Women’s WorldTour stage racing is coming thick and fast in the month of May. Less than a week after La Vuelta Femenina concluded – in which Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) narrowly took victory – Itzulia Women will kick off on May 12. Spanning three days, the race takes in some of the toughest climbs of the Basque Country and will provide the perfect stage for the climbers of the peloton to flourish. Last year, Demi Vollering (SD Worx) took overall victory at Itzulia Women by over one minute after winning every single stage. She’ll be back to defend her title this year, but there are a number of other climbers who will also fancy their chances on the steep gradients that the Spanish climbs throw at them.
Stage one - Etxebarria › Markina-Xemein (122.2km)
Itzulia Women opens with an undulating 122.2 kilometre stage that begins in Etxebarria, a town and municipality located in the province of Biscay deep in the autonomous Basque country. The first 40 kilometres rise steadily towards Arrazola, taking in undulating terrain but no classified climbs. The first main obstacle of the day is the ascent of Gontzagaragiana, a third category climb that spans 2.6km with an average gradient of 6.5%. An intermediate sprint point follows shortly after the summit before a flat section of 30 kilometres towards the final climb of the day. Urkaregi is a long ascent of 5.8km with an average gradient of 4.6% and this should make the final selection of riders who will be able to fight it out for the stage win. Once the remainder of the peloton crests the summit of Urkaregi, a 7km descent to the finish line follows. This is a stage that will likely be too difficult for the sprinters and we could see a general classification battle right from the opening of Itzulia Women.
Stage two - Vitoria-Gasteiz › Amurrio (133.2km)
The first 50 kilometres of stage two provide the perfect opportunity for a breakaway to establish itself. With a relatively quiet start, the peloton hits the first climb of the day after around 22km of racing, La Tejera. This could be a good springboard for attacks from those who want to establish a breakaway group – it’s a 3km ascent averaging a 6.5% gradient. For the next 70 kilometres, the roads are gently rolling and it should be a relaxed day for the GC contenders. The final classified climb of Malkuartu comes with 30km of the race remaining but it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for the riders, it is 3.3km long with an average of 4.7% gradient. From then, it’s a simple run to the line apart from a steep climb and a descent 5 kilometres from the finish that could be used for attacks by those who would prefer a reduced bunch to sprint from.
Stage three - Donostia › Donostia (114.8km)
The route designers for Itzulia Women have definitely saved the best until last when it comes to the 2023 route. The final stage takes in some of the hardest climbs that the Basque region has to offer and will undoubtedly lead to an explosive finale in the general classification battle. It begins in Donostia with a rolling opening for the first 32km until the first climb of the day: the famed Jaizkibel. For many editions, this ascent has been a key climb in the men’s San Sebastían Classic, and it has even been included twice in recent years. Classified as a category one ascent, Jaizkibel spans for 7.9km and has an average gradient of 5.6% with some steep pitches coming at the start of the climb. Once the peloton summit Jaizkibel, they will descend into Irun until the second climb of the day, Gurutze, which is a far less challenging third category ascent. The last ascent of the day is Mendizorrotz which comes with around 30 kilometres to go to the finish. It spans 4.1km at 7.3% and is followed by a steep descent and flat run into San Sebastian to the finish line. By this point, we can expect the peloton to be split into multiple small groups after such a challenging stage.
Itzulia Women offers very few opportunities for those other than the pure climbers in the women’s peloton. Each day of the race could end up involving those who are battling for the overall, rather than those going for stage wins. This was seen in last year’s race with Demi Vollering took victory on every single stage and she will be dreaming of a repeat performance again in 2023. The Dutch rider has had a spectacular season so far, winning all three of the Ardennes Classics as well as Strade Bianche at the start of the year.
Demi Vollering during the 2023 Vuelta Femenina (Image: Rafa Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency)
She finished a very close – and controversial – second place to Annemiek van Vleuten at the recent La Vuelta Femenina but still looked to be the best climber in that race, winning the two toughest stages. It is likely that the SD Worx rider will be back for revenge in Itzulia and she will have a strong team around her to help her try to get victory, including climbers like Niamh Fisher-Black and Anna Shackley. Marlen Reusser will also play a crucial role for SD Worx in this race and could be a rider to watch for stage wins.
Movistar will be one of the key teams looking to challenge SD Worx with world champion Van Vleuten at the helm. Despite a slower start to the season by her standards, Van Vleuten has looked to be steadily returning to her best in recent races and she will be wanting to continue her winning streak in Itzulia. Movistar also has a solid second option with Liane Lippert who has been known to thrive on steep, punchy gradients like those she will face in the Basque Country this week.
Demi Vollering during the 2023 Vuelta Femenina (Image: Unipublic/Charly Lopez)
From Canyon//SRAM Racing, Ricarda Bauernfeind has proven to be a breakthrough rider this season, putting in a strong performance at the recent Vuelta to finish fifth overall and third behind Vollering and Van Vleuten on the most mountainous stage. She is expected to perform equally well on the climbs of Itzulia but at just 23 years old, it will be interesting to see how Bauernfeind copes with the fatigue of two stage races in quick succession. Another option for Canyon//SRAM is the experienced climber Kasia Niewiadoma. While the Polish rider didn’t have her strongest performance at the Vuelta, she relishes steep gradients and will want to perform well at Itzulia. Pauliena Rooijakkers finished second place behind Vollering in Itzulia last year so is well-suited to the Basque terrain, although the Dutch rider is yet to show the same form as last year so far in 2023.
Evita Muzic during the 2022 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift (Image: A.S.O./Thomas Maheux)
FDJ-Suez come with some strong options with the likes of Évita Muzic who recently finished sixth in the Vuelta and Marta Cavalli who is returning to form steadily after her horror crash in the Tour de France Femmes last year. British rider Claire Steels of Israel Premier Tech Roland won the recent one-day reVolta race in Spain so is clearly in good form and can perform well when the gradients get steep, as can Olivia Baril of UAE Team ADQ.
EF Education-Tibco-SVB are another team with a strong line-up and a couple of options who could challenge for stage wins as well as top-10 positions on the overall general classification. Veronica Ewers had an impressive season in 2022, winning the Navarra Women's Elite Classics, but she is yet to show the same form in 2023. However, the American rider is known to be a good climber and might be aiming for her form to peak during the stage racing season. Krista Doebel-Hickok is another option for EF Education, she returns to racing after a crash during the Ardennes Classics forced her to miss the Vuelta, but she has historically performed very well on the type of terrain that Itzulia will throw at riders.
We think that Demi Vollering will take the victory in Itzulia Women for the second year running. Her bad luck at the Vuelta Femenina which caused her to narrowly miss out on victory will have only given her added motivation to perform well here and it’s hard to imagine any other riders will have the capacity to distance the Dutchwoman on the climbs when looking at her form so far this year.
Cover image: Unipublic/ASO