Preview: Itzulia kicks off Women’s WorldTour stage racing season

The inaugural edition of Itzulia Women begins on Friday and is the first WWT stage race of the year.

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After a Women’s WorldTour (WWT) calendar full of one-day races so far this season, the peloton will line up for their first WWT stage race on Friday at the inaugural edition of Itzulia Women. 

The race was originally billed to have its first edition in 2021, however various factors meant the organisers delayed the race’s inception for an additional year. Coming off the back of the two one-day Navarra Classics races and kick-starting a block of hilly stage races, Itzulia Women is well placed to attract the best of the bunch, despite being a new event.

Plenty of teams are still chasing their first WWT win of 2022 after the Classics, with the top results being shared around just five of the 14 WWT teams so far this season. The change of terrain from cobbled Classic to climber’s paradise will undoubtedly herald a shift in the type of rider we see on the top step at this race.

The stages

The race traverses the three regions of Basque territory, often characterised by tough, hilly terrain, and the riders will tackle thirteen categorised climbs over the three stages across 363.3km.  

Stage 1 – Vitoria-Gasteiz > Labastida, 105.9km | Friday 13th May

The first stage is the shortest of the race, at just 105.9km, but as the profile illustrates, it is not going to be easy. Starting a tough, three-day stage race on a third-category, 4.4km climb seems almost cruel and, this being women’s racing, there are likely to be all-out attacks from the gun so riders had better get on the rollers for a decent pre-race warm-up.

After the top of the Zaldiaran climb there is an opportunity for anyone who has been caught out to re-join the bunch on the rolling decline but some short, sharp, unclassified rises stand between any sprinters and the chance to bag some points at the intermediate sprint at 44.5km. Almost immediately after the sprint comes the next classified climb, the 5.5km Mirador de Rivas, a second-category climb that averages 5.4% and offers little let-up in gradient.

Almost immediately after the descent off Mirador de Rivas comes Herrera, 6.8km at 5.3%. If they haven’t already done so on the previous climb, riders will be launching attacks on this final significant climb but they will need the technical skills to profit from the fast descent and the time trial prowess to stay away on the rolling 20km run-in towards the finish in Bastida.

Stage 2 – Mallabia > Mallabia 117.9km | Saturday 14th May

Get the rollers out again because it’s another uphill-from-the-gun day on stage two. Today the riders will complete a long loop around the town of Mallabia featuring no less than six classified climbs. Any riders who break the elastic on the first climb will need to be quick to get a gap as it is just 3.5km before the road starts to head downhill on the run-in towards the next steep rise.

Stage two will be even more attritional than the day before, with the climbs coming thick and fast throughout the day. It will be a select group that makes it to the final, 6.7km category one climb to try and shake off their opponents before the top, after which there is a steep and technical descent towards Eibar before the final 7km of steady incline before the finish line.

Stage 3 – Donostia > Donostia 139.8km | Sunday 15th

The final stage is an almost-identical replica of Donostia San Sebastián Klasikoa, the one-day race it has replaced. Any thoughts of an easier day after two brutally attritional stages should be put aside as the final stage is just as gruelling as the previous two. Stage three might not get started on a significant climb like the previous days’ racing, however the bunch won’t have to wait long, just 20km, before the peloton hits the first classified climb. Although, at an average gradient of 3.6%, Aia does not appear to be too difficult and its length at 8.9km will still sort out those with tired legs from the first few days of the race early on.

A descent and then some short, steep rises follow before the infamous Jaizkibel awaits at kilometre 80. The riders will be familiar with the climb that featured in San Sebastian but that won’t make its slopes any easier on the legs. Anyone who may be hoping to gain time on their GC rivals will likely use this climb as a launchpad.

The rest of the day provides little respite as the saw-edge profile demonstrates, after more than 120km of racing there will be one last leg-breaking climb to contend with before the finish line in Donostia, the Murgil-Tontorra which although short at 2.1km features an average gradient of 10.1%.

