Words by Matilda Price | Photo by Zac WIlliams/SWpix.com
Whilst the start of May means a lap around Italy for the men, it’s a month in Spain for the women’s peloton as the bolstered stage racing block gets underway.
There’s no post-Classics lull in the women’s calendar in 2022, with a busy month of stage racing already well underway and new storylines being written. The first WorldTour stage race of the season isn’t yet here – that starts on Friday with the women’s Itzulia Basque Country – but the Spanish curtain-raisers have already delivered excitement.
Though a distinct change in pace from the punchy one-day Classics, the start of the stage race season certainly hasn’t lacked intrigue. Swapping from the cobbles and bergs of Northern Europe to the rolling, hilly roads of Spain brings with it a swap in the race’s key protagonists, and a chance for a different set of riders to test their legs. The weeks of SD Worx vs Trek-Segafredo will be replaced with a more open field. The headline riders of the spring – the likes of Kopecky, Balsamo and Vos – may feature less, but the pure climbers and the riders who spent February through April supporting their leader often come to the forefront in May.
There’s something to be said for the clear narrative and distinctive characters that the spring Classics create, but the new winners and new stories of the stage races offer a different type of excitement.
We may only be a few races into the month, but a team who have already left their mark on the next part of the season is Movistar. When it was revealed that Annemiek van Vleuten had fractured her wrist in training and would miss the block of Spanish races, it seemed like Movistar’s May campaign might be missing some firepower, but so far they have been the team to beat. The Spanish block kicked off with the first of two new stage races for 2022, the women’s Vuelta a Andalucia, where Movistar were an imperious force: they won all three stages, two for Arlenis Sierra and one for Jelena Eric, and Sierra sealed the overall title.
Though the results look dominant on paper, the victories were hard fought, with each stage coming down to an arduous reduced sprint after a full-on day of climbing. An Annemiek van Vleuten-esque solo breakaway is always a sight to behold, but a nail-biting head-to-head to the finish line is surely the more thrilling outcome.
Sierra and Eric’s wins are the perfect examples of how these stage races lend themselves to the less fancied riders. Sierra and Eric haven’t gone unnoticed during the spring, both putting in big efforts in support of Annemiek van Vleuten in the Ardennes, but in Andalucia they had the chance to race for themselves. Somewhere slightly below the biggest Classics and the prestigious stage races of the Giro Donne and the Tour de France Femmes, these races are often much more open, where breakaways are allowed to succeed and the teams are less set on moulding the race into a favourites vs. favourites finale.
On Tuesday, Movistar’s streak continued with an emphatic solo win from 21-year-old Sarah Gigante at the Emakumeen Nafarroako Classic. After being touted as one of the sport peloton’s best new climbers when she burst onto the scene in 2019, Gigante has faced a rocky road of injury and illness, but on Tuesday everything went right for the Australian and she delivered an emotional victory, winning by over two and a half minutes. This is the kind of win we may only see in these Spanish one-day races, the kind of day where a climber can leave everything out on the road with no general classification to worry about, where the lack of huge favourites leaves the race wide open for battle between the next generation of talent.
Whilst Movistar’s Spanish success has been a continuation of a strong spring, for other teams the shift to stage racing is a chance to reset and recalibrate after the Classics. As one of the newest WorldTour teams, EF Education-Tibco-SVB had a relatively quiet spring campaign: active in the big races and picking up a few top-10s, but no big wins to write home about. As soon as the stage races started, though, we saw a different side of EF Tibco-SVB. Before attention focused on Spain, Krista Doebel-Hickok took two impressive wins at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, whilst Veronica Ewers took home a stage and second overall at the Festival Elsy Jacobs. Clearly hitting May in a patch of good form, Ewers then won Wednesday’s Navarra Women’s Elite Classic, after being runner-up behind Gigante the day before.
It’s easy to judge a team harshly after the Classics, but with stage races featuring more and more heavily on the women’s calendar – there’s no fewer than seven WorldTour stage races between now and the end of August – it’s clear that strength in these multi-day events is absolutely key. Whilst teams like EF may be outranked in the Classics and when we get to the Giro and the Tour, these races provide fertile ground for the peloton to show off its depth and variety of talent – something which can only be a benefit to the sport.
Many teams will be looking to replicate the success that Movistar and EF-Tibco-SVB are having this May. High on the list of teams needing a win is Canyon//SRAM, who have been so close on several occasions so far this season. With the likes of Pauliena Rooijakkers, Alena Amialiusik and Elise Chabbey in their roster, Canyon have some of the peloton’s best breakaway riders at their disposal and seem to be knocking on the door of a win. For a team like FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope, the pressure to win is off after Marta Cavalli’s Ardennes exploits, but they will be keen to carry that momentum, particularly with Burgos 2021 stage winners Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Grace Brown (pictured) still yet to take victories this season.
The next stop on the peloton’s episodic tour of Spain is the Basque Country for the first edition of the women’s Itzulia. After being postponed from 2021, the three-day race is the newest venture from the organisers of the men’s Itzulia Basque Country and the Clásica San Sebastián, and the first WorldTour stage race of 2022. Just like the races in Andalucía and Navarra, this weekend’s Itzulia is a climb-fest, with three tough days of almost non-stop ascent and descent to contend with. If the pre-Itzulia tasters have been anything to go by, we’re in for an open and exciting weekend of racing. With no men’s races attached to them and competing with the Giro d’Italia for attention, the block of Spanish races on the women’s calendar can sometimes fly under the radar, but it’s becoming one of the most interesting parts of the season – and the best is yet to come.