Preview: Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta

The last test before the World Championships in Australia.

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The 2022 season is truly winding down now, but we still have two Women’s WorldTour events before we can take a collective breath and decompress after the busiest women’s WorldTour calendar on record. The Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, formerly the Madrid Challenge, is the penultimate stage race of the year for the women, but it’s the final test of strength before the World Championships in Australia.

Five days of racing, with a team time trial to kick things off, two challenging mountain stages, a long stage, and a circuit race to finish the week. There is a little something for everyone in Spain.

The Ceratizit Challenge marks the return to racing for a few top women, most notably Annemiek van Vleuten who has been resting and rebuilding after winning both the Giro Donne and the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. The former world champion has her sights set on a third “Grand Tour” title this season, but there are definitely some women who will try to stop her from achieving that goal.

With the World Championships just around the corner the Challenge would traditionally host an impressive field but since the fight for the rainbow jersey is in Australia this year a lot of big names are reassessing their build-up.

There will be a lot more factors at play than just the course for the upcoming stage race, that’s for sure.

The Course

Each year since it was first added to the calendar in 2015 the Ceratizit Challenge has grown. For the first three years, the race was only a fast circuit-style event in Madrid. In 2018 the organizers added a team time trial, although the following year they changed the opening stage to an individual time trial. By 2020 they had expanded to three stages, with four by 2021 and five in 2022. Rumour has it the race will move to May in 2023 and be a week long.

Stage 1 TTT: Marina de Cudeyo (19.9 km) | Wednesday, September 7

Just like in 2018 the ninth edition of the Ceratizit Challenge will start with a team time trial. It will be the second team time trial of the WorldTour season for the women, the first being the PostNord Vårgårda West Sweden stand-alone event in August. That race was won by Trek-Segafredo, with SD Worx taking second and DSM third.

The opening TTT is almost 15 km shorter than Sweden’s. At only 19.9 km long it will fly by, at least some of the teams will hope that is the case. Team time trials are weird. They are beloved by many riders, the only time the team can win a race altogether and celebrate on the podium together, but equipment and training also play a large role. Some teams don’t have the resources or time to perfect the art, and why would they with only two all season long?

Still, we’ve seen an opening TTT make our break GC ambitions in the past. Take FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope in the 2021 Giro Donne, for example.

But time gaps likely won’t be too big for the top teams in this opening TTT. It’s pretty straightforward, mostly flat with a few minor bumps. It will be a chance to open the legs before the mountains on stage 2.

Stage 2: Colindres (105.9 km) | Thursday, September 8

The fight for the general classification will already start on stage 2, with a ton of climbing broken up over a 105.9 km course. The race is short, but almost 26 km of the day is uphill.

Although the climbing starts almost from the line, the first categorized ascent begins 12.8 km into the stage. The Alto Fuente las Varas, which the women will race up twice, is 6.4 km long and averages 5.5%.

Ten kilometres later is Cruz de Usaño, 3.1 km long and with an average of 5.8% grades, it is the least significant climb of the day.

There is a good bit of false downhill before the next climb, Camp de Layal, 54 km into the stage. This one is the longest at 6.6 km and is also a bit steeper, with an average of 6.1%.

These final three climbs come one after another with another ascent of Alto Fuente las Varas at km 75. This time, however, the women race up the mountain a different direction. It’s only 6 km, but with 6.2% average grades.

The final climb up Camp la Cruz is only 3.2 km but with an average of 8%, it will destroy whatever is left of the peloton. The top of the climb marks 91.8km raced and from there it is only 14 km to the finish in Colindres.

This will be a hard day for GC hopefuls. With the terrain constantly changing it will be hard to organize a chase if anyone slips away early — and if we know anything about Van Vleuten it’s that she loves a long solo breakaway.

Stage 3: Camargo to Aguilar de Campoo (96.4 km) | Friday, September 9

The third stage on Friday is also pretty short, only 96.4 km total from Camargo to Aguilar de Campoo. It looks like an interesting day, with one long drag from kilometre 30 to km 64. The climb is only a category two, and according to the roadbook, it’s 16 km long and averages 3.4% but what the roadbook doesn’t factor in is the lead up which is also slightly uphill. The category 3 early in the stage will also factor, even though it’s early it is 3.7 km long with an average of 7.6%.

It could be a day for the breakaway but it could also be another GC day, depending on how stage 2 goes. The climb is shallow enough that teams can try to control it, unlike the climbs the day before.

Stage 4: Palencia to Segovia (160 km) | Saturday, September 10

The fourth stage is by far the longest of the race at 160 km. After the start in Palencia, there are some small hills, but nothing is categorized. From the halfway mark it is flat to the finish, however, the finish itself is not flat.

