The first step in winning a stage race is not to lose it. That’s a lesson SD Worx’s Demi Vollering learned the hard way on Stage 6 of La Vuelta Femenina as she lost contact with the leaders in early-stage crosswinds, lost major time, lost her race lead, and likely the overall title to Annemiek van Vleuten.
As expected, the stage was a nasty one: with a pair of Category 2 climbs the day was deceptively challenging enough for Van Vleuten to ride away from the race, taking only Gaia Realini with her, and secure the race lead by 1:11 over Vollering. At the finish, the main drama was which rider prevailed in the sprint, as confusion reigned over the photo finish before Realini’s first WorldTour victory was verified. But the action started well before that, and well before anyone really expected.
Vollering and her powerhouse team had played the crosswinds perfectly on Stage 3, and on the first summit finish on Stage 5 had been tactically astute and aggressive to take the win and overall lead. It looked, finally, like the long-dominant Van Vleuten had a significant challenge in stage racing.
Since Vollering proved the stronger climber of the two on the previous stage, Van Vleuten went in a different direction when she made her move on Saturday. Just 30 km into the race Vollering stopped for a nature break in what proved to be the worst possible moment, as crosswinds hit the race soon after. Van Vleuten’s Movistar team went to the front and distanced the red jersey enough that when Van Vleuten attacked on the first climb the SD Worx leader was already in trouble.
With 4.4 km left to climb Van Vleuten hit the front, Realini tight on her wheel, and with the injection of pace the riders behind started to string out and get left behind. Vollering chased, at that point a minute and a half down, with her teammate Niamh Fisher-Black.
With her chief rival distanced, Van Vleuten could dictate the race with her customary dominance. By the time the race crested the first climb, Van Vleuten was already away with Realini and a couple of other GC favourites.
At the base of the second climb, Van Vleuten executed her signature long-range attack, with Realini close behind, and the two rode the final kilometres together. The young Italian on Trek-Segafredo let her older rival lead and by the finish, Realini was able to narrowly outsprint Van Vleuten for her first WorldTour victory.
The final stage features two major climbs, the latter of which contains slopes of 20%. Lagos de Covadonga is a brutal climb featured over 20 times in the men’s Vuelta, but Stage 7 will be the first time women have raced up the 12 km ascent.
Vollering still looks to be the stronger climber, but over a minute is a lot of time to make up, and as Van Vleuten proved on Saturday the world champion is still the queen of stage racing.