Stage 5 of La Vuelta Femenina, the first of two mountaintop finishes, offered the perfect terrain for a Demi Vollering vs. Annemiek van Vleuten showdown. On the slopes of Mirador de Peñas Llanas, it was Vollering who took her sixth WorldTour victory of the season. Van Vleuten crossed the line a few bike lengths behind, and the young German on Canyon-SRAM Ricarda Bauernfeind rolled in for third.
With the victory, Vollering also moved into the red jersey, as her countrywoman Marianne Vos finished 2:17 down. But just as important, Vollering confirmed what the Ardennes Classics sweep suggested: that she’s made another step up in her progression and is ready to challenge Van Vleuten for the title of the best stage racer in the women’s peloton.
Vollering has come a long way from the fresh-faced up-and-coming rider who signed her first contract with Parkhotel Valkenburg in 2019 when Van Vleuten was already in her 11th year as a professional. While Van Vleuten had rocked to the top step of the podium for nearly every race on the calendar since the 2016 Olympic Games, Vollering’s development was prodigious in its own right. By the time the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift rolled around in 2022, Vollering was a clear favourite and hopeful to unseat the queen.
But the longer climbs in the latter half of the race were right up Van Vleuten’s alley, and even recovering from a stomach bug she’d suffered in the first few days, Van Vleuten was able to ride away from Vollering at will.
Already in the first races of 2023, it was easy to tell the dynamic had shifted in Vollering’s favour. From March’s Strade Bianche on, she was never outside the top two of any race she entered, and she took wins in events as diverse as Dwars door Vlaanderen and La Flèche Wallonne. Van Vleuten, on the other hand, looked to be on the back foot, and certainly not the Van Vleuten of old who could ride away from the peloton whenever she put down one of her signature attacks.
But the punchy climbs of the Ardennes are one thing, and it was only a year ago Van Vleuten won the Giro Donne, Tour de France Femmes, and Vuelta all in one go. She can never be discounted, and the climbs of La Vuelta Femenina are her bread and better.
Stage 5 was the first major test, the first time Vollering and Van Vleuten would go head to head since Vollering finished runner-up to Van Vleuten at the Tour de France Femmes.
The race imploded on the first Category 1 climb, with Van Vleuten’s teammate and other general classification prospect Liane Lippert getting dropped early on, which settled the question of Movistar’s tactics. Throughout the day the two Dutchwomen sat and waited, and even as attacks flew on the early slopes of the final ascent they didn’t react.
Slowly riders were spat out the back of the lead group under the pace of Trek-Segafredo’s Gaia Realini. Vollering took control of the pace with two kilometres left in the climb, and Van Vleuten was quick to match her rival. As Vollering put pressure on the race rivals started dropping like flies, and with less than a kilometre to go it was only the two, Évita Muzic of FDJ-Suez and Bauernfeind left.
Van Vleuten first hit the wind with about 400 meters to go, but Vollering’s body language spoke volumes. In the WorldTour leader’s jersey, Vollering barely had to get out of the saddle to distance her rival and take the stage and the lead of the race.
It’s not over
So is Vollering the new queen? It’s not so simple. After all, she only distanced Van Vleuten in the final metres, and the finish atop Mirador de Peñas Llanas was only an appetiser ahead of what we will see in the final two stages of La Vuelta. Into the sixth stage, Vollering will wear red with only five seconds advantage over Van Vleuten, a gap that seems insignificant but could make the battle interesting.
Stage 6 covers 106 km and includes two Category 2 climbs near the finish. The finale is flat, but the climbs with disintegrate the race and it will likely be the favourites on display again in Laredo. Even if the stage win is taken by a breakaway, the climbs will still offer an opportunity for GC hopefuls to make some moves.
Stage 7, on Sunday, is a Van Vleuten trademark day, with two 12+ km long climbs, the second of which has grades of 20%. That’s a day that will test Vollering’s new skills on the toughest terrain, against her most formidable rival.
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