What did we learn about the GC riders at the Vuelta Femenina?

The end of the race in Spain saw the first major tour of the season go to Annemiek van Vleuten. It would be fair to say she wasn’t the strongest rider but she by virtue of making the fewest mistakes, she was able to capitalise. We saw a new hope in Gaia Realini begin to deliver on her promise now that she’s in the Women’s WorldTour and Demi Vollering is still the strongest GC rider, albeit the runner-up here.

Annemiek van Vleuten

So much was said going into this year’s Vuelta Femenina writing off Van Vleuten after a fairly average Spring Classics campaign by her standards. The usual stories, was this one year too many for the outgoing world champion? Should she have retired at the end of 2022 after a perfect year that saw her win 3 major tours and the world championships? It was clear in the races leading up to this one that Annemiek couldn’t just steamroller her way to victories. The might of SD Worx is partly to blame for that and the lacklustre race design on the queen stage at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana is also another tough like-for-like comparison to make to 2022.

Most people had Demi Vollering as the overwhelming favourite, it made sense, she hadn’t finished worse than 2nd place since Omloop het Nieuwsblad and taken a full Ardennes triple. So really it was just an almost underdog story for Van Vleuten coming into this one as many wished her to refind her GC form but without necessarily having had more than a flash of it so far in 2023. Even here, some of the attacks didn’t appear as strong as the previous year as the gap appears to be closing.

The GC win will add confidence for sure and it proves there is still a way to win smart but a GC win at the Tour de France Femmes is going to be tough without some more creative tactical calls behind the scenes.

Demi Vollering
(Photo Credit: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Demi Vollering

Demi will feel like this race is a big opportunity missed and that she should be celebrating the win. Bar the mishap in timing yesterday, that would be the case and it shows that simply being the strongest doesn’t always net you the race win. Instead, she joins the ranks of the GC riders caught out in the crosswinds on Stage 3, who did the GC racing sin of losing avoidable time.

The team were slightly on the back foot from the opening TTT, pre-race favourites with the bookies, they finished 5th and lost 14″. In hindsight, that was probably the easiest way to gain the gap of 9″. Also no sprinting for intermediate bonus seconds, which at 6″-4″-2″ you can quickly see a route to that gap being closed in this year’s Vuelta Femenina. The team car will look back on some of the calls they’ve made this Vuelta Femenina and realise that sometimes they can’t just win with brute strength from their riders and need another card to play.

Then you start to wonder if a team block of 4 domestiques/sprinters was the right call. Vas got some results and Cecchini is also a solid domestique. Femke Markus impressed at times with how far she could go whilst climbing despite a one-day race sprint background. So maybe the call to take Marie Schreiber and not say Lonneke Uneken or Christine Majerus made the difference. In an ideal world, that might be Mischa Bredewold but she’s coming off a long stint in the classics. I can’t help but feel like Majerus would’ve been a tactically better option to have as a road captain.

Plenty of this is made moot by a different result, if Demi Vollering finds another 10 seconds today, then almost none of this will have mattered. But when there’s a race win left out there, an after-action review helps established what might have worked better.

Gaia Realini
(Photo Credit: Sprint Cycling Agency)

Gaia Realini

The Italian’s breakout ride came two years ago at the Giro but she remained on the Isolmant-Premac-Vittoria team for another year and proved it wasn’t a one-off. She was always on the back foot in those races due to team time trials and a prologue, so Trek Segafredo has done a good job here of keeping her out of trouble in the TTT and finishing in 3rd place on the opening day. It will always be a weakness and the individual time trial in this year’s Tour de France Femmes will probably prevent her from winning that race, however, this was a good result.

What the team will look back on though and wonder if the 2 minutes and 41 seconds lost on Stage 3 in the crosswinds. Back at the UAE Tour Women, Trek did a good job of ensuring she was where she needed to be but that was largely under the guidance of Elisa Longo Borghini who was an unfortunate late withdrawal here. In a weird parallel, Realini’s final GC time was exactly 2 minutes and 41 seconds behind Annemiek Van Vleuten. If only she had been able to roll in with the bunch on Stage 3!

There is plenty of hope for the Italian pure climber, power data figures are very promising when it comes to w/kg figures but they aren’t quite everything. Riders with greater outright watts like Demi Vollering and Annemiek van Vleuten still potentially have the upper hand in certain scenarios where similar w/kg figures are being pushed. We also didn’t see Realini drop one of the two Dutch stars with her own attack. She responded to Van Vleuten’s move on Stage 6 and she went with Vollering on Stage 7. For a full all-round GC rider, that’s going to be an area to develop – the confidence to ride away from the biggest names.

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