Like one of the jagged peaks that rise above the Lagos de Covadonga with their grey sides reflected in the blue water, the lakes’ eponymous climb juts out of the route’s profile, looming over the race and reflected in every rider’s calculations throughout the entire week.
Situated in the Asturias in Northern Spain, the legendary climb has featured 22 times in the Vuelta a España and its inclusion in the Vuelta Feminina marks the 40th anniversary since it was first used in the men’s edition of the race.
The climb’s raw statistics – 12.5 kilometres at 6.9% – belie its true difficulty for it contains ramps as steep as 15% in places, before it begins to level off about a two kilometres from the summit, and the road descends before kicking up again at a shallower gradient about 500 metres from the finish.
This constantly changing gradient makes it difficult to settle into any sort of rhythm, frequently causing sizeable gaps between the GC favourites. The last three times that it has featured in the Vuelta, the stage winner has finished 1:35, 0:28 and 0:24 ahead of second place.
Demi Vollering won stage five and secured herself the red jersey (Image by Toni Baixauli/UNIPUBLIC /CXCLING via ASO)
On its debut in the Vuelta Femenina, it will be the second climb of the day, arriving 30 kilometres after the category two Collado Moandi, which is 12.5km long at 4.6%. Of course, it is not simply the last climb of the stage but the last climb of the race, with six days already in the rear-view mirror and even the flat stages providing plenty of GC action with crosswinds buffeting the peloton on stage three.
Already, the overall contenders have stretched their climbing legs on stage five as the race passed over the category one Puerto de Navafría and finished atop the category two Mirador de Peñas Llanas. And Demi Vollering (SD Worx) proved that she is currently the strongest rider in the race, winning the stage by simply riding everyone except Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Ricarda Bauernfeind (Canyon-SRAM) offher wheel before attacking in the last 150 metres to seal victory. She also took the leader’s red jersey, five seconds ahead of second-placed Van Vleuten and 12 seconds ahead of Riejanne Markus (Jumbo-Visma) in third.
Annemiek van Vleuten during stage five (Image by UNIPUBLIC/CXCLING via ASO)
It is difficult to look past Vollering ending the Lagos de Covadonga stage victorious too. She has dominated so far this year, completing a clean sweep of the Ardennes Classics in impressive style, as well as winning five of the eight races she has started and finishing second in another two.
As Vollering’s star continues to rise, there are perhaps signs that Van Vleuten’s is waning at last. After an underwhelming, by her stratospheric standards, Classics season in which her best result was a fourth place at Strade Bianche, she wrote that she had endured bad luck but that her form was almost finetuned. The high mountains suit Van Vleuten the best of all terrain and she said she was “excited” to race up the climb, after the route was announced.
“To end in such a famous location is essential for the race’s media impact as it results in more coverage for the event,” she said, according to Cyclingnews. “I’m glad La Vuelta Femenina by Carrefour.es has chosen such as well-known climb. I’m excited, I know what to expect, it’s a very tough climb.”
Beyond the two Dutchwomen, there are other riders capable of performing on the steep slopes of the Lagos de Covadonga. Gaia Realini (Trek-Segafredo) is enjoying a breakout season and finished fifth on Friday’s first mountain test, 27 seconds behind Vollering, although she sits in 20th in the general classification after losing almost three minutes in the echelons on stage three.
Gaia Realini thrives on the mountain stages (Image by UNIPUBLIC/CXCLING via ASO)
Other climbers such as Juliette Labous (Team DSM) and Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ) both finished in the top 10 on stage five, but still 30 and 50 seconds behind Vollering respectively, while Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) shed more than a minute and Liane Lippert (Movistar) more than two minutes. And, with the red jersey and a stage win on one of Spain’s most mythical climbs at stake, it is likely that the time gaps will be even wider atop the Lagos de Covadonga.