Tactical controversy, thrilling racing, and Van Vleuten rising - the Vuelta Femenina 2023 in review
We take a look back at a memorable week of racing in Spain
In its first year in a new, extended format, La Vuelta Femenina can perhaps finally lay claim to the Grand Tour name to match the Giro Donne and Tour de France Femmes. With a variety of types of stage including a team time trial, and an impressive reach – possibly a little too ambitious as the transfer distances far exceeded those actually taken on by the riders – this year’s overhauled Vuelta delivered on many levels.
Exploring some of the key talking points that arose from throughout the seven days of racing, let’s look back at what made the first edition of the new iteration of the Spanish Grand Tour so memorable.
Although the Vuelta was considered a lesser race in previous years, a stage win there was something of a glaring omission from the extensive palmarès of one Marianne Vos, especially considering her incredible record at the Giro Donne of 32 stage victories.
Even after just one Tour de France Femmes, the greatest of all time won a quarter of all possible stages there, and enjoyed a stint in yellow. Vos amended the discrepancy by taking two stages at La Vuelta and enjoyed a spell in the red jersey before exchanging it for green, which she held onto all the way to the finale. In her 20th season of professional competition, there’s no sign of Vos fading – long live the queen.
Canyon’s missing piece
Canyon//SRAM are a team that are so often there or thereabouts in big races, but despite this they lack the victories that their hard work suggests they deserve. With the return of Chloe Dygert to the fold, the team might have an answer to the question of where the wins are going to come from. The American made a big statement on her return, narrowly missing out on the red jersey after her team crossed the line just one second behind Jumbo-Visma in the team time trial, and finishing third on the next two stages, behind Team DSM’s Charlotte Kool and Vos herself on two consecutive sprint finishes. Dygert even hung on to the lead group until 2km to go on the final climb of stage four before falling away to finish 23rd, at which point her team pulled her from the race to continue in her recovery. It’s a promising sign for the team moving into the summer.
Too fast for TV
While massive in-roads have been made into improving the broadcasting of women’s cycling over the past couple of years, things aren’t always perfect. Stage three was a prime example of a day when the logistics just don’t line up, resulting in a lost opportunity for both fans and broadcasters alike. On a thrilling day in the crosswinds, the broadcast dropped in with just 27km remaining on the stage, and with Movistar having already ripped the peloton to shreds and Trek-Segafredo missing out in the resulting echelons, it felt like opening a book with just a couple of chapters remaining, having missed the key plot points that led to the current chaos. Strong tailwinds and furious racing led to an incredibly high pace which just didn’t marry up with the scheduled broadcast time and it was one of those days where full coverage would have been the least the women deserved.
Realini comes of age
Gaia Realini is arguably one of the most talked about riders of the season following her move to Trek-Segafredo and her incredible performances in the UAE Tour. After taking her first win in Trofeo Oro she has promised greater things to come and despite a strong Ardennes Classics campaign, La Vuelta offered the pint-sized Italian the chance to show her mettle on a grander stage.
Hanging on to the wheel of Annemiek van Vleuten when no-one else could, Realini stuck with the world champion all the way to the line where she was able to dig in and take her first WWT win (the less said about the resulting farce of who actually won the stage, the better). She finished on the podium in third place in the GC and Vollering and Van Vleuten will have to pay her close attention in the battles to come.
GC hopes in waiting
While much of the early season buzz regarding new talent in the women’s peloton has centred around Realini, there have been several stand-out performances over the past week of racing that promise a very bright future indeed when it comes to competitive racing. Probably the breakthrough performance of the week, Ricarda Bauernfeind of UAE Team ADQ came third on the tough stage to Riaza, only losing out to Vollering and Van Vleuten. FDJ-Suez’s Évita Muzic came in fourth that day and has also had a great week, as has Team Jumbo-Visma’s Riejanne Markus, coming fourth on GC. Erica Magnaldi (UAE Team ADQ) and Lois Adegeest (FDJ-Suez) have also had memorable weeks. Simply put: women’s racing is in a very good place right now.
Racing tactics cause friction
The explosive action of stage six not only blew the general classification wide open, but it also raised a few questions over the nature of sportsmanship, and debates raged across social media and shade was thrown by former red jersey wearer Demi Vollering on Instagram, as she selected the word ‘deception’ to describe how her day had gone.
Van Vleuten was pragmatic, claiming Movistar had planned all along to up the pressure as they turned into the crosswinds and avoid making a costly mistake, and suggesting that SD Worx ill-timed bathroom break was their error. Others suggested it was bad form to attack a team taking a comfort break, which seemed to be reflected in Vollering’s reaction. Clearly, there will be no love lost between the rivals as the season unfolds.
Van Vleuten rising
Riding her final season before retirement, the Classics season didn’t go the way many might have expected for Annemiek van Vleuten. Her goals lay later in the season however, with La Vuelta the first of them, and she timed her form exquisitely.
Notching up her performance on stage five finishing just three seconds behind Demi Vollering, she moved into the red jersey on stage six before clawing back enough of the gap on the ascent of Lago de Covadonga to ensure she won the overall classification, just nine seconds ahead of her rival from SD Worx. It was a thrilling finale to a compelling week of racing, and promises a summer of intense racing with narrow margins, a factor that has often been missing in recent years in women’s stage racing. It’s going to be unmissable.