Volta a Catalunya preview

230px-Volta_a_Catalunya_logoNow settled into its new slot in late March (where it has resided since 2010), having originally occupied a position following the Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s oldest stage races offers an opportunity for the climbers to strut their stuff in an event which traverses some of the most mountainous parts of the Catalan region before finishing in one of the most famous cultural and sporting cities in the world, Barcelona.

What kind of race is it?

The first of Spain’s four WorldTour events – and the fourth-oldest stage race in cycling, after the Tours of France and Belgium and the Giro – is a week-long stage race packed with plenty of testing medium to high climbs. In its latest format it is one of the few major races to be run without a time trial, making it an event which finds favour with those who prefer to race against gradients rather than the clock, and there are still enough opportunities to attract sprinters.

Its position in the calendar means that Flanders Classics specialists will not be present, although the terrain does offer a proving ground for those looking towards the Ardennes or riders wishing to stake a claim for selection in their team’s squad for the Giro d’Italia.

Unsurprisingly, the winners’ list for this race reads like a Who’s Who of Spanish cycling. Miguel Indurain won three times, while more recently Joseba Beloki, Roberto Heras, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez have also claimed GC victory. Ten of the last 14 editions have been won by a Spanish rider.

The most recent winners of the race are:

2008: Gustavo Cesar (Karpin-Galicia)

2009: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne)

2010: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)

2011: Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD)

2012: Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE)

What happened last year?

2012 winner Albasini (image courtesy of GreenEDGE)

2012 winner Albasini (image courtesy of GreenEDGE)

GreenEDGE’s Michael Albasini laid the foundations for overall victory by winning the first two stages. He claimed the first after soloing away from his breakaway accomplices, while the second came in a reduced bunch sprint.

He was aided by the nullification of race times on a snow-shortened queen stage, which also resulted in large-scale abandonments. But he had no problem defending his advantage thereafter as Saur-Sojasun’s Julien Simon took two sprint finishes, with Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Rigoberto Uran (Sky) taking a victory each.

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

You can read our full 2012 race review here.

This year’s race

We will see all 19 ProTeams plus wild-cards Caja Rural-Seguros RGA, Cofidis and Sojasun in Catalunya. It’s straight down to business on an opening stage which features five categorised climbs, the last 18km from the finish on which the sprinters’ teams will struggle to contain the inevitable attacks. The fast-twitch men may have to wait until the following day for their first opportunity, although there’s plenty of uphill gradient on the circuit loop around Banyoles to make life difficult.

It is over the next two days, however, where the GC contenders will come to the fore. Stage three concludes with a summit finish at the special-category Vallter 2000, a 12km climb to 2,200 metres averaging 7.8%. The following day’s parcours sees a never-ending succession of ascents finishing with a pair of special-category climbs totalling 43.5km in length.

The GC is unlikely to alter significantly over the final two stages, although there’s no joy for the sprinters either. Stage six includes a Cat 1 climb with a further Cat 2 only 15km from the finish. And the concluding stage in Barcelona includes eight ascents of Montjuic hill around the 1992 Olympic Games park, a 2km climb averaging 5.75%, before a downhill finish.

Who to watch

The official start-list had yet to be published at the time of writing – but here goes anyway! Two of the last three overall winners are here: Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez and Lampre-Merida’s Michele Scarponi (who inherited the 2011 victory after Alberto Contador’s suspension). Katusha are bringing a particularly strong team, with Denis Menchov a formidable second-in-command and Daniel Moreno and Simon Spilak to do the hard work on the climbs.

Rodriguez returns to pursue a second Catalunya win (image courtesy of Katusha)

Rodriguez returns to pursue a second Catalunya win (image courtesy of Katusha)

Blanco will look to continue their impressive early season form, with Robert Gesink aided and abetted by Steven Kruijswijk and Laurens ten Dam. Similarly, Garmin-Sharp can field a potent one-two punch in defending Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin, as can Sky with Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and the consistently impressive Rigoberto Uran. A lot of eyes will be on Wiggins ahead of the Giro given his low profile so far this year. Thibaut Pinot and Arnold Jeannesson will combine in search of valuable WorldTour points for FDJ.

Others looking to gear up for the Grand Tours or to prove a point about their ability as team leaders include Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Vacansoleil’s Giro podium finisher Thomas De Gendt may focus more on stage wins rather than the overall – if he does he is likely to find himself in good company with riders from the wild-card teams, in particular Spanish squad Caja Rural.

With different riders at widely differing points in terms of their preparation depending on their targets for the season, the outcome of this race is difficult to predict, but there is every chance that a well-judged breakaway could propel an unexpected name on to the podium, as it did with Albasini last year.

Race details

March 18th: Stage 1 – Calella to Calella, 159.3km

March 19th: Stage 2 – Girona to Banyoles, 160.7km

March 20th: Stage 3 – Vidreres to Valter 2000-Setcases, 180.1km

March 21st: Stage 4 – Llanars to Vall de Camprodon-Port Aine-Rialp, 217.7km

March 22nd: Stage 5 – Rialp to Lleida, 156.5km

March 23rd: Stage 6 – Almacelles to Valls, 178.7km

March 24th: Stage 7 – El Vendrell to Barcelona (Montjuic), 122.2km

The Volta a Catalunya starts on Monday 18th March and concludes on Sunday 24th. Daily live coverage will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other options check cyclingfans.com.

Link: Official website

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