La Vuelta Femenina: Demi Vollering aims to take Ardennes success into stage race form
New-look Vuelta Femenina steps closer to becoming a true grand tour with seven-day distance.
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Cycling winds back the clock a few years next month with a Vuelta a España in May.
The men’s race — which moved to August back in 1995 — hasn’t suddenly moved to the spring, instead it is the revamped women’s race that is set to ride out of Torrevieja on May 1.
After the first eight editions were held in conjunction with the conclusion of the men’s race, La Vuelta Femenina has been swapped to the earlier slot in the calendar due to the world championships taking place in August and causing some congestion in the last summer.
La Vuelta Femenina is just the third Women’s WorldTour stage race of the year, and the first in almost three months. Since the UAE Tour back in February, the calendar has been dominated by the one-day classics, and the Spanish stage race marks a change in focus as the Giro d’Italia Donne and the Tour de France Femmes loom in the summer.
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The likes of Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) will be looking to fire an early warning shot before the biggest multi-day races of the year.
Vollering has been one of the dominant riders of the spring and comes into the race off the back of a triumphant Ardennes campaign where she became only the second woman to win the triple. She’s been selective with her racing schedule so far this season and has only raced eight days, so she should still be relatively fresh — a worrying thought for her rivals.
In contrast, Van Vleuten is looking to get back onto the top step of the podium after the longest wait in many years to claim her first win of the season. While Van Vleuten has been not at her best so far in her final season as a professional, she still remains a serious threat.
The longer climbs of the Vuelta Femenina changes the dynamic of the challenge for both riders and what went down in the Ardennes is not necessarily what will play out in Spain.
Details of the start list are few and far between, but American stars Veronica Ewers (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB) and Kristen Faulkner (Jayco-AlUla) are set to race alongside Vollering and Van Vleuten. Both will be looking to smash their way into the top 10.
A new-look race
It’s not just the date that has changed for the women’s Vuelta, it’s had a complete overhaul since last year. The name is completely new, having being previously called the Madrid Challenge before it left the Spanish capital and was renamed the Challenge by La Vuelta.
In many respects, this is an entirely new race.
In addition to the new name, it has an all-new title sponsor in the supermarket chain Carrefour. There’s also an updated red leader’s jersey that is markedly similar to the men’s one — it was red before but came with purple accents.
The biggest change to note is the addition of two stages, to make it a seven-day event — the third longest on the calendar after the Giro and Tour.
Since its inception as the one-day Madrid Challenge back in 2015, race organizer Unipublic has been gradually adding on stages to build out the race. Last year saw its biggest ever with a total of five days of racing.
Branching out to seven stages sees the race step closer to the realm of becoming an official women’s grand tour, though that title remains a hotly debated one. Its growth is part of a big push in women’s cycling in Spain, with a bustling grassroots scene as well as three Women’s WorldTour events.
While there might be plenty to celebrate at the moment, there is some caution to be heeded, too. On Wednesday, the organizer confirmed that Spanish Continental team Zaaf wouldn’t be racing after it had pulled out of the event amidst a scandal about its failure to pay riders.
It means that just 23 teams will start in Torrevieja, instead of the previously planned 24. What lies in the future of the Zaaf squad is anybody’s guess at this stage.
A race across Spain
This year’s route is probably the race’s most ambitious with the riders setting out on the Costa Blanca of southeast Spain and finishing in the Asturias region of the northwest.
Starting with a 14.5km team time trial, the seven-day route incorporates a mixture of sprint days, hilly stages, and full-blown mountain feasts. Having previously been criticized for its short stages, the average daily distance has been amped up to 104.51km — the first time it’s gone over 100km per day.
Outside of the opening TTT, two stages are likely to define the contest for the overall title.
Stage 5 to Mirador de Peñas Llanas. Riaza will be the first major test of the GC favorites with a trip up the first-category Puerto de Navafría midway through the stage before the summit finish on the Mirador de Peñas Llanas.
The star of the show, however, will be the final stage to Lagos de Covadonga, which is likely to decide who takes home the win. The picturesque setting of the lakes will be the perfect conclusion to this new-look race, while the ride to them is going to be grueling.
It’s a climb that has become synonymous with the men’s race after it was introduced for the 1983 event. The 12.5km climb averages 6.9 percent with a maximum gradient of 15 percent that will put the peloton to the test.
Lagos de Covadonga will be a window into the long-climb form of the peloton and a preview of what we can expect in the summer.