Volta a Catalunya review

Switzerland’s Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE) leapt onto the top step of the podium and took the white with green hoops leader’s jersey on day one. He then added victory on stage two, and thereafter no one managed to dislodge him, not even the snow ploughs on Wednesday’s queen stage.

This victory is the most important of Albasini’s career and continues GreenEDGE’s fantastic start to their first season in the professional peloton. The Swiss rider was quick to give credit to his teammates:

I need to thank the team for the work that they’ve done throughout the week. This is an important win for me personally and for the team. It would have been impossible without them.

Stage 1: Calella to Calella, 138.9km

Michael Albasini (image courtesy of GreenEDGE website)

Michael Albasini (image courtesy of GreenEDGE)

Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE) continued his team’s winning form on a trip around Calella by soloing away from his breakaway companions to take victory – and the leader’s jersey – on the first stage.

The break, which at one time had a lead of over six minutes, didn’t form until the second hour of racing when Albasini was joined by Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), Ben Gastauer (AG2R) and Timothy Duggan (Liquigas). On the run-in to the finish, Albasini successfully attacked to solo across the line.

Delaplace and Edet were respectively second and third, while Gastauer and Duggan were caught by the bunch, which included most of the main contenders, led in by Kenny Van Hummel (Vacansoleil-DCM), who all finished 1:32 down – a figure which was to come back and haunt them on subsequent stages.

Stage 2: Girone to Girone, 161km

Albasini posted back-to-back victories with a win on stage two’s circumnavigation of Girone – home turf for many riders – with a sprint victory from a 30-odd strong bunch to finish ahead of Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Rigoberto Uran (Sky). Albasini retained the leader’s jersey, preserving his margin over the field.

Once the early break had been hoovered up, the attacks came thick and fast on the final climb of the day, despite the furious pace-setting of Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Halfway up, BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen attacked, swiftly followed by Levi Leipheimer (OPQS), but this was reeled in by Garmin-Barracuda, only for OPQS to resume their duties at the front. The dangerous trio of Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil) and Dan Martin (Garmin) attacked over the summit of the 480-metre cat. 1 Alto dels Angels, 14km from the finish.

The trio built a ten-second advantage on the descent, which was neutralised in the closing kilometres, setting up the sprint finish. Albasini flew off Cataldo’s wheel to cross the line ahead of most of his main contenders again.

I said most of his major contenders. Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) finished well back as did Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who’d been felled by a bidon in the feedzone and was, one assumes, distanced by OPQS in a tit-for-tat retribution for a similar incident involving Leipheimer at Paris-Nice.

Stage 3: La Vall d’en Bas to Port Aine (Andorra), 210.9km

Unfortunately, the weather wreaked havoc with Wednesday’s queen stage which forced its foreshortening and, sadly for the winners – Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Michal Golas (OPQS) and Mickael Cherel (AG2R) – nullification of time differences. As a consequence, Albasini retained the leader’s jersey.

The first three were the remnants of a 12-man breakaway, formed early in the stage when a number of smaller groups came together. They reached the penultimate climb, the Port del Canton, eight minutes ahead only to discover it was game over as the forward race vehicles had ground to a halt in the snow. Large numbers of riders, not wishing to compromise their seasons, had already climbed off and into the warmth of their team cars.

The stage started in cold rain which rapidly turned to sleet. It was also very foggy. A crash after 10km took down Ivan Basso (Liquigas) who abandoned and took out Julian Dean (GreenEDGE) and Frantisek Rabon (OPQS), who both went to hospital. The appalling weather continued until finally the heavy snow forced an early termination.

Stage 4: Tremp to Asco La vostra energia, 199km

Rigoberto Uran (image courtesy of Sky Procycling website)

Rigoberto Uran (image courtesy of Sky)

Sky’s Rigoberto Uran claimed his first victory for the team with a sprint win from a six-man break that was caught within sight of the finishing line by a small chasing group.

Denis Menchov (Katusha) and Sylvester Szmyd (Liquigas), also part of the break, finished second and third respectively. Michael Albasini finished in the chasing group to retain the leader’s jersey.

