La Vuelta’s schedule shift sets up a fantastic stage race season

The calendar move was a risk, but it paid off in a big way. Here are the storylines we're watching for this season.

Demi Vollering, Annemiek van Vleuten and Gaia Realini on stage 7 of La Vuelta Femenina (Cor Vos © 2023)

The dust is settled on Lagos de Covadonga, but the rebrand and reschedule of what was the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta was a huge win, producing some of the most exciting racing of the year. What’s more, the race set up a tantalising glimpse of what we can expect from the Giro Donne and the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

The storylines were plentiful, although three stood out. Demi Vollering will not soon forget those nine seconds lost in controversial circumstances. Similarly, Annemiek van Vleuten will not forget the painful feeling of watching Vollering and Gaia Realini ride away on terrain where she’s long been able to dictate a race as she pleases. Unlike her podium mates’ ambivalent emotions, Realini is likely buzzing after her first WorldTour win and some impressive riding to secure third overall.

A winning shift

All of that was made possible by the schedule change for La Vuelta from fall to spring, even if it felt a bit abrupt. Just before World Championships, the race’s old September calendar slot saw competition suffer as riders were either barely holding fitness from a long season or skipped the race altogether to focus on Worlds.

Instead of the racing reprieve and time to sit with the results of Classics season, followed by a gentle start to stage racing with the flatter Women’s Tour, the Ardennes races in particular set up the transition to La Vuelta perfectly, and only a few big names sat out the Vuelta, presumably to focus on the Giro-Tour double.

The leaders jerseys line up on the final day of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta (Cor Vos © 2023)

That meant the race delivered a week of incredible racing where Vollering’s dominance, Realini’s emergence, and the dynamic of Van Vleuten’s unusually quiet spring and the progression of her teammate, Liane Lippert. We witnessed the triumphant returns of Marianne Vos and Emma Norsgaard, and aggressive racing with the entire peloton hoping to get the better of the dominant SD Worx team. It all provided a better trailer than anything you’ll see on Netflix.

There are roughly ten weeks to further build the suspense until the women line up in France. We’ll see both Vollering and Van Vleuten at Itzulia Women on May 12, but the proper rematch, with all the stakes, won’t commence until July 23 in Clermont-Ferrand.

The storylines we’re watching

Van Vleuten has won almost every major race on the calendar, and in recent years has been the rider at the top when it comes to stage racing. At last year’s Tour de France Femmes there were moments the Movistar rider looked like she could be beat, but as soon as the mountains hit she did what she does best and rode away.

Clearly, Vollering took the loss as a learning experience and the younger Dutch rider has come into the new season with a point to prove. All spring she’s outshined her compatriot, and at La Vuelta, she put her new climbing ability to the test to drop Van Vleuten on not one but two hilltop finishes.

Annemiek van Vleuten crosses the finish line on stage 7 of La Vuelta Femenina, 56 seconds down but safe in the GC lead (Cor Vos © 2023)

Add in the fact that the two riders are backed by vastly different teams. SD Worx is built of winners, and on any given day during the spring, they could and did hand leadership to five different riders on their roster. That strength carries over into the stage racing when they put their full force behind Vollering.

Movistar on the other hand has slowly built their team from a Spanish development squad into a top team in women’s cycling, especially this year with the additions of Lippert and Floortje Mackaij. Since their lineup isn’t as strong on paper they have to be smarter, and it worked in their favour in La Vuelta. Movistar’s echelons on Stage 6 ultimately delivered Van Vleuten the overall victory, but they’ll need different tactics in the future; that is not something SD Worx will allow to happen again.

Fast forward to the Tour de France Femmes, Vollering will need to hold her form through a busy couple of months. The Dutchwoman is down to race the three-day Itzulia followed by Vuelta a Burgos. She will sit out the Giro Donne and instead spend some time at altitude before she heads to France.

Demi Vollering finishes second to Van Vleuten on the final stage of the 2022 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift (Cor Vos © 2022)

Van Vleuten’s build-up includes the 10-day race in Italy but skips Vuelta a Burgos.

In that time can Van Vleuten close the gap between herself and Vollering on the climbs, or will she need to find another way to beat her rival in France? Perhaps in the 22 km time trial that ends the race?

Sprinters’ Duel

Another fantastic rivalry that has been brewing this season is the sprinting duo of Lorena Wiebes and Charlotte Kool. With Wiebes absent from La Vuelta, Kool walked away with the second stage. Only Vos was there to challenge the 24-year-old Dutch rider.

