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Stage Race! The Feud-a at Catalunya

The first real serious look at this year's Grand Tour contenders happens this week at the Volta a Catalunya.

What a difference a few years make.

Just a few years ago the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya looked to be dying. The Pro Tour set up had the race opposite the Giro and was only attracting B and C team climby guys. Guys like Shaggy Karpets were winning. It had no higher profile than Murcia or Castile and Leon-lower actually. Then came the World Tour and a move in the calendar to where it is now. If you look at winners and losers from the advent of the World Tour, Catalunya is definitely in the former category. It's calendar placing is almost perfect for a stage race: after the pre-season climby build up races (San Luis, Langkawi, Mediterranean, Oman, Algarve, and Andalusia) then after the first two always overlapping WT stage races in Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, Catalunya gets to stand alone providing the first real big test for the GC boys to face off. Sprinters need not apply unless you are of the very climby ability. Leave your TT bikes at home too. No, the focus here is on climbing. Lots of climbing.

But more than climbing, this race is about GC pecking order. More Heads of State are present at this race than any other so far and so we will see some real eying of the competition, some real testing. Of the GC boys the main ones missing are Nibali, Valverde, Mollema, and Gesink. Most everyone else is here.

Springtime's significance for the Tour de France.

Let's look at some recent history:

- 2013 Chris Froome wins the Tour. That spring he entered five stage races and won Oman, Criterium International, Romandie, and dauphine and finished 2nd at TA.

- 2012 Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour. That spring he opened up with at 3rd at Algarve followed by a win at PN, DNF at Catalunya, a win at Romandie, and a win at Dauphine.

- 2011 Cadel Evans won the Tour, That spring: 1st at TA, 7th at Catalunya, 1st at Romandie, 2nd at Dauphine

- 2010, well I am skipping Schleck and focused on Contador: 1st at Algarve, 1st at PN, 15th at Criterium, 1st at castile and leon, 2nd at Dauphine.

- 2009-Tour winner Contador opens his account with a 1st at Algarve, 4th at PN (bonking stage) , 2nd at Castile and Leon, 1st at Pais Vasco, 3rd at Dauphine.

Conclusions? There are several spicy tidbits of info here but the obvious is that the Tour winner also won the spring stage race season. In VDS terms these Tour winners were already over 1000 points entering the Tour. The main exceptions to this rule are Bjarne Riis' boys: Sastre in 2008 and Andy Schleck sort of in 2010, neither of whom did much in the spring. 2007 saw Contador's spring include wins at PN and Castile and Leon. He didn't quite come out of nowhere.

So far this year we've seen a small group of GC boys win the stage racing: Froome at Oman, Quintana at San Luis, Valverde at Andalusia, Kwiatkowski at Algarve, Betancur at PN and Contador at TA. All except Flower and the Green Bullet are at Catalunya. This will be the first stage race where are real pecking order for the year gets established or some GC hopes get exposed.

Or not. The thing is, while this race is hilly as all get out, the two days of mountaintop finishes are not that hard, certainly not what TA threw at the riders two weeks ago, and will most likely produce time splits of under 10 seconds for the top handful of riders if there are time gaps at all. Such a race enabled Dan Martin to sneak away with the best victory of his career last year. This isn't extreme mountain climbing.

But at any rate the racing should be fun. Unlike past years, this year will have time bonuses for the top three stage finishers-except for the two mountaintop finishes on Wednesday and Thursday (stages 3 and 4). Maybe that will shake things up a bit especially on the last stage race around Barcelona where the peloton tackles the Montjuic EIGHT FREAKIN' TIMES and that after a couple of cat 3 climbs early on. This to me looks like a can't miss stage particularly if the final GC probably coming into play. Yum.

Teams and riders to watch.

Okay we get it. Lots of GC guys. But who to focus on? Well besides the Froome vs Contador battle, part 1 which will continue hopefully thru the spring and into the Tour.

Team Sky

How serious a team? Very, very serious. Sky is laying their cards on the table: Froome, Porte, Nieve, Lopez, Kiryienka, Siutsou, Pate and Earle. This is close to their Tour team folks. The big x factor in this whole race though is Froome and his back. He's been training for the last week but given that after this race Froome does not have another race listed until the Tour speaks of uncertainty in said back. The other hopefully more fun thing to look for in this team is to see if they pull any of their antics they showed at Oman where they sent riders up the road and stuff like that to shake up the peloton. Anything better than the Sky Mechanical Men marching up yet another climb.


