Next up in the endless array of Spanish one-week races, it's the turn of flashy Catalunya, artistic, political and footballing hotbed, home to Barcelona and Girona, and a pretty decent supply of mountains. Oh, and World Tour points.
The Volta a Catalunya is Spain's second-oldest stage race, after the Volta a Tarragona (a U23 event now), dating back to 1911 and for years functioning as a nice Tour de France warmup act, back when it was sandwiched between the Giro and Tour. For a while it was repurposed as an alternate to the Giro, in the early stages of the Pro Tour shakeup, and the race saw people like Gustavo Cesar win it. Nowadays it's been kicked back to late March and probably works better as a warmup for the Ardennes classics and/or the Giro, as long as it's not snowing. And despite all that history, it's not really Spain's best mini-tour. As to those mini-Tours? Here's an old roundup of all the races, which is still relevant. Currently, with the Volta off life support, I'd rank them as follows:
- Vuelta al Pais Vasco -- Not going anywhere
- Volta a Catalunya -- Bling over substance
- Vuelta a Burgos -- sneakily awesome Vuelta a Espana warmup
- Vuelta a Castilla y Leon -- Yeah OK
- The rest -- Come back, Vuelta a Asturias!
This Year's Catalunya
The course features more than the usual number of potentially influential climbs, as the Queen Stage (#4) is by no means the only day for action. Take a look at the profiles (usual caveats apply):
Counting what appears to be lousy weather through Wednesday, that makes two stages with climbs close to the finish, possibly in the rain, and possibly making for some interesting descents. Then the Queen Stage, heading up over 1900 meters, albeit potentially under sunny skies, and then an even dicier finish on stage 5, with a short climb and a steep descent to the line. Plus the usual Montjuic laps on Sunday.
The race, then, favors primarily a climber who knows what the hell he's doing. Whether it's the punchy goodness of almost every stage or the long slogs of Thursday, on the same Alta de la Creueta - La Molina combo that decided last year's Volta... whoever is going to take the jersey off the backs of today's breakaway bunch will have to have steady nerves and even steadier legs.
As a result of today's "six minutes is the new 13 minutes" antics, Pierre Rolland of Europcar has become the rider most likely to animate the race, having already done just that. Rolland is coming off a fourth-place finish in the 2014 Giro d'Italia, a high-altitude death march for the mere mortals in the peloton. So he has the climbing cred. But his best result of this year is 29th in the Vuelta a Andalucia, twelve minutes behind the two riders you have been waiting for me to mention in this race preview... Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo and Chris Froome of Sky. Rolland's last race saw him depart Tirreno-Adriatico prematurely, after he lost the better part of four minutes to Nairo Quintana. If Nairo Quintana were here, this discussion might have ended sooner.
Anyway, for Rolland to hang on to a lead of 2:48 over the Heads of State sounds perfectly reasonable on rolling, occasionally punchy terrain such as what the Volta brings... if he's in shape. If his fitness is on a slow track to a summer peak, well, anything can happen. Note, however, that last year's Volta employed the same Queen Stage, more or less -- certainly the same two major climbs -- and the winners only put about 1.30 into the guys finishing 50th (e.g., 51. Cameron Wurf, at 1.29, 52. Jhon Chaves, 1.31, 53. Igor Anton, 1.34). All else being equal, if Rolland is fit enough to finish 50th, then he's only on course to lose a bit more than half his current lead on the race's key stage.
Maciej Paterski is also a bit of a curiosity here. I don't know him very well but his palmares suggest he's a jack-of-all-trades, more at home in the sprints than the climbs, but occasionally known to hang around. His form is much less of a question, having finished sixth in Murcia, eight in a stage of Andalucia, and 22nd at MSR. And if this were January, even the best climbers spotting him that much time when Paterski is on form might be unable to contain him. But it's late March, and chances are the pace will pick up enough to leave him behind. Bart De Clercq, third today, is equally unlikely to hang around the leaderboard, as he specializes in long escapes and he's had his already. He hasn't exactly been killing it lately either.
Interestingly, today was hardly without precedent. The race has started with a Calella-Calella stage for several years, and in 2012, Michael Albasini soloed home ahead of Anthony Delaplace, with the peloton 1.32 in arrears. Albasini remained in the overall lead all the way to Barcelona, but not without a giant asterisk when the Queen Stage, stage 3 to Port Aine, was shortened and then neutralized (several hours after Janez Brajkovic won from a small group eight minutes ahead of the peloton).
Anyway, to the big names, I count three...
Chris Froome: Needs no introduction. His highlight so far is beating Contador in stage 4 of Andalucia, lifting the leader's jersey off his back by two seconds, a gap that held to the finish. There does not seem to be any limit to what he can do if he gets away, and with a strong team around him you can count on some of that. However, the wet, tricky roads of the next two days won't be his strong suit. It'll probably be Queen Stage or Bust for him. He can accelerate violently enough to get a small gap in Montjuic maybe, if we are down to a few seconds at the end. We'll see.
Alberto Contador: The safest pick to win coming in, given the general mix of challenges which don't emphasize the long climbs that Froome favors. Sure, last time the two met, Pistolero went up in flames, and Quintana torched him last week in Italy, but nobody gets rich betting against Contador. With the Boss breathing down his neck, Bert will be under pressure to whittle away at the advantage of Rolland and co. over the next two days, so that Thursday's showdown will be for all the marbles. And yes, I am getting excited now.
Rigoberto Uran: Does there always have to be a Colombian to get in Contador's way? Might be the new reality. Uran had no trouble following Contador around at Tirreno, beating him by eight seconds in the final GC, so his form is good enough. But he hasn't contested the Volta in years past, the way Froome and Contador have. Then again, he hadn't contested Tirreno before either, and was on the podium last week.
Uran is at something of a crossroads in his career, but possibly in a good way: he's been slowly creeping up on the top guys, and while he hasn't taken a signature win yet, he is pointed in the right direction. Only his countryman Quintana could stop him in last year's Giro, and that won't be a problem this time around. Moreover, at 28 and well in his prime, Uran is going through the same preparation, with the same team and the same objectives, as he did last year. Fingers crossed, if all goes smoothly, he's probably going to be in a great position to succeed in 2015, and so far the results are ahead of where he was a year ago.
After these three and the Breakaway Boys, I can't see anyone else stealing the thunder, but if Froome isn't up to the task for any reason, look for Richie Porte to grab the captain's mantle and run with it. Coming off the win in Paris-Nice, we all know he can get a top result here. Tejay van Garderen is next on the list of guys who are known to hunt for results here, taking third in 2014, and if his disappointing Paris-Nice performance was just a single bad day (where he underdressed and got too cold) then he might be in business again. Alejandro Valverde is never one to overlook, but he has a weirdly quiet history with this race. Does it not line up well for him? Is the weather too lousy? Not sure. You probably already heard that a stomach bug knocked defending champ Joaquim Rodriguez out of the race. Katusha are a bit rudderless without him. Warren Barguil (9th last year) is back, as are the AG2R boys Romain Bardet and Domenico Pozzovivo. [And Carlos Betancur, now lying 18.13 back.] The two were fourth and eighth in 2014. One more flyer? Wilco Kelderman. Because the Dutch are still just on the verge of taking over.