Way back when a few of us weren't even born yet, this Third Oldest Stage Race In The World (started in 1911) was held in June, making it a major Tour prep race. But then it moved to mid-May which proved to be not such a great move because the race promptly lost most of the A-list talent: Italians stayed true to the Giro, while Tour hopefuls were not ready to get into top form. So it became a B-list stage race with some decent sprinters sprinkled in. But this year it moved again to now, late-March and by the looks of things the talent level has gone back up. We'll get to that in a minute but first...
Was this calendar slot just lying there open, hoping for a Spanish stage race to come along? No! Last year this week was reserved for the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, a 2.1 stage race (Catalunya is a PT race). So where is C y L now? The second week in April, natch, one week after Pais Vasco which keeps it's first week in April slot. So has any Spanish stage race moved back into Catalunya's old mid-May spot? Sure! The Tour of California! Wait, that's American. Ah but that name California: is it Spanish? Maybe. There are several possibilities as to where the word California came from. Mr. George Stewart says that the word California is the fifth oldest surviving European place name; only the names Florida, Cape Canaveral, Dry Tortugas, and Appalachian are older. But unlike those names it's unclear weather California is an indigenous name (kali forno means high mountains) or an older Castilian name, possibly derived from Latin, or even something that floated in from South Asia. But for the purposes of this essay let's call it Catalan in origin. In Catalan, cal means hot and forn means oven. So since the word was first applied to the southern part of California, the Baja part, it meant the land was Hot As An Oven. I don;'t know about you, but when I read the phrase, hot as an oven, I immediately think of Love Shack, the B--52's hit. And when I think of Love Shack I think of the Gav Shack which-get this!-Is In California!. Wow! See: all things come back to the Podium Cafe.
Okay, who's racing?
GC guys. Lots of 'em. Really this race has more serious GC stage race contenders than any race so far and about as many as any race this year. Since it's a Pro Tour race you have almost every team trotting out at least some of their main stage racers if not all of them. Let's look at some of the names and drool:
Cervelo: Sastre, Deignan, and Tondo
Caisse: Lulu, Arroyo, and Gutierrez
Liquigas: Basso and Kreuziger
Garmin: Vandevelde and Zabriskie
Katusha: J-Rod, Karpets, and Kolobnev
Radio shack: Leipheimer, Kloden, and Brajkovic
Saxo Bank: both Schlecks, Jens!, both Sorensens, even both Haedos
AG2R: Valjavec, Dessel, and both Efimkins
FDJ: Casar and Le Mevel
You get the idea. Not everyone is here. No Bert or Lance or Cadel or Samu or Lofkvist, or even the BCS. Other Italian big names are at Coppi and Bartali where they reunite with Ricco, Rasmussen and SELLA!. But most of the Big Boys are here i n Catalunya.
Sprinters? Not so much. There's Cav. And the Haedos, Stauff, Guarnieri, Furlan, Cardoso... face it though: when you start looking for sprinters in Footon's roster then you are reaching. No, this race is about the GC guys.
So who is gonna win?
Funny you asked that. You see all those names above but obvious some of those guys are not in game shape. I don't even think Carlos Sastre has raced this year. And Andy Schleck? Or Arroyo? These guys and several others are just along for the training miles. Who I think will seriously compete will be the guys, mainly from Paris-Nice, who are in close to top form: Lulu, Tondo, Taaramae, Kreuziger, Wiggins, and Menchov. Maybe Kloden. Probably a few who I haven't named might surprise (Leipheimer?)
So how will the stages separate out the contenders from the trainers?
Not easily, that;s for sure. Here's the weird thing about this race and it's caused me no little effort to get excited about it: it's just my opinion but the course is pretty bland. Partly that's because it's March and they can't use the kali forno/high mountains but the mountains they do use mostly come way before the end of most stages. Hopefully the riders will prove me wrong but I think there could be a way to throw a few tricks into the course without making it too hard.
Stage one is a 3.6 km ITT. The winner will take barely a second out of the 2nd place guy-if that.
Stage two is a kind hilly stage that should end in a bunch sprint. Cavendish should be all over this one.
Stage three is billed as the big mountain stage with a HC climb quickly followed by a cat 2. Problem is that Cat 2 peaks 55 km away from the finish. Possibly a breakaway will cause a shakeup in the GC if most of the riders aren't riding hard.
Stage four is tricky. A mostly downhill stage until a finishing circuit that contains a cat 2 climb. A rider who was in a successful break the day before might get dropped on that closing hill that the riders climb twice. Still that climb is 20 km from the finish.
Stage five: A bumpy stage with two cat 3;s and two cat 2's, the last being about 13 km from the finish. It looks like there's a slight uphill tick to the finish also. Maybe something will happen here. Maybe not.
Stage six into Barcelona has a short cat 3 hill on the closing circuit that the riders climb three times just to make it hard on the sprinters.
Stage seven: flat and short (117 km).
So there. I find the course kinda disappointing, especially compared to Paris-Nice. But probably the teams are happy as it won't tax their riders too much before the bigger Pais Vasco.
One final thing...
Did I say the race starts tomorrow? No? Oops! It ends next Sunday.