Volta a Catalunya review: Irish eyes are smiling

230px-Volta_a_Catalunya_logoDaniel Martin won the Volta a Catalunya in style after a series of podium and top-five finishes in prior years. He finished on the right side of a key split on the opening day, took the lead on the queen stage and then intelligently maintained his advantage with bonus seconds. Martin becomes only the second Irishman (and first Brummie) to win this race since Sean Kelly. Irish eyes will be smiling and, one suspects, Irish arms will be raising a few glasses.

The podium l to r Rodriguez, Martin, Scarponi (image courtesy of Garmin-Sharp)

The podium l to r Rodriguez, Martin, Scarponi (image courtesy of Garmin-Sharp)

Race summary

On stage one Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was the fastest of a 13-man leading group containing many of the overall contenders which crossed the line 28 seconds ahead of the rest, ahead of Valerio Agnoli (Astana) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). The day’s break had been absorbed back into the bunch on the last of three ascents of the Cat 3 Alto de Collsacreu, with around 20km remaining. It was on that descent that the winning move was forged by Sky’s Bradley Wiggins in the company of the winning trio and, among others, Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Robert Gesink (Blanco), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) and  Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).

Meersman made it back-to-back victories the following day as he sprinted up the slight rise to the finish on the 160.7km stage from  Girona to Banyoles ahead of Daniele Ratto (Cannondale) and Brett Lancaster (Orica-GreenEDGE). After catching the day’s three-man break, the sprinters’ teams assumed control, driving up the pace to ensure no one could launch an attack before the bunch finish, albeit one marred by a crash behind the leading riders.

23-year-old Colombian climbing ace Nairo Quintana (Movistar) lit the after-burners in the final 500m of stage three with an impressive attack which no one was else was capable of containing to take the first mountain stage atop Vallter 2000. His team captain Valverde finished runner-up, six seconds back, to take over the leader’s jersey. Rodriguez, who’d dragged Valverde to the line, finished third, to move up to second overall some six seconds behind, with Wiggins third, ten seconds off the lead.

On the final climb Jurgen Van Den Broeck  (Lotto Belisol) was the first to unsuccessfully break ranks in the last 5km followed by Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp). But both were hauled back by the metronomic Sky train before Wiggins surprised everyone with an attack of his own that split the remaining pack. However, it was the young Colombian who prevailed with his powerful, unstoppable acceleration.

Martin finished solo atop Port Aine-Rialp, an 18.9km hors categorie climb, a full 36 seconds ahead of closest rivals Rodriguez and Quintana (Movistar), taking over the race leader’s jersey from Valverde, who abandoned after a fall. Disappointed with his performance the previous day, Martin was part of the 23-man break which formed after about an hour of racing on the mountainous 217.7km queen stage. It was only on the penultimate climb, the hors categorie Port del Canto, that the break started to fall apart with Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal setting the pace for teammate Martin.

Back in the bunch, Sky reduced the break’s advantage to less than three minutes and whittled the chasing group down to around 50 riders. Martin’s cousin Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) attacked out of the leading group near the summit and continued to the final ascent before he was caught by a group of six riders from the earlier break which included Martin, who subsequently shed his companions and went on a solo attack 8km from home. WIth his head bobbing distinctively with the effort, he managed to hold off the chasers and the attacks of a number of others to win on ‘home’ turf  – he’s been based in Girona for a number of years.

Francois Parisien (Argos-Shimano) adroitly negotiated numerous roundabouts to take his first win of the season and his first ever bunch sprint victory. With the peloton having ‘lost’ a number of sprinters, the unfancied 30-year-old Canadian finished ahead of Samuel  Dumoulin (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Stephane Poulhies (Cofidis). Race leader Martin bolstered his lead by taking bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint and, ever attentive, finished ninth on the stage.

