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Vuelta Femenina: 6 lessons learned from revamped race

Annemiek van Vleuten is getting better, Gaia Realini is the real deal, and more lessons learned from the seven-day race.

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The Vuelta Femenina went out with a bang this weekend as Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) withstood an onslaught from Demi Vollering (SD Worx) to take the overall title.

It was the dramatic showdown that the organizers would have been hoping for when they put the iconic Lagos de Covadonga climb in the final stage.

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The seven days of racing from Torrevieja to Asturias delivered wall-to-wall action, drama, and it set up some exciting storylines for the rest of the season to come.

VeloNews has gathered together a few of the lessons we learned from the Vuelta Femenina.

The women’s Vuelta has finally arrived

The Vuelta Femenina peloton
The Vuelta Femenina peloton (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Last week’s race was billed as the first-ever Vuelta Femenina by the organizers. While, strictly speaking, it is the first race run under that name, it was a development of the Challenge by La Vuelta format run before it.

Since its inception in 2015, as the Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta, the race has gradually grown in stature on the calendar. However, it has never truly lived up to the Vuelta name with fairly short stages and no true blockbuster days.

Last year had just one proper hilly day and its highest climb was just over 400 meters with the longest ascent at 7km. There was a longer and taller climb in the race, but its gradient was too shallow to really trouble the GC riders.

Fast forward to this year and the race had its longest daily average distance and it had some proper ascents along the route. With the help of the weather, it all helped to build a varied race that had all sorts of action. Whether we can call it a grand tour yet is up for debate, but this year’s event was a superb edition.

Moving it away from the concurrent running with the men’s Vuelta also allowed the race to breathe and define its own story. Let’s hope that it will stay in May because this new date really worked.

Demi Vollering kept the hits coming

Demi Vollering won on Lagos de Covadonga
Demi Vollering won on Lagos de Covadonga (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

After a dominant Ardennes campaign that saw her become only the second woman to complete the triple, Vollering was the overwhelming favorite for the Vuelta, but it remained to be seen how she would turn that form into performances on the longer climbs.

However, Vollering didn’t skip a beat in terms of her racing prowess last week. She was clearly stronger than everyone else on stage 5 and was only matched by Gaia Realini on the uphill stuff on the final day, before dropping her on one of Lagos de Covadonga’s short descents.

Vollering struggled a little last year with being the big leader for SD Worx but she has embraced that role this year and it’s showing in her performances. It remains to be seen if she can hit this form again in the summer, but she’s laid down a big benchmark for her rivals already and she is the overwhelming favorite for yellow t the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

Gaia Realini is the real deal

Gaia Realini leads Demi Vollering and Annemiek van Vleuten
Gaia Realini leads Demi Vollering and Annemiek van Vleuten (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Gaia Realini has quickly been making a name for herself since she turned professional with Trek-Segafredo earlier this year. With a 13th and 11th-place finish at the Giro d’Italia Donne in the past, Realini had proven herself against top competition, but she has really stepped up this season.

After a strong Ardennes campaign that saw her take third at Flèche Wallonne, she came into the Vuelta on strong form, and she proved to be amongst the strongest climbers in the pack.

On the penultimate day, she was the only rider that could go with Annemiek van Vleuten when the Dutchwoman made the definitive attack and then beat her to the line. The following day, she did what Demi Vollering couldn’t do, and cracked Van Vleuten on Lagos de Covadonga. Had the climb not dipped down before the final rise, Realini could have taken another win.

Realini also rode herself onto the podium on the final day after losing a bunch of time on stage 3 when crosswinds blew the race apart. At 21, the Italian has plenty of room for development and it can’t be long before she wraps up a major GC win.

Annemiek van Vleuten is not as strong as 2022, but she’s getting there

Annemiek van Vleuten went all-in on the final stage
Annemiek van Vleuten went all-in on the final stage (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

After she monstered everything last year, it has been strange to see Annemiek van Vleuten in trouble on the bike, a position she has been in a few times this year. Van Vleuten has always thrived on the toughest of days and last week we saw perhaps her strongest rides so far this year.

Only twice in seven stages did she finish outside the top 5, and those were sprint finishes where she was just concerned with making it to the line on the same time as her rivals, rather than going for any kind of result.

Over the final three stages, she started to look a little more like herself. On stage 5, she was able to go with Demi Vollering on the tough final climb and was only distanced in the last meters as Vollering sprinted for the line.

The following day, Van Vleuten was in her element as she and her team capitalized on a mistake in windy conditions by the SD Worx squad. She went all in and dropped everyone except Realini and took a firm grasp on the red jersey.

It was clear on the final day that she had burned a few big matches with her big stage 6 attack, but she managed to do what she needed to keep red and take her first win of the year. This win will no doubt boost Van Vleuten and she’s got time to build her form before her next major races in the summer.

No love lost between SD Worx and Movistar

Movistar drills it on the front to distance Demi Vollering on stage 6
Movistar drills it on the front to distance Demi Vollering on stage 6 (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

The stage 6 split that saw Demi Vollering lose the red jersey proved to be more contentious than it first seemed. It later emerged that the SD Worx squad had stopped for a toilet break when the split occurred.

Cue the mudslinging. SD Worx accused Movistar of attacking because its riders had stopped. Meanwhile, Movistar said that it had always planned to go at that point and SD Worx was just poorly prepared.

Amidst the arguing, it was pointed out by some on social media that SD Worx had attacked when Van Vleuten suffered a puncture on the final stage to Planche des Belles Filles. Van Vleuten was in the yellow jersey at the time.

Whether or not this was Movistar’s attempt at payback, or it really was poor planning by SD Worx, we’ll probably never know. However, what we do know is that there is no love lost between the two teams.

Let’s see if this beef rumbles on into the summer and the Tour de France Femmes rematch.

Young riders shine

Ricarda Bauernfeind was one of the young stars of the race
Ricarda Bauernfeind was one of the young stars of the race (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

At the Vuelta Femenina, it wasn’t just Gaia Realini showing that there’s plenty of young talent in the peloton at the moment. There was a raft of young stars showing their potential on the roads to Lagos de Covadonga.

WorldTour debutant Ricarda Bauernfeind was repeatedly the last Canyon-SRAM rider at the front on some of the big mountain stages. The 23-year-old came through the team’s development squad and has swiftly eased into WorldTour racing. She finished fifth overall and promises plenty more in the years to come.

Evita Muzic has been racing at the top level for some time, but she is still only 23. After an injury-plagued 2022, she has been growing in stature this year. She was the last rider with Van Vleuten and Realini on the stage 5 raid and finished the week in sixth overall.

At 19, Alena Ivanchenko was one of the youngest riders in the Vuelta Femenina peloton. While she found herself caught out by some of the big moments earlier in the week, such as the crosswinds day, she held her own on Lagos de Covadonga and finished just over three minutes behind Vollering on the climb.

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