Preview: Women’s WorldTour returns with inaugural Itzulia Basque Country

The new three-day race forms part of a strong series of Spanish climbing races in May.

Photo: ANP Sport via Getty Images

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After a short lull following the end of the spring classics, the Women’s WorldTour ramps up again at the inaugural edition of Itzulia Women.

The three-day Basque race follows the trend of existing men’s events getting stuck into women’s racing. However, unlike some of these new additions, Itzulia Women has its own space in the calendar and is very much its own event.

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By slotting into May, along with the relatively recent Vuelta a Burgos, the race helps to build upon a strong campaign across northeast Spain, which contains a mixture of one-day and stage races. With the first part of the spring largely the domain of the sprinters, this Spanish fiesta is very much for the climbers.

Last season, the Spanish races were dominated by Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen but it’s likely to be different in 2022.

Van der Breggen has retired, and Van Vleuten is recovering from a broken wrist, which she suffered soon after her Liège-Bastogne-Liège win, though she could still yet make an appearance on a Spanish start line.

The route: Climbs galore

Itzulia Women is only three days long, but it packs a punch over its trio of stages and provides the groundwork for a thrilling race.

Stage 1 from Vitoria-Gasteiz to Labastida is the easiest of the stages but ease is relative, and it will still be a challenging day out. It is 105.9k long but packs in three classified climbs, the first coming immediately in the stage, and several more tricky unclassified rises in the road, including a steep rise to the finish line in Labasta.

The stage will suit the punchy riders and there could be some small gaps in the overall classification by the end of the day.

Stage 2 ramps up the climbing meters and brings in the race’s only cat. 1 climb. The race starts and finishes in Mallabia but the route will wind its way out toward the coast near Lekeitio before turning back inland.

The 117.9k ride will start, for the second day in a row, immediately with a classified climb. The third category Areitio is followed by four more cat. 3 ascents, all of which will soften the legs ahead of the Karabieta, a 6.7km climb that averages 5.6 percent.

A technical descent follows the summit of the Karabieta and any rider that does manage to breakaway from the pack will have to face a long drag to the line back in Mallabia.

With the fight for the general classification already taking shape, the riders will head into the final day of racing. If the parcours of stage 3 looks familiar then that’s because it is an exact replica of the 2021 Clásica San Sebastián, which was won by Van Vleuten.

Starting and finishing in San Sebastián — Donostia in Basque — the 139.8km course takes on some very rolling terrain. While it does not include a cat. 1 climb like the previous day, it stakes a good claim as the queen stage of the race.

As with Clásica San Sebastián, the 7.9km Jaizkibel is likely to play a big role in the stage. Meanwhile, the short and steep Murgil-Tontorra will be a big barrier for anyone trying to hold onto a breakaway lead. With an average gradient of 10.1 percent and a maximum of 19 percent, stage and GC hopes could blow up on this climb.

It will provide an exciting end to the inaugural Itzulia Basque Country.

The contenders: It’s anyone’s game

While last year’s Spanish campaign was dominated by two strong riders in Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen, this year is likely to be different and it’s not just because they won’t be there. The strength and depth of the women’s peloton is as strong as ever, as the spring classics showed earlier this year.

FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope will be one of the teams favored for victory with Marta Cavalli leading the way. The Italian has enjoyed her best season to date in her young career with victories at the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne last month.

Cavalli’s punchy style will work well on the Basque terrain, and she comes with a strong team behind her, despite Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig being absent as she continues to recover from a bout with COVID-19. Evita Muzic and Brodie Chapman both provide the team with tactical options.

SD Worx is also taking a squad of big-hitters for the three-day race with Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Demi Vollering and Marlen Reusser, plus rising stars Anna Shackley, Lonneke Uneken, and Niamh Fisher-Black.

Spanish hopes may lie with Mavi Garcia (UAE Team ADQ), who has had a strong spring with second place overall at the recent Ruta del Sol plus a podium finish at the one-day GP Ciudad de Eibar and fifth at Tuesday’s Emakumeen Nafarroako.

Ane Santesteban (BikeExchange-Jayco) is another strong contender for a home result, and she is the strongest Basque rider on the start list. BikeExchange has possible contenders in Urška Žigart and Amanda Spratt.

There is some strong North American representation at the race thanks to Veronica Ewers, Kristabel Doebel-Hickok (both from EF Education-TIBCO-SVB), and Leah Thomas (Trek-Segafredo). Ewers, in particular, has been on flying form of late with her first ever pro victory at the Festival Elsy Jacobs and second place behind Sarah Gigante at Emakumeen Nafarroako.

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