A change of sponsorship sees the name change from Ceratizit Challenge by Vuelta to La Vuelta Femenina by Carrefour.es, and the race moves from the autumnal slot it has occupied since the inaugural edition in 2015 to the first week of May.
The most significant change comes in the race’s overall length, which rises from five stages to seven stages this year. This brings the Vuelta closer to the demands of the eight-day Tour de France Femmes and ten-day Giro d’Italia Donne, and means the women’s calendar is getting closer to having its equivalent of the men’s three Grand Tours.
The parcours should ensure that the same riders who have excelled in those races will also be the contenders here — especially the inclusion of the fearsome Lagos de Covadonga on the final stage, which is likely to be where the GC is decided. But there are a variety of other tests for the contenders to take on, from an opening team time trial, a series of flat and rolling stages, and some more tough climbs in the stages preceding the Covadonga finale.
The rider of the moment is Demi Vollering (SD Worx), who simply hasn’t stopped winning since the start of the season. Completion of the Ardennes treble with victory at Liège–Bastogne–Liège last Sunday means the Dutchwoman has now won five of the eight race’s she’s competed in so far this season, a remarkable run that has been the very best of her career.
Demi Vollering became the second woman to win all three Ardennes Classics races (Image by SWPix.com)
All of those victories have come in one-day Classics, and now Vollering turns her attention to the stage race season. Her record in stage races from last season suggests she should be similarly strong in these races, too, starting with La Vuelta. As well as being the only rider to finish anywhere near Annemiek van Vleuten at the Tour de France Femmes last year, she also made the podium at this race and won Itzulia Basque Country. With the full force of SD Worx riding in support of her, she’ll be difficult to discomfort.
Annemiek van Vleuten
As holder of all three Grand Tour titles, and wearer of the rainbow jersey, Annemiek van Vleuten’s reputation precedes her. But does the Movistar rider have the form to continue winning them this year?
Last year she demolished the opposition on the climbs at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta, and the plan will surely be to do the same on Lagos de Covadonga, where in theory she could put minutes into the opposition. But the 40-year-old’s form has so far not been as good as we’ve grown used to, and she finished what was her last ever spring Classics campaign before retirement without making the podium in any. Still, she’s better suited to climber-friendly stage races than she is to the classics, and the inclusion of a climb as hard as Lago de Covadonga plays in her favour.
The world champion hasn't been on the form we expected in the Classics (Image by Getty Images)
Gaia Reailini has been one of the revelations of the seasons, first catching the eye with an exceptional ride in support of Trek-Segafredo teammate Elisa Longo Borghini on Jebel Hafeet to place second overall behind her at the UAE Tour, then following that up with third at Flèche Wallonne, seventh at Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and a maiden professional win at Trofeo Oro in Euro.
Gaia Realini stole the show with her teammate Elisa Longo Borghini at the Women's UAE Tour (Image by Getty Images)
She hasn’t come from nowhere, having shown her potential by placing 13th at the Tour de France Femmes last year and 11th at the Giro d’Italia Donne having only just turned 20 the year before, but now looks like she might be ready to be a team leader. With last year’s runner-up Elisa Longo Borghini not yet confirmed as riding, and Lizzie Deignan still getting up to racing speed having only just returned from maternity leave, this could be the young Italian’s chance.
Spain’s best hope for a high GC finish is likely to be Mavi García (Liv Racing). The 39-year-old is one of the main riders in the peloton to have benefited from the development of longer, harder stage races, managing to make the podium at last year’s Giro d’Italia Donne, and, though she only placed thirteenth at the last edition of La Vuelta, the addition of Lagos de Covadonga will play in her favour. Fourth up the Mur de Huy at Flèche Wallonne indicates she’s come into good form for a high GC finish, should be confirmed as a starter.
One top GC contender who has already announced her intention to ride Vuelta Femenina is Juliette Labous. The DSM rider established herself as one of the best climbers in the peloton last year, finishing fourth at her home Tour de France Femmes as well as winning the Vuelta a Burgos and the queen stage of the Giro d’Italia Donne, and, aged just 24, is a developing talent who is still improving all the time. Sixth place at the Tour of Flanders was the clear highlight of her spring campaign, but the stage races are what she has been building towards, starting with the Vuelta.
Juliette Labous came 13th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Image by Getty Images)
Undoubtedly one of the best climbers in the peloton, Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) would surely (assuming she is confirmed to start) be one of the top contenders for a high overall finish, as he is in virtually every elite stage race she starts — she was third at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes last year, and hasn’t finished outside of the top seven in any of her last six Giro d’Italia Donne. It’s now nearly four years since she won a race, and the 2017 Women’s Tour was the last time she claimed an overall GC title at a stage race, but the tough parcours at the Vuelta Femenina might help her at last end that drought.
The full line-up for the Vuelta Femenina has yet to be confirmed, and many riders not yet announced to ride could be among the top contenders.
FDJ-SUEZ are likely to be the team to best challenge the heavyweights of SD Worx, Trek-Segafredo and Annemiek van Vleuten’s Movistar, but haven’t announced which of their main GC assets will lead the team. At her best, Marta Cavalli has proven herself to be among the best three of four climbers in the world, but while she continues to readapt to the peloton after the horrible crash that forced her to abandon the Tour de France Femmes last year, the reliable Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (who finished fifth overall here last year) or young talent Évita Music look like their best options.
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig finish fifth last year (Image by Getty Images)
UAE Team ADQ haven’t announced any riders yet, but accomplished all-rounder Silvia Persico would be one to watch, though form was waning a bit towards the end of the Classics campaign following her earlier win at De Brabantse Pijl and third overall at the UAE Tour. Neither have Canyon-SRAM, from whom Elise Chabbey and Soraya Paladin are other options along with Niewiadoma.
Flèche Wallonne runner-up Liane Lippert is in great form, and would be a dangerous foil for Van Vleuten if selected by Movistar, while second-place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège for Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) saw her end the spring on a high, though she may not want to ride La Vuelta if it means peaking before her home Grand Tour a couple of months later.
Liane Lippert has proved that her move to Movistar was the right way to go (Image by SWPix.com)
Of the riders who are already down to ride, Jayco-Alula have a couple of interesting options in Spaniard Ane Santesteban, who was sixth overall here last year, and Kristen Faulkner, whose couple of stage wins at the Giro d’Italia Donne last year suggests she could ride for a high GC if consistent. Charlotte Kool (DSM) will be going for the sprints, and could renew her burgeoning rivalry with Lorena Wiebes if SD Worx select her, while the likes of Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) and Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) would be in the mix for stage wins if selected.
LA VUELTA FEMENINA 2023 PREDICTION:
Demi Vollering was untouchable during the spring Classics, but her form does raise the question: how long can she keep this up for? It may be that she has already peaked and her form will start to wane at the Vuelta, while Annemiek van Vleuten, having been short of her best during the classics, is moving in the opposite direction. Given her record in stage races in recent years, we reckon that’s going to be the case and are predicting a resurgent Van Vleuten overall victory.