Uran was thrilled to have broken his duck and said on the team’s website:

I’m ecstatic, I’ve been close to a win for Team Sky before and it’s nice to finally get this win. I’ve been feeling really good this week and a few days ago Brad [Wiggins] worked amazingly for me when I got third but didn’t quite have it at the end so I really wanted to win this one to repay some of that work and show that I could finish it off.

The much-reduced peloton enjoyed a day in brilliant sunshine, although some teams did have to dig their way out of their snow-bound hotels before the start. The stage finished with the peloton contesting two 28km finishing circuits, including the cat 2. Alt de Les Paumeres climb situated 18km from the finish.

On the final ascent a succession of riders launched short-lived attacks. Just prior to the summit, the decisive move was initiated by Szmyd and folllowed by Levi Leipheimer from the lead group. The duo were joined by Euskaltel’s Samu Sanchez – who gave everyone a master class in descending –  Menchov, David Moncoutie (Cofidis) and Uran.

Stage 5: Asco La vostra energia to Marresa, 207.1km

Julian Simon (image courtesy of Saur-Sojasun website)

Julian Simon (image courtesy of Saur-Sojasun)

Julien Simon (Saur-Sojasun) delivered his team a precious WorldTour victory – and a big boost in their quest for a Tour de France wild-card – taking the mass sprint in Marresa. He finished ahead of the previous day’s winner Rigoberto Uran (Sky), with Sylvester Szmyd (Liquigas) third.

Albasini kept a firm grip on the leader’s jersey but there was some reshuffling behind as Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) moved into second place, with Garmin’s Daniel Martin third.

Reduced to 129 riders, the peloton enjoyed the warm sunshine until a group of six built up a sizeable lead which was whittled down until they only had a couple of minutes’ advantage on the last climb of the day, the cat. 1 Alt de Montserrat.

Numerous attacks on the ascent led to the formation of a select group on the descent. Reigning Olympic champion, his gold thread jersey glittering in the sunshine, gave us yet another master-class in descending [don’t try this at home, children – Ed] but was brought back (again) on the flat by the might of OPQS, who were driving the pace along in the hope of distancing Albasini. Dario Cataldo (OPQS) sprinted for the line but Simon managed to beat him to it.

Stage 6: San Fruitos de Bages to Badalone Centre Commercial Magic, 169.4km

Samu Sanchez (image courtesy of Euskaltel-Euskadi website)

Samu Sanchez (image courtesy of Euskaltel-Euskadi)

Finally, Olympic champion Samu Sanchez outsmarted the pack on the run-in to the finish with a perfectly timed and deadly attack to kill off the aspirations of the sprinters and, even better, gaining two seconds on the general classification, thereby catapulting himself into second place overall. This was both Sammy’s and Euskaltel-Euskadi’s maiden win of the season.

Recognising the importance of both the stage win and his improved overall placing in Euskaltel’s battle to remain in the elite division, Samu admitted:

The UCI WorldTour calendar is very crowded and the points are as precious a commodity as gold.

On a day that was assumed to be one for the sprinters but which turned out to be far more important for the overall, further attrition saw the peloton reduced to 124 riders. The action started early, with a number of riders attempting to slip the peloton’s noose. Finally, after 40km, David Moncoutie (Cofidis) and Cedric Pineau (FDJ-BigMat) broke free and were joined by Mikael Cherel (AG2R La Mondiale) just before the Alt San Feliu Saserras with the peloton over three minutes in arrears.

The break’s momentum was disturbed after 72km when a traffic accident – a police motorbike collided with a car driving on the race route – delayed the race for over 40 minutes. The race restarted and the breakaway were handed back their advantage. But with 50km to go they were caught by the peloton.

There followed a flurry of unsuccessful attacks, but they did secure valuable airtime for their team’s sponsors as the peloton headed for the finish line. Finally, Samu Sanchez attacked on an uphill section with just over 2km remaining. He then raced downhill to the finish line to gain two seconds on the best of the rest led by Allan Davis (GreenEDGE) and that man Julien Simon, full of confidence after the previous day’s win.

