Commentary: Can La Vuelta Femenina finally call itself a grand tour?

The 2023 route was unveiled this week with a seven-day route concluding on Lagos de Covadonga.

Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

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La Vuelta Femenina has finally joined the party.

The women’s version of the Vuelta a España has been building itself up since 2015, adding a few days here and there until this year’s record-breaking seven-day edition.

Organizers finally unveiled the route of the 2023 race Tuesday — running May 1-7 — with some interesting additions. They will once again kick off with a team time trial, but it will finish off with a leg-sapping summit finish up to Lagos de Covadonga.

With an average stage length of 104.51km, it is the longest daily average since the race began — the opening three one-day events were just 87km.

Does this mean that it can finally call itself a grand tour? Maybe, but it probably has a bit more work to do to earn this.

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By virtue of being a race connected with a men’s grand tour, the race has often been hyped up as something similar for the women.

However, it has never really deserved the status that has been given, which has been over and above some long-standing events on the women’s calendar.

This year marks the first time that the race will fill out a whole week with the event originally beginning as a city center circuit one-day race around Madrid to coincide with the finish of the men’s event. After three years, it turned into a two-day stage race with a time trial tacked onto the start.

The 2020 season saw the beginning of the progression toward a more rounded stage race with a third day added. The following year would get an extra day before last year’s five-day event.

All of this was good and well, but the stage distances really didn’t do the peloton justice, and to call it a grand tour was certainly a disservice to the riders. In 2020, the average stage length was just 64km with the longest stage barely over the 100km mark.

Over the seasons since, the average length has grown gradually but last year still saw the average top out at just 95.56 per day. That was massively helped by the 160km stage 4, which was about 54km longer than the next longest day.

While she enjoyed an impressive season last year, Annemiek van Vleuten was right to knock back the idea that she had completed some sort of triple.

The race could not be considered amongst the likes of the Giro d’Italia Donne or the Tour de France Femmes, above other more challenging stage races on the calendar.

“When it comes to the race itself, though, I cannot say that the ‘triple’ is a goal in itself. That owes to the fact that, even if the Ceratizit Challenge carries the name of La Vuelta on it, it still hasn’t got the hard stages nor the length, the kilometers, you’d like to find in what you would consider a Grand Tour – it’s also just five days at the moment, with one of them being Madrid’s circuit race,” Van Vleuten said of the race.

This year, it’s all change with an extra two days added to parcours and just two stages dipping below the 100km mark, one of which is the team time trial. While the shorter stages are one of the aspects that can make women’s racing so exciting, making them too short can spoil the action.

These longer days on offer at the 2023 race give the women’s peloton a much better platform to show the world what it can do. The average distance of 104.51km is actually longer than the 100km that was on offer at last year’s Giro d’Italia Donne — though that is four days longer — but it is shorter than the 119km average at this year’s Tour de France Femmes.

Of course, it’s not just about the distance of the stages and the parcours is very important, too. That’s why it’s great to see such varied terrain on offer as the race picks its way from the Costa Blanca to Asturias on the northern coast.

There are some proper opportunities for the sprinters early on before some more rolling terrain is introduced in the second half of the race.

In the battle for the GC contest, there are three key stages, from the opening TTT to the two summit finishes. The Mirador de Peñas Llanas will be the first chance for the climbers to really stretch their legs, though it’s not so tough that it will create some major differences.

The truly decisive day will be the final effort up to the Lagos de Covadonga. Placing this climb on the route is a historic moment and it is the first iconic mountain to feature in the Vuelta Femenina. It’s this stage that shows the organizers are really beginning to take the women seriously.

Lagos de Covadonga was first featured in the men’s Vuelta a España in 1983 and it has become one of the most spectacular finishes at the race with 21 more visits since. The average gradient of 6.9 percent belies the challenge of this climb with a peak of over 20 percent six kilometers up the ascent.

It is the perfect place to round off the race and deliver a proper showdown for the title.

With all of this in mind, what does the Vuelta Femenina have to do to be considered a grand tour. First of all, it needs to up its game when it comes to unveiling its route. Revealing the details just two months before the race starts isn’t good enough.

Yes, the Giro d’Italia Donne has a pretty poor record in this regard and we should demand much more of it. However, when it comes to the grand tour naming stakes, it still remains the longest women’s race on the calendar so it earns that spot.

The race could also do with at least one more stage and a few extra kilometers each day to make it an undoubted grand tour.

After years of lacking parcours, this year’s route is a massive step in the right direction.

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