The women’s peloton headed home from Sardinia on Sunday with nine extremely tough days of racing in their legs after the Giro d’Italia Donne reached its conclusion. After Annemiek van Vleuten’s dominance throughout, it is fair to say that the fight for the general classification didn’t reach have the exciting crescendo that fans hope for from a stage race (the abandonment of Lidl-Trek’s Elisa Longo Borghini after her crash on stage five and the heavily front-loaded course design can be blamed for this), but there is still plenty to talk about from the longest women’s stage race of the season.
What does Van Vleuten’s performance tell us about what we should expect from the Tour de France Femmes in a few weeks time? Who are the young talents to watch out for in stage races to come? Will the Giro finally be a bit more professional when RCS Sport takes over the organisation of the race in 2024? Here are the key talking points from the 2023 edition of the Giro d’Italia Donne.
Van Vleuten will go out with a bang
For a moment earlier this season, it looked like we might never see the Annemiek van Vleuten of old again. It appeared as if the strength she had shown in previous years, when she attacked and rode away from her rivals to win stage races by minutes, was a mere memory. It seemed that now, everyone could follow her when she put the hammer down on the mountains; Van Vleuten was still very good, but she was not, as Elisa Longo Borghini once described her, “the alien” that we had seen in years previous. The Giro d’Italia Donne changed that.
Van Vleuten won the pink jersey on stage two after a solo breakaway that saw her beat Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Suez) who finished in second place by almost one minute. For the rest of the race, the maglia rosa never left her shoulders – Van Vleuten led with apparent ease and was never really in danger of losing her grasp on the Giro. In fact, she won so many pink jerseys that she was able to give one to her entire team at the end of the race to celebrate. In the end, Van Vleuten won the general classification by almost four minutes ahead of Juliette Labous (Team dsm-firmenich), as well as the points and the mountains jersey, not to mention three stage wins along the way. That’s what you call dominance.
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At the end of last year, Van Vleuten announced that the 2023 season would be her last in the professional peloton. The 40-year-old has won almost everything there is to win, with the Vuelta a España Femenina already under her belt this season too. For Van Vleuten to do the ‘triple’ (win all three ‘Grand Tours’ in women’s cycling) again this year, she will have to take a second consecutive win at the Tour de France Femmes in a few weeks time. Her form at the Giro says it is possible, but there is one obstacle: Demi Vollering.
SD Worx didn’t bring their usual strong climbing contingent to the Giro Donne this year, with the likes of Vollering and Marlen Reusser opting to stay home to prepare for the Tour de France at the end of this month. Only time will tell if Van Vleuten’s dominance at the Giro was an indicator that she will do the same at the Tour in a few months time, or if Vollering can pose a real challenge to her with the support of an extremely strong SD Worx team. But whether Van Vleuten manages another yellow jersey to add to her red and pink collection this season or not, it’s fair to say she will round out this season regarded as one of the best climbers in the world after this Giro Donne.
Hope and heartbreak - the arrival of Antonia Niedermaier
There are few stories in cycling from the past week that compare to that of Canyon//SRAM’s Antonia Niedermaier. In her first year with a WorldTour team, in her first ever WorldTour race and the longest one she’s ever competed in, the 20-year-old blew away expectations with a win on stage five to Ceres. During the stage, Niedermaier bridged to the front of the race and the group containing leader Van Vleuten with around 35km to go. Ten kilometres later, a strong and punchy attack got her a gap ahead of the final climb of the day and Niedermaier was able to ride solo to the line, holding off a furious chase from the pink jersey and taking her first WorldTour win.
Most people simply expect to gain experience from their first race with the big guns, and the gravity of Niedermaier’s result should not be underestimated. She asserted herself as one of the brightest young talents in the peloton and an important beacon of hope for Canyon//SRAM who have struggled to compete with the likes of Movistar and SD Worx in stage races over the last couple of years. Coming from a successful career in ski mountaineering, Niedermaier’s talent was evident last season when she won the Tour de l’Ardeche, but few expected the German rider to excel so much in her first ever attempt at a WorldTour stage race.
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But from the ecstasy of her unexpected win, came shattering agony the next day. Niedermaier’s victory on stage five had also catapulted her into second place on GC behind Van Vleuten – she was in the fight for a podium spot overall and was wearing the leader’s jersey for the best young rider classification. On stage six, the 20-year-old had been riding strongly on the climbs, but was taken out by an innocuous crash on the flat with around 30km of the stage remaining. TV cameras shot Niedermaier's face which was covered in blood (Canyon//SRAM later confirmed she had no fracture but her teeth needed to be repaired). As she sat, devastated, by the side of the road, her dreams of the Giro were over when they were only just beginning to come true.
