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