Volta a Catalunya preview

The Volta a Catalunya is the next test for those seeking fame in this year’s Grand Tours. Like a number of the Spanish events this year, there was initially some doubt as to whether or not there would be sufficient funds to hold the race. But the piggy banks have been raided, it’s firmly on the calendar and its licence has been extended through to 2016.

It’s a WorldTour event, ranking second in popularity in Spain behind the Vuelta a Espana, and is the third-oldest stage race in the world (1911), after the Tour de France (1903) and Giro d’Italia (1909). Initially it took place after the Giro and was regarded as an important warm-up race for the Tour. It subsequently moved to May as an alternative to the Giro and, after this proved to be less than successful, for the 2010 season it was moved to late March, a date formerly held by another Catalan stage race, the Setamana Catalana.

What kind of race is it?

This year sees the 93rd running of the Volta a Catalunya which traverses the region and, in seeking sufficiently testing mountain-top finishes, dips a toe into Andorra for its queen stage. Large numbers of professionals live in the region, particularly around Girona, so they regard it as a ‘home’ race.

With its numerous mountains and no time trial, it’s often assumed to be a race for the pure climbers such as 2010 winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). But closer inspection of the stage profiles reveals that, with the exception of the queen stage, the final climb is often some way from the finish line and it’s downhill all the way from the final climb. This gives the sprinters plenty of opportunity to add to their palmares but not gain sufficient time on any of the general classification contenders to steal the overall crown.

Volta a Catalunya will be racing along the Spanish coastline (image courtesy of race website)

Volta a Catalunya will be racing along the Spanish coastline (image courtesy of race website)

As befits a race of such stature, although the winners have been largely Spanish prominent riders such as Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gismondi, Francesco Moser, Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly have all stood atop its podium.

The most recent winners are:

2007: Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d’Epargne)

2008: Gustavo Cesar (Karpin-Galicia)

2009: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne)

2010: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)

2011: Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD)

What happened last year?

Alberto Contador won queen stage and cemented overall (image courtesy of race website)

Alberto Contador won queen stage and cemented overall (image courtesy of race website)

Alberto Contador won the race after claiming the leader’s white with green-striped jersey atop the hors catégorie Coll De Pal summit finish on stage three. He maintained his advantage over runner-up Michele Scarponi (Lampre) and fellow Brummie Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervelo) [Sheree comes from Birmingham, not Alberto! – Ed] until the end of the race. Martin made the podium at the expense of Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), who pulled out of the race before the final stage with tummy troubles.

Contador assumed the leader’s jersey from Gatis Smukulis (HTC-Highroad), who had led since his stage one win from a breakaway. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) won stage two, while the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) and Manuel Cardoso (RadioShack) had slugged it out for honours in bunch sprints on the remaining stages. Dumoulin took stages five and seven, Rojas stage six and Cardoso stage four.

In the race’s other classifications, Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) took home the white jersey for amassing the highest number of points during stages at intermediate sprints, Nairo Quintana (Colombia es Pasion-Cafe de Colombia) won the King of the Mountains classification and RadioShack finished ahead in the team competition. Following Contador’s recent doping suspension, Scarponi is now officially the race winner.

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 29:24:42

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +0:23

3. Daniel Martin (Garmin Cervelo) +0:35

4. Chris Horner (RadioShack) +0:35

5. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) +0:38

6. Xavier Tondo (Movistar) same time

7.  Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

8.  Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:50

9. Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step) +1:12

10. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) s/t

This year’s race

This profile of this year’s race is more testing than 2011’s, with 21 categorised (2011: 16) climbs over seven stages, and stage three again providing the main challenge. Nonetheless, with a number of short downhill run-ins to the finish line, the sprinters will again be relishing this race. It begins with a short stage starting and finishing in Calella with a trip over three successive hill-tops – Viladrau (cat. 2), Formic (cat. 1) and Sacreu (cat. 3) – before an 18km dash downhill to the finish. It’s ideal terrain for breakaways, but ultimately likely to finish in a bunch sprint. The second stage starts and finishes in Girona with a climb over the 480m Alt des Angels followed by another short downhill sprint to the finish line.

