Road

Women’s pro racing returns this week with three punishing Spanish races

The women's peloton returns to the start line in Spain this week after four months of a dramatically different off-season.

Last year, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC-Liv) and Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott) each celebrated a win in Northern Spain; Moolman-Pasio at the inaugural Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa and Kennedy at the longstanding Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria.

This week, both women are headed back to Northern Spain for three hilly one-day events: Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa on July 23, Clasica Femenina Navarra on July 24, and Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria on July 26.

The three races form the first major bloc of professional women’s road racing since the novel coronavirus shut down the sport back in March. And they fall just one week before the UCI Women’s WorldTour starts back up again with Strade Bianche in Italy.

“These races will shed some light on what to expect at Strade Bianche but won’t tell the whole story,” Kennedy told VeloNews. “Some riders race well from training alone while some need to sharpen up through racing, which these opportunities provide before we head to Tuscany.”

The opening two events are held in the hilly country around Pamplona. Thursday’s Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa traces a twisting 119km route over four categorized climbs, with the punchy Zuarrarrate ascent (6.3km at 5.1 percent) peaking just nine kilometers from the finish in Lekunberri.

On Friday, the 121km route starts and finishes in Pamplona, with riders taking in seven shorter but steeper climbs — the Biurrun ascent is just half a kilometer in length, but it averages 11.6 percent.

The hilly races in Spain feature plenty of steep ascents. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

And the 114km race on Sunday spins five circuits on a rolling course before tackling two punchy ascents just before the finish. All three races should favor punchy climbers.

The three races will also shed light on which riders have found their racing form after nearly five months away from competition. In that regard, Kennedy and Moolman-Pasio sit at opposing ends of the training spectrum. Kennedy departed Europe for Australia during the pandemic, where she was able to train outdoors without any restrictions. Moolman-Pasio, by contrast, spent the lockdown in Spain, riding and racing indoors on Zwift.

“I realized if I could have a bigger picture mentality and work on self-development, looking at my weaknesses and how I could become a better cyclist during this period, then that would be a strength and advantage going into the season,” Moolman-Pasio said.

Will their performances in Spain look dramatically different? Will the races in the Basque country serve as a bellwether of the season to come? And furthermore, will there be a season to come?

At the start line on Thursday, Moolman-Pasio will be one of the only riders in the peloton with 2020 palmares to her name; the South African took to virtual racing during the lockdown and scored victories at Zwift’s Zwift Classics, Tour for All, and the Virtual Tour de France series. Her pivot to eracing was a way to carve out an advantage over other riders who might have felt unmotivated by a lack of in-real-life racing.

Moolman-Pasio’s virtual victories also translated to gains outside, as well. On May 2, just as Spain lifted its lockdown restrictions, she broke her own best time on Girona’s famed Rocacorba climb.

“I decided, ‘well, OK, all this great work I’ve done on the trainer and on Zwift, let’s see how it relates to outdoor cycling,'” she said. “I managed to improve my time by like three and a half minutes, so I set a time of 31:09 fresh out of lockdown. It was a pretty cool experience.”

Of course Strava segments and accolades in eracing are no guarantee for success at the start line. Kennedy has spent the past four months in decidedly different circumstances yet also feels like she’s coming into the season at peak fitness.

“I live in a very warm part of Australia where training conditions were perfect, and I was able to train outside the whole time,” Kennedy said. “I had a very consistent training block, and all signs are positive.”

In 2019 Kennedy finished two seconds behind Moolman-Pasio at Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa before taking the top step at the Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria.

Ronny Lauke, director of women’s WorldTeam Canyon-SRAM, says that, given the extenuating circumstances of the past few months, form won’t be the only component critical to success.

“I think you will see who has worked and been very focused during lockdown,” he said. “The profile of the races doesn’t seem very easy. You need to have some form to be competitive and survive these races. Of course it’s not only physical but also psychological to see who has overcome the difficulty of this time better than others.”

Although the results from the Basque country may inform us about how healthy the peloton is physically and psychologically, the races will also shed light on perhaps the most critical issue of all: if it’s feasible to race during a pandemic. While Strade Bianche only falls six days after Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, the degree to which things can change in relation to the threat of COVID-19 cannot be underestimated. If there is one thing that riders have learned this year, it’s how to let go of certainty.

“I’m comfortable with the situation and going ahead with racing but also very realistic that race could stop at any point,” Moolman-Pasio said. “So my approach to the season is that every race is the only race that exists. I’m going to go in and give absolute best in every race because at any point the season could stop.”