Charlotte Kool outsprints Marianne Vos to take the second stage of La Vuelta Femenina (Cor Vos © 2023)

Kool’s calendar is up in the air, but at the moment it doesn’t include the Giro Donne, and Wiebes is also not down for the Italian race. It looks as though Wiebes will be present at the Tour de France Femmes, where she will hope to repeat her success in 2022 when she won the opening stage as well as stage 5. There are three possible sprint days in this year’s Tour de France Femmes, including Stage 1, where the first yellow jersey will heighten the stakes.

Kool and Wiebes will have to watch out for Vos, who especially on the first Tour stage will be at her best. But the other stages, especially Stages 3 and 6, are the perfect terrain for a Kool vs Wiebes showdown.

The next generation rises

One of the most exciting new storylines to come out of La Vuelta was the new riders on the scene. Realini, of course, who finished third overall and won the penultimate stage will be an exciting prospect to challenge Van Vleuten at her home Giro Donne. But Realini wasn’t the only young gun to breakthrough in Spain last week. Canyon-SRAM’s Ricarda Bauernfeind stuck with Van Vleuten and Vollering when the latter threw down on the fifth stage and ended up finishing fifth overall.

Ricarda Bauernfeind after stage 3 of the 2022 Thuringen – Rundfahrt (Cor Vos © 2022)

Bauernfeind only joined the WorldTour peloton this season; in 2022 she was part of the Canyon-SRAM’s development program, Generation. She finished her only season with the new outfit with a handful of standout performances at Vuelta Andalucia, Internationale LOTTO Thüringen Ladies Tour, and CIC-Tour Féminin des Pyrénées. She also finished second behind Lippert at the German National Championships road race.

Then there’s Évita Muzic. The FDJ-Suez rider has been hovering near breakthrough territory since she won the final stage of the Giro Rosa in 2020. In the years since she’s achieved a few notable results but hasn’t quite emerged as a general classification contender until La Vuelta. On the final stage, she climbed exceptionally well to finish fourth on the day and ended up sixth overall.

Évita Muzic leads teammate Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig during Stage 7 of the 2022 Tour de France Femmes (Cor Vos © 2022)

With the women’s peloton continuing to become more professional these young riders have resources at their fingertips that their more experienced colleagues never had, like altitude training camps, nutritionists, and better coaching and equipment.

In the years to come more young talents will continue to push the level higher, and as the calendar adds races where the winner needs to excel in the mountains more women will challenge the likes of Van Vleuten.

It’s not just Van Vleuten v Vollering

Although SD Worx, Movistar and Trek-Segafredo have long been the top teams in the game other teams are making moves to challenge the top three. Jumbo-Visma, the team of Vos, now as a real GC contender in Riejanne Markus. The Dutch national champion finished fourth overall. She carried her form into Navarra Classic on Wednesday where she won solo. Over the years the former super domestique has turned herself into a fierce time trialist and now it seems she has her eyes set on a leaders jersey.

Riejanne Markus wins Navarra Women’s Elite Classic (Cor Vos © 2023)

Her team set her up perfectly in the opening team time trial of La Vuelta where they won by a second over Canyon-SRAM, another team that has seemingly shifted their style of racing. The German team that came onto the scene in 2016, formed out of the ashes of the old HTC-Highroad/Specialized-Lululemon programs. Their lineup has always been a strong one but in recent years the results haven’t materialized, and even though they left La Vuelta emptyhanded they still look like a team with renewed ambition.

Elise Chabbey continued to chip away at her potential, Chloe Dygert forcefully asserted herself into the conversation before permaturely exiting the race, and Kasia Niewiadoma tried some new moves in the final stage. The new tactics are likely thanks to the team’s new director sportif Magnus Backstedt, a legend on the men’s side of the sport, Backstedt joined the team this year.

The TdF Femmes is going to be fantastic

A year ago the favourites for the Tour de France Femmes were realistically only Vollering and Van Vleuten, and going into its second year they remain the two favourites. But there’s a handful of new riders coming for their spots on the podium.

Both Van Vleuten and Vollering will be looking ahead to the Tour de France Femmes with a bit of anxiety. There’s no telling who will be stronger, Van Vleuten, the experienced seasoned professional or Vollering the relatively-new rockstar. But they can’t just be looking at each other. Multiple riders will be spurred to new heights after La Vuelta, and it will make the Tour de France Femmes all the more exciting.

Already there are multiple storylines developing for a race ten weeks away, and those stories will continue to take shape as we move through the Spanish stage races in May, RideLondon and the national championships, and the Giro Donne. The two different pathways to the Tour between Vollering and Van Vleuten, with Van Vleuten going again for the triple and Vollering focusing more on yellow, further fuel the unknown of who will be the better in France. I, for one, am counting down the days.

Annemiek Van Vleuten pictured after the final stage of La Vuelta Femenina (Cor Vos © 2023)

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