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) recorded his second victory of the season when he put in a powerful surge up the finishing straight on 178.7km stage to Valls to soar past Gianni Meersman and Samuel Dumoulin. The trio were part of the 50-man leading group after the peloton had split on the final climb of the day, Alt de Lilla, sweeping up the eight-man breakaway on the rapid descent which followed. Race leader Martin hoovered up more intermediate bonus seconds to take him 17 clear of Rodriguez, 45 ahead of Quintana and 54 up on Wiggins. 

The final stage was won by Vacansoleil’s Thomas De Gendt, who proved to be the strongest in the final five-man break ahead of David Lopez (Sky) and Robert Kiserlovski (RadioShack-Leopard). The break had been driven 22km from the finish by the ambitions of the rider who finished fourth, Michele Scarponi. Dan Martin sealed the overall – and the most prestigious victory of his career – when he rolled in 21 seconds later with the chasing bunch and the rest of the overall contenders whose attacks he and his team had controlled throughout the stage which had included eight tough ascents of the  Montjuic climb in Barcelona.

Joaquim Rodriguez was runner-up, while Scarponi’s aggressive riding on the final stage saw him jump onto the podium. Christian Meier (Orica-GreenEDGE) took home the points jersey, Cristiano Salerno (Cannondale) was top dog in the mountains and Martin’s own team Garmin-Sharp won the team classification.

Analysis & opinion

Impressive performance from 23 year old Quintana (image courtesy of Movistar)

An impressive performance from Quintana (image courtesy of Movistar)

With the start of the Giro d’Italia just over a month away, the press are more likely to speculate about the state of readiness of fifth-placed Bradley Wiggins instead of congratulating the Garmin-Sharp team on their superbly orchestrated and well-deserved win. When you look at the overall results it’s littered with names we would expect to see gracing the GC of the forthcoming Grand Tours. So there’s no need for anyone to panic except perhaps Euskaltel-Euskadi who, despite animating a number of stages, have yet to register their first win of the season. But, never fear, their ‘home’ race Vuelta al Pais Vasco is fast approaching!

Most of the WorldTour teams have something to take away from this race: either consistent top ten placings, a stage win (or two in the case of OPQS) or a good overall result. However, the two riders who most impressed me were overall winner Dan Martin with his dogged persistence and Nairo Quintana who has an explosive acceleration to rival those of Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez, if only he could time-trial.

General classification

1. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) 29:02:25

2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:17

3. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) +0:34

4. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +0:45

5. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +0:54

6. Robert Gesink (Blanco) +1:07

7. Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) +1:18

8. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) +1:26

9. Jurgen Van den Broeck  (Lotto Belisol) +1:28

10. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) +1:41

Links: PreviewOfficial website

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

Vuelta a Andalucia (Ruta del Sol) review: El Imbatido se dobla


Alejandro Valverde successfully defended his crown at the 59th Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol, a four-day stage race ranked 2.1 on the UCI Europe calendar. He recorded top-and-tail wins in the prologue and queen stage to give him the edge over runner-up Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who took the combined jersey, and third-placed Bauke Mollema. That’s four wins – three stages and one overall – and a runner-up placing for Valverde in only seven days of racing so far in 2013. The other two stages were won by Jonathan Hivert. Tom Dumoulin (Argos-Shimano) was the king of the mountains, Luis Mas (Burgos-BH) won the sprints jersey and Movistar collected the award for best team, while Valverde himself claimed the points competition.

Valverde, victorious again in Ruta del Sol (image courtesy of Movistar)

Valverde, victorious again in Ruta del Sol (image courtesy of Movistar)

Race summary

Defending champion Valverde (Movistar) zoomed around the straightforward 6km prologue course in San Fernando in a time of 6:46 – a 20-second improvement on his time last year – to take the opening stage of this four-day race. Runner-up, two seconds back, was Simon Spilak (Katusha) while Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) was four seconds behind in third.

