Van Vleuten alone, ahead of the rest
For the umpteenth time, Annemiek van Vleuten stamped her authority on the women’s peloton at the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta. An anonymous industrial estate near the Galician town of Ourense was the scene of what could be argued was her most impressive solo win, on the hottest of the four days.
At only 50km it might not have had the sheer scale of her 2019 rainbow jersey-winning ride at the Yorkshire World Championships, and maybe it lacked the profile of her 2020 Strade Bianche effort, but it was well planned, expertly executed and completed despite a committed eight-woman chase.
Van Vleuten’s Movistar teammate Sheyla Gutiérrez had led her down a technical descent on to the day’s longest climb, where the Olympic TT champion attacked, dropping Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini and Canyon-Sram’s Kasia Niewiadoma. By the time Van Vleuten crossed the line she had put 2:48 into her pursuers, neatly turning a GC deficit of 1:38 into an advantage of 1:34. She went on to take the overall title the following day in Santiago de Compostela.
The Dutchwoman had been a late addition to Movistar’s squad, but started as a favourite despite a field stacked with the world’s best climbers who had been attracted by the race’s revamped, tough route, which also included a mountain TT.
The race was first run in 2015 and the first three editions were no more than criteriums on the Vuelta’s closing circuit in Madrid. In 2018 organisers added a team time trial which became an individual test the following year, before another sprinters’ stage made it three days in 2020.
However, despite its gradual expansion and inclusion in the Women’s WorldTour since the series was inaugurated in 2016, for anyone other than sprinters and time triallists the race was unattractive. And as preparation for the World Championships the race was a nonstarter - until this year, the nine most recent road world champions have competed in Spain only three times between them.
Instead favourites would head to either the mountainous Tour de l’Ardèche or the Boels Ladies Tour (now Simac Ladies Tour). The eventual world champion would compete in the Boels Tour every year between 2015 and 2019, despite the lack of hills on the parcours.
This year, however, the peloton split itself, with the classics riders picking the Netherlands, climbers opting for the hills of Galicia in Spain’s far north-west, while some time triallists risked both.
On stage 1, with four women up the road and an out-of-sorts Anna van der Breggen, in one of her final races as a rider for SD Worx, struggling on the day’s main climb, other teams sensed the inevitability of a Van Vleuten win, leaving Movistar to bring the break back. However, they failed. Swiss champion Marlen Reusser, of Alé-BTC Ljubljana, took her first WorldTour road victory, leaving Van Vleuten and the other GC hopefuls with a deficit of 1:58 ahead of the time trial. Though Van Vleuten won at the Montaña de Manzeneda ski resort, she only took 20 seconds out of Reusser’s advantage, and a surprise looked on the cards. At least until Van Vleuten took matters into her own hands the next day.
“She was angry after stage 1,” said Movistar DS Jorge Sanz while waiting for the hotel lift that evening. “And an angry Annemiek? Well… pfff!”
Despite the predictable result the expanded Challenge proved an exciting addition to the calendar and with climbing easy to come by in Spain it should construct a similarly gnarly parcours when the Vuelta returns to finish in Madrid.
But if the race is to become the preeminent warm-up event for the Worlds it must sort logistical issues one team staffer described as a “crock of sh*t”. Squad selection was made difficult by the route’s late release and not only were teams not informed where their accommodation would be until 10 days before, at the ski resort it was cramped for many, and some teams were allocated insufficient beds, forcing some staff to sleep on the floor. All bike races need to be a challenge, but only on the actual roads.