I haven’t been watching cycling for long enough to reminisce properly about this, but some of you around here probably remember the time when the cycling calendar was packed to bursting with Spanish stage races. In addition to the currently well-known Vuelta al País Vasco, Vuelta a Andalucia and Volta a Catalunya, there was Setmana Catalana, known for having the best name, there was Escalada a Montjuic, known for being centred around the same small hill and there was the Vuelta a Aragon, which I admit I know nothing about but some pretty great riders probably do. Also, there was the Volta a Comunitat Valenciana. As you all know, in the early 2000s some financial stress hit Spanish cycling, and a lack of money and sponsors forced all these races to shut up shop (or open up roads) and by 2007 the Spanish calendar was stripped almost bare. However, in 2016 one of the previously defunct races, the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, was reignited by a group of new organisers, including 2001 Vuelta winner Angel Casero.
It's the first of those defunct races to make a comeback, and I'm happy to see it. It's a new option for February that is located...outside of Asia. In fact, it's sometimes on the roads of the Vuelta a Espana. For example, the climb of Xorret de Cati, which will play a part in determining this year's Vuelta winner, was the location of the final stage of last year's race. That stage was, by the way, pretty good. As was the whole race. It was certainly better than anything the Dubai Tour served up on the same days. Also, while it's hardly warm-weather training, it's set to be a comfy eighteen degrees in Valencia all next week, which takes away the whole "heatstroke" element of Dubai and Oman, while also hardly causing anyone to catch a cold.
So why should you care about the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana? Not only is it bringing back stage racing to a region of Spain that's very suitable for it, but it's also bringing back many of your favourite riders to stage racing. Dan Martin (okay, he's mostly my favourite), Nairo Quintana (Chris, mainly), Mikel Landa (a certain former VDS winner), Steven Kruijswijk (snowy Italian hillsides), Thibaut Pinot (Sylvain Chavanel fans) and the Yates brothers (people who recognise that there are British riders who don't ride for Sky) are all making their stage racing bow for 2017. Also, the race itself is pretty fantastic for February. Let's start with stage one.
As I've said, for many cyclists stage one of the VCV will be their first taste of racing this season. It's the hardest first taste of racing you could imagine: a thirty-eight kilometre team time trial. Thirty-eight. On the first of February. It's nothing like the legendary tests of the 1970s, but the only one that's ever that long is the one at worlds. I love this race.
There is, of course, a problem with having such a difficult team time-trial on the first stage of the race, and that of course is that it could very easily lead to the domination of the race by the team who does best in it, and thus we need to find out who is best placed to succeed on the race's opening stage. Somewhat unsurprisingly for a TTT in Spain, it looks like Movistar and BMC will be the teams to watch. The Spanish outfit bring both Herradas, which means that the one who can time-trial will almost certainly be there, along with Jonathan Castroviejo and Andrey Amador. They should probably win the test, unless BMC can thwart them. They are equipped with Tom Bohli and Stefan Küng, two excellent Swiss time-triallists. Finally, I have to mention Sky, who bring Kiryienka and Kwiatkowski, along with the general weight of being Sky, and LottoNL-Jumbo, who apparently became okay at team time-trials while I wasn't looking.
Let's ignore stages two, three and five for the minute, while we're establishing who has a shot at the GC, and take a look at the race's other decisive stage.
Stage four is a medium mountain stage (that's high mountain, in February-speak) that reaches its end at the top of the Camins del Penyagolosa, a four kilometre climb with more 20% grades than an inattentive maths student. You may recognise it from the Vuelta last year, where it was the summit finish of stage seventeen. A break of more than twenty men won out that day, a day possibly best known in that Vuelta for Contador managing for once to avoid cracking worse than 2012-era Juan José Cobo, and the best testament to the climb's difficulty is that of the twenty-three people in the break who finished ahead of Contador, the first of the GC group, no two riders finished on the same time.
This and the team time-trial should decide the overall, so what I'm going to do is pick a guy from each of the teams who could win the TTT. Previewing in January is hard. I'll narrow it down to Wout Poels, Jesus Herrada, Primoz Roglic and Nico Roche. Poels is the favourite to defend his title, don't get me wrong. There's evidence to say he'll be on some semblance of form, while the better climbers like Landa, Quintana and Kruijswijk are very unlikely to be duking it out so early. Poels then, is my favourite for stage four and the overall.
Those are the big stages, but they're not the only ones. Stages three and five are pretty standard sprints and if you've never seen a Spanish sprint in February, I think you know exactly what you aren't missing. Expect Bryan Coquard and Magnus Cort to feature prominently. Just not quite as prominently as Nacer Bouhanni. Stage two is the only other interesting stage. The riders face the ascent and descent of a small but not totally inconsequential hill just before the finish. It won't shake off Coquard.
Okay, so perhaps this race isn't a god-given excitement-fest sure to have you on the edge of your seat with outstanding athletic performances and tactical intrigue on every stage. But when you find yourself wondering why you tuned in to stage two, just repeat this mantra in your head: At least it isn't the Dubai Tour.