Big win today and most of all satisfied for improving a lot in ITT 👍

Etoile de Besseges winner, Jonathan Hivert (Sojasun) won the sprint from a large breakaway on Monday’s 164km stage from San Fernando to Ubrique. Valverde finished second to retain the overall lead and Bauke Mollema (Blanco) was third.

An early escape group built a lead of over four minutes from which Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) took a flyer on the second category three climb of the day. However, he was finally pulled back on the final category one climb, Puerto de Las Palomas, 34km from the finish. On the run in to Ubrique a large group formed, including race leader Valverde, which gained about a minute on the rest, to contest the sprint finish.

Hivert made it back-to-back victories in the bunch sprint at the end of the undulating 194.2km stage from Trebujena to Montilla ahead of Farrar, who keeps racking up those runner-up slots. Francesco Lasca of Caja Rural was third. Valverde finished in the peloton to keep the leader’s jersey, seven seconds clear of Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), second overall.

The stage featured yet another early breakaway which built an advantage of eight minutes. Despite Clement Lhotellerie’s (Colba-Superano Ham) solo bid over the Alto de Santaella, the trio were all back in the peloton with 17km to run thanks largely to the work done by Movistar. The peloton remained intact over the two last climbs to arrive all together at the finish where Hivert won his second consecutive stage. After the stage, a delighted Hivert said:

I’m happy: I’ve never won a stage race: I did that at Besseges. I’ve never won two consecutive stages. That’s now done. I have never recorded more than two wins per season; I’ve now done that too. I think I can now go on holiday!

Valverde took his second victory on the last, queen stage, 183km from Luceno to Rincon de la Victoria, beating Spilak and veteran Davide Rebellin (CCC Polsat Polkowice) to the finish.

A two-man breakaway set off after 30km only to be captured in the final run-in. Astana and Lotto-Belisol combined resources to try to spoil the Movistar party but Valverde, ably supported  – as he was in last year’s Vuelta a Espana – by teammate Nairo Quintana formed part of a select 12-man group which included all the other leading contenders that went clear of the peloton on the final descent. Jon Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) launched a solo attack but it was all in vain as Valverde proved to be the strongest rider on the day.

Analysis & opinion

Movistar will leave Andalucia with smiles on their faces as Alejandro Valverde, Nairo Quintana (seventh overall) and indeed the rest of the team ably defended their Ruta del Sol crown with a truly dominating performance. Next up for Valverde at the weekend is his home tour, the Vuelta a Murcia – reduced from a two to a one-day race due to economic difficulties – where he’ll come up against many of the protagonists from this race. Will he go for the win or help teammate Quintana defend his title? Both riders are clearly in fine form and, dare I say, better than at the same time last year.

Lotto-Belisol will also look back on the performances of Jurgen Van Den Broeck (runner-up) and Bart de Clerq (fifth overall) with pleasure and expectation of maybe better things to come in respectively Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice.

Double-stage winner Hivert has dream start to 2013 season (imge courtesy of team Blanco)

Double-stage winner Hivert has dream start to 2013 season (image courtesy of Team Blanco)

Jonathan Hivert‘s two wins will have helped plead their cause for one of the three Tour de France wild cards. He’ll hope to carry this form into Paris-Nice. Elsewhere, there were strong performances from Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), hoping to lay claim to leadership responsibilities in one of the Grand Tours and another solid Blanco performance, this time from Bauke Mollema, as they continue their hunt for a replacement sponsor.

Personally, I was delighted to see Jon Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) giving it a go on the queen stage. He came away empty-handed but his aggression augurs well for forthcoming races such as Paris-Nice, where he’ll be riding with his older brother Gorka.

General classification

1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) 13:47:17

2. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) +0:07

3. Bauke Mollema (Blanco) +0:11

4. Simon Spilak (Katusha) +0:12

5. Bart De Clerq (Lotto-Belisol) +0:17

6. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) +0:19

7. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +0:24

8. Sander Armee (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) +0:30

9. Davide Rebellin  (CCC Polsat Polkowice) same time

10 Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) +0:38

Link: Official race website