Who are the favourites?

Lining up at the race will be 22 teams, including 12 of the 14 Women’s WorldTeams. Not present at this race, which features some of her favourite terrain, is Movistar’s leader Annemiek van Vleuten, who broke her wrist in a training crash last month. In the absence of Van Vleuten, Movistar have added Australian Sarah Gigante to their lineup after her impressive win at the Emakumeen Nafarroako Classic on Tuesday. The Spanish team also have Serbian national champion Jelena Erić, who recently won a stage of the Vuelta Ciclista Andalucia Ruta Del Sol as well as riding to fourth and fifth respectively in the two Navarra Classics.

Also missing out will be Spanish national champion, Mavi Garcia, who crashed at the first of the Navarra Classics on Tuesday and later tested positive for Covid. (Update: since publication the entire UAE Team ADQ have pulled out of the race due to Covid positives within the team). Marianne Vos’s Jumbo Visma Women’s Team are also absent from this race, however, the squad have opted out of the northern Spanish races for a few years in a row now.

The absence of a few of the biggest names opens the race up for some up-and-coming talent to make their mark. We have already seen the likes of Valcar Travel & Service’s Olivia Baril take the win at the Gran Premio Ciudad de Eibar last week and EF Education First-Tibco SVB’s Veronica Ewers turn second at the first Navarra Classic race into a win the following day.

SD Worx’s Demi Vollering will be chasing her first WWT win of the season alongside her talented climber teammate, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio who has had success in this region in the past. After a seeming lack of coordination between the two riders at the Ardennes Classics they have hopefully smoothed out any communication issues ahead of this race. The pair have a strong support squad in the form of Swiss champion Marlen Reusser, and the duo of climbing prodigies, Niamh Fisher Black and Anna Shackley.

Team DSM’s trio of Floortje Mackaij, Liane Lippert, and Juliette Labous will also be on the startline and also hoping to find that elusive top step of the podium. However, the three will need to sort out between them who is riding for who before they can think about a result.

Canyon//SRAM’s leader, Kasia Niewiadoma has opted to sit these races out in favour of focusing on her preparation for the Tour de France Femmes. But her teammate, Pauliena Rooijakkers, has proven herself more than capable of filling the climbing role throughout the Classics. She will have strong backup in the form of Elise Chabbey and Soraya Palladin to help her both on the climbs and what little flat there is.

FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope will bring along the rider who has been their biggest asset so far this season in Marta Cavalli. Alongside the Italian will be her trusty lieutenant, Brodie Chapman, and French national champion Evita Muzic who is still on the comeback trail from an injury she sustained at the end of last season.

Team BikeExchange are likely to be riding for their Spanish climber, Ane Santesteban, who has not been outside the top-10 at the three one-day Spanish classics this month. Outside of Santesteban, they have plenty of other options for stages and breakaways in the form of Amanda Spratt — bouncing back extraordinarily well from iliac artery endofibrosis surgery — and Kristen Faulkner who has returned to racing and gone straight into achieving top-10s following a hiatus since February.

UAE Team ADQ might be missing Garcia but they have a very good second option in the form of Italian Erica Magnaldi. The 29-year-old won the mountains classification at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana earlier this year and recently rode to two top-10s and 9th on GC at the Vuelta Ciclista Andalucia Ruta Del Sol.

CyclingTips star ratings

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Marta Cavalli, Demi Vollering, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Ane Santesteban, Liane Lippert,
⭐️⭐️⭐️: Floortje Mackaij, Pauliena Rooijakkers
, Veronica Ewers, Sarah Gigante,
⭐️⭐️: Olivia Baril, Amanda Spratt, Erica Magnaldi
Evita Muzic, Jelena Erić

How to watch

Organisers are providing around 90 minutes of live coverage for each stage which will be shown on GCN+/Eurosport.