The queen of stage racing added another trophy to her collection on Sunday. Annemiek van Vleuten won the first major stage race of the Women’s WorldTour season atop Lagos de Covadonga, despite a strong performance from her chief rival Demi Vollering who took the stage. Third overall was Gaia Realini in yet another breakout performance.
The final two stages offered aggressive, edge-of-your-seat racing from the top two favourites and the young Italian with Van Vleuten riding away on Stage 6 (albeit with Vollering already behind) and Vollering out-climbing the best climber in the world on Stage 7. Realini was equally impressive in both stages; after winning Stage 6 she took second on the final stage.
As expected, Vollering’s powerful SD Worx squad raced aggressively, putting Marlen Reusser into an early move and forcing Van Vleuten’s Movistar team to work. Lagos de Covadonga, the 12 km climb that ended the race, chipped away at the peloton until only Vollering, Van Vleuten, and Realini, the young Trek-Segafredo climber, were left. Vollering did most of the pacemaking, while Van Vleuten dangled on the back of the trio. Every time Realini came to the front Van Vleuten seemed to be under preassure, and finally with just over five km to the finish the Italian put in an acceleration that distanced the red jersey.
It was a moment unheard of in women’s cycling: for the first time in years, Van Vleuten couldn’t keep up. In previous seasons the world champion has been known to simply pull away from the peloton on random climbs with most of the race remaining just so she can descend by herself before re-grouping with the peloton behind. To see her distinctive style lose contact with the head of the race, on her favoured terrain, was not on our bingo card for 2023.
“I kept fighting till the end,” Van Vleuten said at the finish. “I didn’t have the best legs and I felt already on the climb that I didn’t have my best day, maybe a bit the effort of yesterday. But I never ever give up. I felt like I need to keep on pushing, keep on pushing, for sure they also will get tired. In the end it was close, but amazing team job.”
When Vollering crossed the line first all eyes turned to the clock, as the seconds ticked away. The SD Worx rider started the day 1:11 down on Van Vleuten, and making up that much time in the final five km was going to be a stretch.
In the end Van Vleuten crossed the line 56 seconds behind Vollering and held onto her red jersey by only nine seconds, a miniscule margin if you remember Van Vleuten also took six bonus seconds on Stage 6.
“The whole team fought really hard for it because we had something to make up for yesterday, so I am really happy that I could win here today,” Vollering said of the final stage. “Two stage wins is really nice, and it was close for the GC. If it was a bit different yesterday than I think we would have won the GC also.”
In a polite but pointed comment, she noted how Stage 6 had unfolded with her distanced in the early going after taking a nature break just as Movistar split the pack and crosswinds rose. “It’s sad that I was not able to battle yesterday with the best. I think today I showed what we are worth and I am really happy with our fight from today.”
Aside from the top two on GC a few young riders put their stamp on the race. Realini, the co-leader for Trek-Segafredo lived up to expectations on the final two stages. Her final margin to Van Vleuten, 2:41, was almost the exact same amount she lost in the Stage 3 crosswinds that hurt her Trek-Segafredo team badly. Her climbing talent promises to make the Giro Donne interesting if she is to attend her home “Grand Tour”.
Another notable performance was Ricarda Bauerfeind of Canyon-SRAM, who finished fifth overall, 3:53 down. The German rider is in her first season with the WorldTeam after riding for their development team in 2022. Her third-place finish on Stage 5 is one of the team’s best results of the season and also Bauerfeind’s career-best result.
Apart from the climbing a race highlight was seeing the return of Marianne Vos, who won two stages, three if you include the opening team time trial, and wore the leader’s jersey for three days.
The exciting finale wrapped up what was a thrilling first WorldTour stage race for the women, with as many questions answered as new questions were formed. The women will next line up for the three-day Itzulia Women on May 12th, with Vollering and Van Vleuten both expected to start.