The Volta a Catalunya hasn't had much of a run lately. Last year's race landed in the lap of Michael Albasini when the queen stage to Port Aine was shortened due to bad weather and the escape by Christian ValdeVelde, Janez Brajkovic and others was essentially nullified when everyone was given the same finishing time. Two years ago they put on a terrific race, won by Alberto Contador, who was then stricken from the rolls when the clenbutarol scandal hanging over his head like a scythe finally fell on him. Huzzah for winner Michele Scarponi!
Three years ago Joaquim Rodriguez won a nip-and-tuck two-man battle over the late Xavier Tondo, but not a lot of other big names. Something similar could be said about Valverde's win in 2009. And even more so about 2008, when Gustavo Cesar became the first rider from a second-division team to win a Pro Tour stage race. I root for the little guy as much as anyone else, and if Cesar is still dining out on the biggest win of his career -- a last-stage overturning of the GC -- then good for him. He earned it.
But we fans tend to think about the big picture: who's the best cyclist? Who's number two? What can I learn from watching this or that race? And too often the answer from Catalunya has been, not all that much. This is my first turn at the Spain Desk, so if someone wants to explain why the country's oldest stage race -- a country, mind you, where stage races are pretty much the only acceptable format in cycling -- couldn't pack the roads with established stars for an event traditionally won by greats like Indurain, Lorono, Merckx, Poblet, Moser, Ocana, Thevenet and so on, then I am all ears. But it couldn't, until arguably the last few bumpy years. And now.
Now, the startlist is pure class. Last year's #1 rider, Purito Rodriguez. Two of the three 2012 Grand Tour winners, Hesjedal and Wiggins. Exciting climbing talent from all over the world, filling out deep rosters. Spain's top teams, bringing their A game.
And they'd better. There is no chance this year's edition will be won by second-division teams, or by puncheurs getting a big break. Check your small motors at the door. This year's Volta Ciclista a Catalunya promises to challenge the peloton like they haven't been challenged in a long time.
In the 2007 edition, Vlad Karpets played his hand craftily on consecutive stages to Vallnord-Arinsal and Arcalis, the latter an uphill time trial. Along with some seconds earned in Barcelona, the Russian scored a 40 second victory over Oscar Sevilla and Denis Menchov. Two years earlier the race ran a MTF to Pal, followed by the same Arcalis time trial. You have to go all the way back to 2003 to find a comparably difficult route -- basically the same combination of Pal and Arcalis, plus an extra uphill drag on stage 6, though unrated.
This year, really, looks like the toughest parcours in recent memory. Let's run through the stages.
Stage 1: Calella -- Calella, 159km
Theme: In theory, one for the sprinters, at least the ones unlucky enough to miss out on Milano-Sanremo.
Climbs: Fogars de Montclus, 600 meters high, plus four smaller events.
Stage 2: Girona -- Banyoles, 160km
Theme: Definite sprinters' event, with circuits in Banyoles. Not flat, obviously, but as friendly a stage as they'll get.
Climbs: A hundred meters' worth here and there, but that's a mere trifle.
Stage 3: Vidreres -- Vallter2000-Setcases, 180km
Theme: The race's highest peak, but not its hardest day. Quite often the race has used Andorra for the big event, so Vallter2000 is an interesting wrinkle. It's a bit east of Andorra, Arcalis and the other usual Volta MTF suspects; maybe it's drier? In any event, the word of the day is climbing.
Climbs: Just the one, really. The race starts at sea level, then grinds up to about 800 meters or so before the final assault. The Vallter2000 climb itself is 19km averaging 6%, with ramps of up to 15% near the top.
Stage 4: Llanars-Val de Comprodon -- Port Aine, 217km
Theme: I'd say this is your Queen Stage. Apart from finishing a touch lower than Stage 3, you've got five significant climbs, the last being the worst.
Climbs: The ascent to Josa de Cadi (avg 5%) hits nearly 1700 meters, then down to 1000 meters, then up past Adraen near the 1400 meter mark. Then up to 1700 meters (Llagunes), then down below 700, and only then are you ready to climb to Port Aine. Which, by the way, is 18km averaging 6.4%, but with several km-stretches in the 8-9 region:
Courtesy of Altimetrias.net
Long day in the saddle. The gaps this year should be in the minutes, not handfuls of seconds.
Stage 5: Rialp -- Lleida, 156km
Theme: Downhill stage in the direction away from the mountains. Well, the really big ones anyway.
Climbs: One 500-meter ascent in the middle of the stage. My guess is, this is breakaway day.
Stage 6: Almacells -- Valls, 178km
Theme: Unless the gaps blow up by stage 4, this will be one of those days the leaders dread. There's plenty of climbing, lots of places to watch your hard-earned work go down the drain.
Climbs: The Barranc del Tildar looks like nothing to sneeze at. I can't find any ratings, but the road goes from 420 meters to 1038 in pretty short order.
Stage 7: El Vendrell -- Barcelona (Montjuic), 122km
Theme: Get me the hell out of Catalunya.
Climbs: The final circuits climb around Montjuic, eight short 150-vertical-meter reps. Because of course.
And the winner is...?
- Not Bradley Wiggins. He might be in the thick of things all week, but nothing favors him here more than the Spaniards.
- Not Robert Gesink... or I don't think so at least. He was a bit off his game in Paris-Nice.
- Not Ryder Hesjedal, though it will be interesting to see him on a bike again. He's taking the slow road to the Grand Depart.
- Maybe Nairo Quintana, though consistency will be the hallmark of a strong week here. And he's got a captain to look after.
- Maybe Chris Horner? Written off after last year, the Oregonian was mighty good in Italy last week.
- Quite possibly Rigoberto Uran. He's been 2nd, 4th and 5th here, and while not killing it in Tirreno last week, if Wiggins isn't ready to go for the win, Uran could be set loose.
- Maybe Alejandro Valverde. Because of course.
- Probably Joaquim Rodriguez. Nobody will be bothered less by the amping up of the route than Purito.