Today, Annemiek van Vleuten stamped her authority on the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, taking the stage and the red jersey with a solo attack at fifty kilometres to go, shaking off all her rivals. Behind her, Liane Lippert (Team DSM) and Kasia Niewadoma (Canyon//SRAM Racing) sprinted for second and third.
After van Vleuten’s stage win yesterday – her tenth victory of the season – she said that she was looking forward to racing aggressively, since she had nothing to lose. Instead, she gained a great deal: she now has a lead of 1’34” over Marlen Reusser (Ale BTC Ljubljana) in the general classification, and 3’20” over Elise Chabbey (Canyon//SRAM Racing), who sits in third place.
The stage was a hilly 107.9km, from Estacion de Montana de Manzaneda to Pereiro de Aguiar, with a category three climb, the 943m Alto de Cerdeira, followed by a category two climb, the 930m Alta de A Lama. Before the start of the stage, Kristen Faulkner (Tibco – Silicon Valley Bank), who sat seventh in the general classification, abandoned the race.
With 83km to go, the first breakaway went, composed of Alison Jackson (Liv Racing), Ilaria Sanguinet (Valcar Travel & Service), and Amber Kraak (Jumbo Visma), but by 77km, they’d been caught again. The decisive breakaway came, instead, at 60km to go, made up of Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), Kata Blanka Vas (SD Worx), Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon//SRAM Racing), and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek – Segafredo).
At 55km, Annemiek van Vleuten and Elisa Longo Borghini went free together, leading the peloton by 1’35”. A chasing group formed behind them: Reusser, the wearer of the red jersey, Blanka Vas, Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope), Kasia Niewiadoma, Elise Chabbey (Canyon // SRAM Racing), Lianne Lippert (Team DSM) & Floortje Mackaij (Team DSM).
However, Longho Borghini couldn’t keep hold of Annemiek van Vleuten for long. By 50km, van Vleuten was 50 seconds ahead, with the chasing group 1’35” behind, and the peloton languishing even further back. Five kilometres later, van Vleuten had more than two minutes over the Reusser group, and it was four minutes back to the peloton. She was unstoppable, alone on the road as it wound through the Spanish mountainside. With 30km left, she had nearly three minutes. She was crouched over the bike, intensely focused, the enormous effort she was putting in clear.
Behind her, the chasing group was working together, but time wasn’t dropping fast. As they came uphill through town, with 20km, to go, the gap was down to 2’33, but their co-operation, which had been relatively successful so far, began to dissipate, particularly when Elisa Longo Borghini stopped taking part in the chase. It was now a done deal for van Vleuten: the drama, instead, played out behind her as the breakaway fought for podium places.
Reusser, Niewiadoma and Chabbey developed a gap, almost without realising it, as the others dropped off the black, cagily glancing around each other. Mackaij and Niewiadoma swung off the front, wary of Longo Borghini, recent winner of GP Plouay. The three at the front looked back and saw the gap, and began to take advantage of it, ploughing forward. Longo Borghini ended up cornered into closing it, the others clinging to her wheel.
As Annemiek van Vleuten took her 85th victory as a professional rider, and her eleventh of the season, the chasing group split again behind her. This time it was Lippert, Mackaij, Niewiadoma and Longo Borghini in the front, with Reusser, Chabbey, Cavalli and Blanka Vas left behind.
Lippert’s teammate Mackaij lead out the sprint for second as they came to the uphill finish. Longo Borghini launched her sprint at 200m, but Lippert stuck like glue to her wheel, before coming around and outside. Niewiadomia was on the other side with gritted teeth. It was Lippert who took it on the line, reaping the rewards of having a teammate in the break with her.
At the end, Van Vleuten had 2’48” over Lippert and Niewiadoma, and 3’03” over Marlen Reusser, who came in 9th, but keeps hold of the points jersey.
Seven minutes down on van Vleuten, the peloton went for a bunch sprint, perhaps preparing for tomorrow’s anticipated sprint finish: Elisa Balsamo (Valcar Travel & Service) took it ahead of Anna Henderson (Jumbo Visma) and Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing).
After the race, van Vleuten said: “I’m also surprised. I had a good block of altitude training, so I knew that I was not super well-rested, I thought, but maybe the first two days helped me a bit, and today I felt great. I had a really good plan with the team, because we knew [there was] a tricky downhill, and I thought that’s the moment to go, just after, because a tricky downhill, if everything’s in one line, that’s a good moment to attack. Kasia and Elisa Longho went with me, but then at some point they couldn’t follow, and then I realized, like, oh maybe I’m in really good shape today, and maybe it is possible.”
She said that she didn’t expect this result: “After the first day, I thought we’d lost it, but on the other hand, I also I always want to try, so you never know. To be in the GC you need a really strong team. If you could isolate Marlen Reusser I could have a chance, and she was isolated.”
Asked if she thought the fight for the general classification was over – given that she had a lead of nearly three minutes, with tomorrow’s stage eyed for the sprinters – she said: “It’s not the Tour de Femmes, we’re not going tomorrow on the Champs-Elysees. I’ll need to be really focused tomorrow with my team to defend, but I think my team has the confidence that we can defend this.”