How serious a team? Serious but weakened. There's Bert but his support is not so strong as Sky's. Kreuziger, who performed so strongly at TA is missing. He'll be with Bert at Pais Vasco. Majka is also missing. he was supposed to be here but he crashed at the end of the last stage at PN, picked up an owie, and is not ready. Roche? He's at MSR for reasons that escape me and then doesn't race again until the Ardennes. That leaves Contador with decent but not real good support riders who won't be there when the decisive moves occur. And Jasper Hansen. Keep an eye out for him as the team has hopes in the rookie.

Okay those are the teams of the Big Two here. What about the other teams?


How serious a team? Serious and nervous. No Valverde means all the pressure is on Quintana. Overall the Kid is living up to the hype by winning San Luis decisively and placing 2nd at TA. The question for him is what shape is he in. He's building for the Giro so some might think he's not in the shape of say Contador or Froome. He certainly got dusted by Bert on that hellish 30% grade (and more importantly before that too) at TA. But Catalunya's mountains are more forgiving. Expect him around at the end. [EDIT- Word is Q has a cold and is on antibiotics. We'll see if that affects him.] Plus he's got some of Movistar's endless crack climby domestiques to back him up: Moreno, Jose Herrada, Anton, Plaza..shit if they thought about it they could send these guys out and one of them could stick to the end and pull off a win. Hmmm. Much like...


How serious a team? Pretty darn tootin' serious. Dan Martin is back to defend as well as Talansky, Acevedo, Danielson, Hesjedal, Gaimon and Nathan Brown. Expect them to be launching riders into breaks and early on the mountain finish days in hopes of stealing another win here.


How serious a team? Not sure...pretty olive drab if you have to ask me and if you are reading this then yes, you are asking me. Yes, J-Rod is here along with Boy Sidekick Dani Moreno but Joaquin is on a very different race schedule where he is building up s-l-o-w-l-y to the Giro. He hasn't raced in a month and wasn't competitive in his earlier races. All the change is because he wants to win the Giro. Don't expect much from him probably. But he's got to show something pre-Giro, right?


How serious a team? Yeah, I'll say serious. Betancur, Pozzovivo, and Bardet make it serious. They will be underdogs, yes. Betancur's PN win was against lesser competition with climbs even less than here. But still this duo could shake things up. Shame we won't see the Pozzowagon in a TT.


How serious a team? About as serious as they can get. Gone are the days of being the clown car of the peloton. Not with the likes of Pinot, Geniez, and Ellisonde. But what kind of shape is Pinot in? A DNS in the 4th stage of TA preceded by a DNS at stage 1 in Oman. That's not good. Geniez has had an encouraging start: 4th on GC at Algarve, 14th at TA with a 15th place on THAT Stage. Also finishing on the same time on THAT STAGE was...


How serious a team? More building than serious I think. Chris Horner. Yes, Jens' dad is starting here after pulling out late in TA due to tendonitis. Before pulling out he was motoring along nicely in 10-12th place. He's got Niemiec to help him and since they are both looking to peak at the Giro there are questions as to their fitness. Anacona, Serpa, and Polanc are here too so we are seeing much of their Giro team. Don't expect a podium from these guys; a top 10 finish is more of a goal.


Hoe serious a team? Well they think they but the jury's out still. After the early season excitement over Flower, it's Big Rig time. Rigoberto Uran was supporting Kwiat at TA but this time it's personal. Err, he's the GC guy here. Got an interesting team here too: Brambilla, Serry, De Gendt, Alaphillipe. I see early breaks for these guys.


How serious a team? Very under the radar but Pretty. Damn. Serious. But. Not. Sure. Of. Themselves. If you think "BMC" and "GC" you think of "Cadel" but this team here is their future: Tejay,. Stetina and Atapuma with Samu lending fatherly advice. Only GC guys missing are Old Guy Cadel and Nerz. Tejay was 2nd at Oman to Froome but crashed and withdrew from PN. Hopefully his owie is better. Stetina was 8th at San Luis but a nondescript 46th at PN. Atapuma? Only stage race so far saw him finish 9th at San Luis. Let's see this team keep up with the Big Boys.

