that saw her win the Giro d’Italia Donne and the Tour de France Femmes. Aside from a couple of criteriums, she has stayed away from racing since the end of the Tour as she builds up for the Vuelta and the Worlds.

She may not be as clear-cut of a favorite compared to the Giro and the Tour, but Van Vleuten is never to be underestimated in races like this and she’s always in it to win it when she lines up at a race start.

Van Vleuten will face some stiff competition in the form of last year’s runner-up Marlen Reusser, and Tour de France Femmes runner-up Demi Vollering. Riding for the same team, SD Worx, the pair could make a formidable duo across the five days of racing.

Vollering is returning to racing after crashing out of the Tour of Scandinavia in early August with a concussion, so her form is a relative unknown.

Kristen Faulkner (BikeExchange-Jayco) could also be a contender for the podium after a strong debut season in the WorldTour.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope) has had a strong second half to her season lately with her recent overall win at the Tour of Scandinavia. She will lead FDJ with Grace Brown and Evita Muzic providing some serious strength behind her.

Team DSM also brings a strong pairing in Juliette Labous and Liane Lippert, with Lippert likely to play the supporting role and backup plan for the team.

Others to watch out for will be the likes of Mavi Garcia (UAE Team Emirates) and Lucinda Brand (Trek-Segafredo). Olympic champion Anna Kiesenhofer will be making an appearance at the race after signing a one-off deal with the Soltec team to race.

The route: A five-day journey through Spain

The 2022 route has been designed with the plan to get the riders to Madrid by Sunday. It leaves little chance for seeking out major mountains but there are still plenty of climbs to be had along the way.

Beginning in Marina de Cudeyo, the race will kickstart with a team time trial. It is a 19.9km test that will likely play a definitive role in the final GC. It is a relatively flat parcours with just a few undulations along the way to test the riders.

Stage 2 out and back to Colindres will see the riders head right into mountains with five classified climbs littering the route. Of the day’s ascents, two have been awarded first category status and both come in the second half of this 106.5km stage.

First up is the Campo Layal, a 6.6km climb that averages 6.1 percent. Fuente las Varas comes after a short ride through the valley and is six kilometers long with an average gradient of 6.2 percent. The final climb of the day is the 3.2km second category Campo la Cruz. From the top, there’s a 15km run to the finish line.

Stage 2 of the Challenge by La Vuelta
Stage 2 of the Challenge by La Vuelta

After two stages near the coast, the race begins its trek inland for stage 3 with a short 96.5km ride from Camargo to Aguilar de Campoo. Though it is classified as a flat day, it’s not a straightforward sprint day with the second category Hoces de Bárcena coming 50k into the day.

It only averages 3.4 percent, but it’s the longest climb of the race at 16km. Though it officially tops out with just over 30km to go, there are still lots of rolling roads to contend with.

Setting off from Palencia at 735 meters above sea level, stage 4 might be fairly flat but it’s at an altitude higher than some classified climbs during this race. This 160km stage will bring the riders toward the outskirts of Madrid.

It features constantly rolling roads and an uphill finish on a fourth-category climb that will make the race hard to control. It is the perfect finish for riders like Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) or Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma).

Stage 5 sees the peloton race around the traditional Madrid circuit with 17 laps totaling a distance of 96 kilometers. If previous years are anything to go by, this won’t be a ceremonial crowning of the winner, it will be a fast and furious finale.