Vuelta a Burgos Feminas 2021 debrief: Clash of the titans

Last week saw the first stage race of the Women’s World Tour and some exciting racing ensued

Spare a thought for the other nations heading into the Olympic Road Race with the Dutch team to contend with. At Vuelta a Burgos last week, three of their selected athletes took a clean sweep of the podium, after van der Breggen and van Vleuten went head to head on the final summit finish, proving themselves to be the strongest climbers in the women’s peloton this season.

Seeing these two mountain goats drop anyone who tried to follow them on the savage climb to Lagunas de Neila didn’t come as a huge surprise: they’d both carried good form into the Spanish block of racing, winning four of the previous races between them. 

Despite their shared talent for the hills, there are some stark differences between the styles of the two riders. Van der Breggen rides at a smooth high cadence, has perfected her poker face and rarely gets out of the saddle, her tempo is so controlled it is almost metronomic. On the other hand, van Vleuten doesn’t hide her pain, grimacing her way over the mountains and alternating her technique. Still, they are well matched in terms of ability, so it seems like it was van der Breggen’s strong SD Worx team which gave her the upper hand in Burgos.

SD Worx’s strength in depth

Her teammate Demi Vollering is proving herself to be a Vos-esque all rounder, she seems to be able to do everything from sprint finishes, to solo breakaways. She can also play a super-domestique role for van der Breggen in the mountains, as she showed so well in stage 4 of Vuelta a Burgos. Her impressive turn of pace brought back the remnants of the day’s breakaway and set van der Breggen up perfectly for the win. 

Perhaps even more notable was that Vollering managed to hold on for third place on the stage, making her also third on the GC. The young Dutch rider looks to be the perfect candidate to step into van der Breggen’s shoes when she retires into a director sportif role at the end of this season.

Vollering wasn’t the only SD Worx rider to step up at Vuelta Burgos. Young Kiwi Niamh Fisher-Black had a long stint in the leaders jersey and rode with maturity beyond her years in her first season in the WWT. Going into the final day, Fisher-Black held three jerseys: the leaders jersey, the mountains jersey and the young riders jersey, thanks to her consistency over the previous 3 stages. 

On stage one, she finished third by making the decisive break of the day, and then backed that up with fifth place on stage three. Whilst her more experienced teammate won in the end, Fisher- Black showed that she is thriving with SD Worx and is another example of team manager Danny Stam’s ability to find and nurture young talent.

Movistar are also upping their game

Whilst it’s easy to wax lyrical about SD Worx, van Vleuten wasn’t unsupported by her Movistar team. In fact, they’ve ridden impressively throughout their Spanish campaign, seeming to flourish in their home races.

A few weeks ago, van Vleuten had the race lead at Setmana Ciclista Valenciana and her team defended it well, keeping a keen eye out for any GC threats going up the road and being organised in their chase. Norweigan rider Katrine Aalerud finished third overall herself at that race, and Sheyla Gutiérrez secured two second places in each of the sprint stages — highlighting the breadth of talent in the team. They certainly have the firepower to work well for van Vleuten and they are likely still improving as they become more acquainted with each other throughout the season.

At Burgos, the Spanish team had three riders in the break of the day in stage four, a good reason for van Vleuten to sit in and conserve energy thanks to not having to contribute to the chase. Aalerud also finished in 5th place in the general classification, her best result so far in the WWT. It looks like — with a bit of fine-tuning — Movistar could soon start to pose more of a challenge to SD Worx in these hilly stage races. 

Stage races are lacking in the WWT

The Vuelta a Burgos was a showcase of what women's stage races can offer Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Unfortunately, stage races for the women’s peloton are few and far between, especially ones with hill-top finishes like we saw in Vuelta a Burgos. The Giro Rosa serves as the longest stage race in the calendar — and it includes mountainous terrain like no other — but it’s no longer part of the WorldTour due to the organiser’s lack of ability to commit to live coverage. This means we’ll never really know if Movistar will improve their team performance even further, as we likely won’t get to see any of their attempts to do so in climbing stage races coming up.

The quality of racing in Burgos only highlighted how important stage races are in the women’s calendar, and how exciting they are to watch. Whilst the battle for the GC between the two Dutch powerhouses came in the final ascent of the race, there were also some enthralling fights for stage wins between riders who we don’t normally get to see contest the win, as they’re often playing team roles. 

For example, after her commendable, selfless performances for Canyon//SRAM in the Ardennes classics, Elise Chabbey was able to contest the win in stage one at Burgos and wore the leader's jersey in to stage three — a fitting reward for a rider who has sacrificed her own chances on multiple occasions for the good of her team leader. 

Russian rider Anastasiia Chursina took an emphatic win on the third day of the race, after being in the breakaway. Not a contender to the GC, there was no real incentive to chase Chursina, giving her the opportunity to show herself on the world stage against the strongest teams.

Results like Chursina’s would likely not be seen in one-day WWT events when she would have been working for her team leader to contest the win. Stage races provide an important arena for lesser-known riders to show themselves, which is why we’d love to see more of them on the WWT calendar.

Who got it wrong?

It’s easy to focus on the riders who secured those well-documented victories, but as always with bike racing, there were losers as well as winners, and some teams got it wrong. 

Grace Brown taking the win on stage on. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Things looked good for Team BikeExchange on stage one, with Grace Brown taking a convincing win and catapulting herself into the leaders jersey. Their tactics were questionable in stage two, however, when Brown was called forward to bring back the breakaway, presumably working for her teammates (either Amanda Spratt or Ane Santesteban). 

With the strength she had shown on stage 1, it seemed like Brown had the form to try and challenge for the victory that day and put up a real fight against eventual stage winner Cecile Uttrup Ludwig. Brown ended up finishing 7th on GC, with Spratt in 14th. It’s possible that Brown could have been closer to the win if her team had put faith in her as a leader.

After an impressive opening season, Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini would likely have hoped to be closer to her Dutch rivals on a parcours which normally would have been well suited to her. However, she lost 1:26 to van der Breggen on the final stage, slipping to 11th place overall. After the race, she explained that her “body said no” — perhaps to be expected after the busy season she’s had so far.

With her result at Burgos, Longo Borghini also surrendered her lead in the Women’s World Tour, van Vlueten will wear the purple leaders jersey at La Course, the next race in the series.