Best of the rest

Several teams had a couple of interesting riders who we may see when the TV is showing us pictures at the business end of the race:

Belkin has Kelderman, Cruise Ship and Ten Dam

Astana has Aru, Fuglsang, Landa, and Kessiakoff. Landa and Aru are building for the Giro; the other two for the Tour or help Nibali.

Caja Rural has Lulu, Arroyo, and Madrozo

Trek has Arrendondo, Kiserlovski, and Zubes

Giant-Shimano is throwing Barguil into the maelstrom.

Oh! Orica's got Chaves. Ooh that could be fun.

There may or may not be a Van Den Broeck sighting but if not there's hope that one of the other BCSes will may appear on our screens. Kevin Seeldrayers ladies and gents! Money! Cofidis has Navarro. Basso and Tin Tin are here too to assist Horner I think. NOT LIKE THAT!

Any sprinter action at all?

Last year Meersman won three stages so that's the kind of sprinter we are looking for here. Let's see...Mezgec is here. Leigh Howard-can he get over hills? Yeah. Nizzolo is back. Sammy Dumoulin...we are scraping the barrel here as you can see and I'm bored trying to find sprinter types. But the silver lining is the lack of sprinters will make the time bonuses for the GC guys more possible. 10, 6, and 4 seconds on the line remember.

The course? You want to know about the course?

Okay. And to help me describe the stages we have comments from our own crack analyst, umwolverine!

Stage 1

this year is quite similar to stage one last year. a loop and back from Calella to Calella. however, they're not going to circuit thru the finish this time.

Ursula adds: this stage produced two surprising finishes the last two years. 2 years ago Albasini stuck the breakaway to win while last year Sky split the peloton on the downhill allowing just 13 riders to contest the win. Could be interesting again.


Stage 2

again has some similarities to last year's stage 2. the first 100km or so of Stage 2 is bookended by two decent climbs with a valley between. then at the 100km mark it does a slight duplication of the 2013 stage 2, when it goes through La Bisbal d'Emporida and thus into the foothills around Banyoles. but, this year, instead of circuiting thru the Banyoles climb four times with a slight uphill finishing kick, the parcours continues for about another 25km into Girona, with a small uncategorized climb summiting with what looks like 5km to go, call it a downhill drop into Girona.


Stage 3

near as i can tell, is a departure from the normal routes, going from Banyoles to La Molina (Alp). now, La Molina may be classified as a cat 1, but doesn't seem to be that cat-1-ish based on the video from the 2000 Vuelta Stage 10 ( i can't find a video of the finish from the 2001 Vuelta, also Stage10, which is the last time La Molina appeared in a big spanish race.

Ursula adds: First of the two mountain top finishes, the winner here may go onto the win in Barcelona. Or not. Expect several riders within 10 seconds of the winner and also remember no time bonuses on this stage.


Stage 4

while using the same finishing segment as 2013's stage 3 to Vallter 2000/Setcases, does still have differences. about 14km shorter, but with more climbs.

Ursula adds: Queen stage. Tougher finish that yesterday but still several riders should be close to the eventual winner. Last year Valverde's crash before the climb allowed Dan Martin to stick his attack for the win here and eventually the overall. No time bonuses again.


Stage 5

about the final 16km or so of Stage 5 this year appears identical to that of 2013's stage 6. Stage 5 only has one categorized climb (2ª 5 ALT DE LILLA 580 6,300 4,8% 7,0% 209,300 8,900) which summits about 8km from the finish. so, i'd call it a downhill finish there's 3.4 km of flat roads at the end. But, just because there is only the one categorized climb, that does not mean that the rest of the stage is flat. we are in Spain after all.


Stage 6

also departs from last year. again, with only one categorized climb (3ª 6 ALT DE FONT-RUBÍ 596 5,700 3,8% 6,0% 113,400 58,600) it is anything but flat. the climb summits with about 62km to go, and the race is pretty much all downhill from there. so, not a fast steep drop like a couple of the other stages, but more gradual. and, road and weather conditions can effect.


Stage 7

the finishing circuits of Stage 7 are identical to last year, eight circuits of Montjuic with the little drop down to the finish. the change is that in the first 40km of the stage there are two cat 3 climbs, unlike just the one in the 2013 finishing stage.

Ursula adds: with time bonuses here, this could be a very interesting stage if the GC has a couple of guys within 10 seconds. Last year without time bonuses, Scarponi jumped two places to third here as part of a four man breakaway.


There ya go. The Feud-a at Catalunya. Who you got?