Regardless of the eventual unfortunate outcome for Niedermaier, she asserted herself as a rider to watch for the rest of the season and in years to come, and will surely be proud of her performance at the Giro once the sting of the crash wears off.
A bright future for stage racing
Niedermaier wasn’t the only young talent to impress at the Giro d’Italia Donne this season, either. From climbers to sprinters, this race gave riders chances to excel across the board, with each day providing a fresh opportunity to go for a stage win. AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step’s Ally Wollaston proved once again that she is every bit as talented on the road as she is on the track, sprinting to two top-five places on the final two stages of the race. To perform this well at the end of a gruelling nine-day stage race is a sign of the Kiwi rider’s endurance and strength, making her one to watch for stage races to come.
It’s easy to forget that SD Worx’s Hungarian Champion Blanka Vas is still only 21-years-old, with her performances on the road in 2021 (a fourth place finish at the World Championships in Belgium) already announcing her as a big name on the WorldTour stage. Vas’s win on stage eight of the Giro Donne was another display of her talent that can sometimes get lost in the sea of SD Worx superstars. She is certainly one to watch for the World Championships in Glasgow in a few weeks time, she will be well-suited to the punchy course.
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Away from the stage winners, Juliette Labous of Team dsm-firmenich impressed with her consistency and climbing prowess throughout the Giro. The French rider ended up finishing second on the general classification behind Van Vleuten after riding a calm and mature race over the ten days. Labous’s fourth place at the Tour de France Femmes last year catapulted the 24-year-old into the spotlight and she has been steadily creeping up the ranks since then, well-suited to the long endurance efforts required of a stage racer. While everyone’s eyes are on Vollering and Van Vleuten this year for the Grand Tours, Labous is certainly one to watch for the future.
RCS can’t take over soon enough
Lizzie Deignan described the Giro d’Italia Donne as “organised chaos” in her post-race debrief on Instagram. While the British rider wrote it in an affectionate manner, it’s true that the organisation of the race has been sub-par for the longest-standing Women’s WorldTour stage race. It started before the race had even kicked off, with rumours about cancellation spreading like wildfire and an utter lack of information about the stage routes or profiles. While, luckily, the race did start when it was supposed to in Chianciano at the end of June, the live TV coverage of it was, once again, disappointing in places. We were regularly only shown the final two thirds of every stage, which meant that often crucial moments were missed, making it hard to follow and hard to report on.
In 2024, organisers of the men’s Giro d’Italia, RCS Sport, are due to take over the Giro d’Italia Donne which should hopefully bring an added layer of professionalism to the race. While it has become a sort of running joke amongst the women’s peloton that the Giro Done is known for its chaotic nature, the riders do, fundamentally, deserve better, especially with the Tour de France Femmes setting a standard of how stage races should be run. It was also hoped that the change in organisation may also lead to a change in position of the Giro Donne on the calendar. This year, it took place during the first week of the men’s Tour de France, which meant a lot of the coverage around the race was drowned out by the noise of the Tour. However, the UCI recently released the provisional calendar for 2024, and it looks like the position of the Giro Donne will just move forward for one week, meaning it will take place during the second week of the men’s Tour next year.
The racing at the Giro Donne deserved more than it got in terms of attention and it’s unfortunate that the same scenario could arise next year, too. However, the racing moving to the organisation of RCS is a step in the right direction, and we can only hope that it continues to improve year on year.
A big moment with little coverage
It was not widely reported on, but the Giro d’Italia Donne served as the final race of Marta Bastianelli’s career. At the start in Sassari ahead of the last stage, the peloton made a walkway for the UAE Team ADQ rider with their bikes, while fans applauded her for such an impressive 18-year stint in the women’s peloton. In the stage itself, Bastianelli – almost symbolically – led out the up-and-coming Italian rider Chiara Consonni to the stage victory, passing the baton to the incredibly talented generation of young riders coming through in women’s cycling in Italy.
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Bastianelli’s career was extremely fruitful – she has victories in Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, as well as the World Championships Road Race in 2007 – though not without its challenges. In 2008, she tested positive for a banned appetite suppressant, fenfluramine, and went on to serve a ban from the sport, something she blamed on “carelessness” while trying to lose weight.
After her ban, Bastianelli returned to the sport and proved herself still to be one of the most talented riders in the WorldTour, out-sprinting old and new riders in the peloton and remaining a world class sprinter even as she approached the end of her career. Bastianelli’s absence in the bunch will undoubtedly be felt – she was a rider who was always one to watch in the Belgian Classics and tough one-day races.