The race will finish atop a 2.5 km climb that averages 3.7%. Not really a steep kicker for someone like Lotte Kopecky, it’s too long, and unfortunately for the sprinters, it doesn’t look like it’s their day either. It might be a day for someone who can climb but has a good kick, like Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.

Stage 5: Madrid (95.6 km) | Sunday, September 11

The final stage in Madrid is very familiar to the peloton by now. It’s the same circuit they have raced for years, and although there have been some great attempts to get away, the race has always ended in bunch sprints. The only time the race didn’t end in Madrid was in 2021 when Kopecky beat Elisa Longo Borghini to the line.

It looks like, on paper, the final stage is the only one for the sprinters so teams with the fastest women will definitely want to keep the race together on the final day.

Top Contenders

With the climbing on stage 2, the clear favourite to take the overall is Annemiek Van Vleuten. She won both the Giro and Tour in dominant fashion and when she sets her sights on the leader’s jersey it’s really hard to beat her. The second stage is hard enough that she could try to ride away — the only issue she might run into is the long flat to the finish. Even then, it’s not a huge ask for the Olympic time trial champion to ride those flat kilometres solo and hold off a chasing group. She has done it many times in the past.

Defending Ceratizit Challenge winner Annemiek van Vleuten.

Another rider returning to the peloton is Demi Vollering. After a strong Tour de France Femmes performance Vollering crashed out of the Tour of Scandinavia. Her form before her crash was very good, but she suffered a concussion so how her training has been since is unknown. If it was a quick recovery she will be one to watch for the overall. She has strong support as well with Niamh Fisher-Black and Marlen Reusser also lining up for SD Worx.

Demi Vollering took home the climber’s jersey from the Tour de France Femmes.

SD Worx is also bringing Lotte Kopecky. The former Belgian champion hasn’t raced since the Tour and is looking to shine in Australia so it’s likely we will see her going for a stage or two.

As mentioned above, stage 4 is a good one for the likes of Uttrup Ludwig, but the Danish national champion is also a good pick for an overall victory. After a very impressive stage win in France but a disappointing bid for yellow, Uttrup won the Tour of Scandinavia. That confidence boost is only going to push her towards more success. Her FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope team is bringing two of the top support riders in Grace Brown and Brodie Chapman. Both could also be a good shout for a stage victory.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig was pretty happy to win the Tour of Scandinavia.

Team DSM has two potential options for the overall, neither are top tier favourites but both have had strong seasons. Liane Lippert finished second overall behind Uttrup at the Tour of Scandinavia, her most notable performance after a relatively impressive Spring campaign. Juliette Labous has been having her best season yet with a stage win at the Giro Donne plus an overall victory at the Vuelta a Burgos. She also finished fourth overall at the Tour de France Femmes.

Juliette Labous wins the only mountain top finish in the 2022 Giro Donne.

Kasia Niewiadoma returns to racing in Spain with Canyon-SRAM. The Polish rider finished third overall at the Tour de France Femmes, an impressive result. The short-ish but repetitive climbing on stage 2 is better for Niewiadoma than the longer climbs in the Tour and the finish on stage 4 is also not a bad opportunity for her.

Kristen Faulkner took a break after the Tour and was back racing at the Classic Lorient Agglomération-Trophée in August. Her Tour possibly didn’t go as planned, but it was on the heels of a very impressive Giro Donne and a near win at the Tour de Suisse. With that time to regroup, and the Worlds right around the corner, Faulkner will be on top form in Spain.

Speaking of top form. Mavi García had the ride of her life to win Classic Lorient Agglomération after a very chaotic Tour. She finished third behind Van Vleuten and Marta Cavalli at the Giro but fell apart in the final days. With the hardest stages at the beginning of the Vuelta, García is poised for another great result. Plus, being the Spanish national champion gives her an edge in her home ‘Grand Tour’.

Mavi García wins Classic Lorient Agglomération-Trophée.

Finally, Elisa Longo Borghini will be Trek-Segafredo’s hope for overall success, but the team might be keener to go for stages with the former Italian champ as well as Elisa Balsamo and Lucinda Brand. Balsamo won on the Madrid circuit in 2020 before she made the jump to WorldTour. The world champion has been the second-best sprinter of 2022 and with the best (Lorena Wiebes) absent from the start list the final stage has Balsamo’s name all over it.

CyclingTips star ratings

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: van Vleuten
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Uttrup Ludwig, Vollering
⭐️⭐️⭐️: Labous, Niewiadoma, García
⭐️⭐️: Faulkner, Longo Borghini
⭐️: Lippert

How to watch

The race will be live on GCN+ and Eurosport, with the first four stages starting at 18:20 local time. The fifth and final stage takes place before the men race into Madrid so it starts a bit earlier at 13:30.

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