The third day will again provide the race’s queen stage. It’s 210.9km from the Vall d’en Bas to Andorra’s ski station at Port-Aine over four mountain passes: Coubet and Ada (both cat. 1), Port del Canto and Port Aine (both HC). The last is a testing 19km climb at an average 6.3% (maximum 12%) to finish at 1,947 metres altitude. It will be both the highest and the most decisive point of the race.

Stage four with two cat. 2 climbs and another downhill finish probably favours a breakaway. Similar stages in recent years have proved popular with aggressive, combative riders such as Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ-BigMat) and Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan). The fifth stage provides a third successive day of around 200km. With its slight uphill finish, it might be where those contesting the general classification put more time or, conversely, gain time back on their closest contenders.

Stage six is most definitely one for the sprinters as their teams will probably find it easy to control the race on its final circuit into Badalona. Finally the ultimate stage, which finishes in Barcelona, might not be a formality. Its shortish distance is likely to render it more nervous, particularly if the general classification is still undecided.

Who to watch

The 2011 race was won by Alberto Contador but, following his ban, he has been striped of the title and replaced by Michele Scarponi.  The most recent winners aren’t riding, but Gustavo Cesar (Andalucia), Alejandro Valverde and Vladimir Karpets (both Movistar) are taking part. They can expect a strong challenge from riders such as  Daniel Martin (Garmin-Barracuda), who finished on the podium in 2009 and 2011. Martin has said:

I’ve finished twice on the podium so winning it would be unbelievable. It is definitely the objective this year. The race starts with three solid days in the mountains. The queen stage takes place on day three and that will be so important. It is going to be crazy, it is so hard.

VeloVoices will be watching Samu Sanchez (image courtesy of rider's website)

VeloVoices will be watching Samu Sanchez (image courtesy of rider's website)

A number of riders who performed well in last week’s Paris-Nice are taking part, including Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ-BigMat), Teejay Van Garderen (BMC), Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) and, of course, the winner Bradley Wiggins (Sky). Equally, there are also a number of riders who failed to shine at Paris-Nice  – largely due to health-related issues – and will be looking to atone either with a good placing, such as Andy Schleck (RadioShack), Nico Roche (AG2R), Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), Denis Menchov (Katusha), Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas), or a stage win, such as  David Moncoutie (Cofidis). And let’s not forget still-to-record-a-win this season Euskaltel-Euskadi with Samuel Sanchez, who’s got to be relishing all those downhill finishes.

A number of sprinters will be licking their chops at the prospect of plenty of bunch sprints, even if some of them end in a slight uphill rise. There’s Sandy Casar and Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ-BigMat), the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), the powerful Marcel Kittel (Project 1t4i), Davide Appollonio (Sky),  JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank) and GreenEDGE’s Allan Davis. Expect the local teams Andalucia and Caja Rural to animate the stages assisted by Vacansoleil-DCM and FDJ’s Jeremy Roy.

Here at VeloVoices I’ll be keeping a close eye on one of my favourite riders, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s number 31, Samuel Sanchez, whom I expect to be coming nicely into form ahead of his team’s home tour, the Vuelta a Pais Vasco. Don’t expect him to win – though he might just set his cap at the queen stage – instead he should place well overall.

Race details

March 19th: Stage 1 – Calella to Calella, 138.9km

March 20th: Stage 2 – Girone to Girone, 161km

March 21st: Stage 3 – La Vall d’en Bas to Port Aine (Andorra) 210.9km

March 22nd: Stage 4 – Tremp to Asco La vostra energia 199km

March 23rd: Stage 5 – Asco La vostra energia – Marresa 207.1km

March 24th: Stage 6 – San Fruitos de Bages to Badalone Centre Commercial Magic 169.4km

March 25th: Stage 7 – Badalona Centre Commercial Magic to Barcelona 119.8km

Volta a Catalunya starts on Monday 19th March and concludes on Sunday 25th March. Daily highlights will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other channels check cyclingfans.com.

Link: Official website