The two seconds Samu gained saw him jump from fourth to second place overall, moving ahead of Jurgen Van den Broeck and last year’s runner-up Dan Martin. Albasini retained the leader’s jersey and  his 1:30 advantage gained on day one which, with one stage remaining, he looked unlikely to lose.

Stage 7: Badalona Centre Commercial Magic to Barcelona, 119.8km

Juiien Simon wins again (image courtesy of official race website)

Simon wins again (image courtesy of Volta a Catalunya)

He’s gotten into the winning habit. A winner two days before, Julien Simon (Saur-Sojasun) sprinted to his second race victory, beating Francesco Gavazzi (Astana), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and the rest of the leading group to the line. [Do you think the team celebrated with chocolate-flavoured soya milk? – Ed]

The stage started in aggressive fashion – which was only to be expected given that 15 riders had, in theory, an opportunity to climb onto the podium. An early breakaway splintered and was finally taken back about 40km to the finish. There followed a series of attacks but only Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) made his stick for a bit on the final descent into Barcelona, but even he was reeled back in with 10km remaining.

Others now tried to get away either with a view to winning the stage or hoping to get a few seconds which would move them up the standings. Any move by the main contenders was closely marked and quickly extinguished. As everyone surged for the white line, Simon emerged from the bunch to take his second victory.

A relaxed Albasini rolled in with the bunch to seal his third stage race victory after wins in 2009 Tour of Austria and 2010 Tour of Britain and record GreenEDGE’s third this year after Simon Gerrans’ wins in the Tour Down Under and Milan-San Remo.

Chris Anker Sorensen (SaxoBank) was top dog in the mountains, Tomasz Marczynski (Vacansoleil-DCM) won the sprints jersey and Alberto Losado was the best of only three Catalans left in the race, while Garmin-Barracuda were the best team.

Closing thoughts

Catalunya Winners including Mr Bear (image courtesy of official race website)

Catalunya winners including Mr Bear (image courtesy of Volta a Catalunya)

This was a race about what might have been. Shorn of a number of leading contenders through accidents and bad weather, the remaining riders served up a daily feast of entertaining and aggressive cycling. Few teams finished with their full complement and many riders had to simply go it alone. In these circumstances, fortune did indeed favour those brave enough to remain.

Hats off to GreenEDGE and Michael Albasini for their well-orchestrated and finely judged efforts. Thanks to Euskaltel’s Samu Sanchez who lit up the race not only with his daring attack on the penultimate stage but also with the amount of gold on his kit, bike, shoes and helmet. No chance of him getting lost in the snow! Still, I think we can forgive him for looking like a golden twizzle stick –  in what might be his Olympic swansong year –  in view of his fearless and breathtaking descending. If Euskaltel are short of a bob or Euro or two to balance the books, can I suggest they offer Sammy’s services to RadioShack  – for a small fortune –  to teach the Schlecks to descend properly. Of course, it’s entirely possible that BMC will counter and raise the offer so that he doesn’t!

It was also a race of firsts. First wins of the season for Euskaltel-Euskadi and Astana. First WorldTour wins for Saur-Sojasun, all-important in the quest for a Tour de France wild-card. Rigoberto Uran’s first win for Sky and also for Julien Simon at Saur-Sojasun. These wins not only carry important UCI points but they often give a much-needed boost of confidence to the riders and team.

If we look at the overall classification, you’ll see names that also did well in Paris-Nice. Many of these riders will however be riding in support of their leaders at the Grand Tours but, should they falter, these guys are ready, willing and able to step up to the plate. However, boys, a word to the wise. Please remember, stage placings count!

A couple of worrying signs: neither Ivan Basso (Liquigas) nor Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) have finished a race thus far this season. Grand Tour contenders such as Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Cadel Evans (BMC), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Levi Leipheimer (OPQS) already have at least one in the bag and are feeling quietly confident.

General classification

1. Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE) 24:15:45

2. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +1:30

3. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) +1:32

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Barracuda) same time

5. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) s/t

6. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) s/t

7. Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) s/t

8. Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil-DCM)  s/t

9. Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t

10. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) s/t

Links: Preview, Official website

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