Yes, it's the Volta a Catalunya, rude invader of the cobbles calendar — changes to the World Tour calendar ensure it now cuts across three World Tour classics, and starts the day after another one. What that means is that you get a peloton that climbs extremely quickly - pretty necessary in a race that fills even the flat stages with climbs - and sprints rather unnaturally - On the provisional startlist, there are ten guys who might even consider sprinting. - Now, because contrarianism comes as second nature to me and I'm clearly some weirdo who hates all classics, this vies with the Vuelta al País Vasco in my head to become my favourite race. There's something refreshing about a race that essentially says "if you can't climb, don't bother coming here, there is no room at the stage winners’ inn, we have nothing for you."
The race starts once again in Calella, a seaside resort which has hosted the first stage of this race since 2012, when Michael Albasini took victory.
It's very similar, though not identical, to the stage that usually starts this race. A couple of extra climbs are taken in on the way to the ever-present Alt de Coll Formic, which is summited from a different direction in order to take in the Alt El Muntanya. This stage is usually ridden rather slowly, or slowly enough not to inconvenience the sprinters. The profile's y-axis is also rather misleading — the second climb of the day doesn't reach seven hundred metres, yet at a glance looks like a great Alpine summit. I predict a bored peloton, if not as bored as in 2015, when Maciej Paterski was allowed to win the stage from a breakaway group, doesn't drop any of the fastmen and lets them duke it out. Yes, that includes André Greipel. I was extremely surprised to see his name on the startsheet, but there it is in black and white. This is the one of only two stages where he could even consider finishing in the front group, so he must consider himself capable of winning it. He sprinted well in Paris-Nice, so I predict a curtailed, but successful race for him. His only competition is Nacer Bouhanni, who achieved a 100% record in his two started stages of this race last year, but I think MSR will take enough out of his legs for the German to win the stage.
Stage two is just goddamned ridiculous. I rarely do a double take when looking at race routes, but the presence of a - get this - forty-one kilometre team time-trial in a one week stage race attended almost entirely by climbers will get me every time.
It's not even flat - 600 metres of ascent isn't negligible in formation on TT bikes, and c'mon, forty-one kilometres? Manzana Postobon (not to cast aspersions on them as a team) is not going to be able to cope with that, they're a pro conti team with five Colombians. The bizarreness of the whole thing made me chuckle for a moment, but this stage could actually ruin the race. Hugh Carthy put in a stellar performance to ninth on GC last year, do you think he could have done that if his Caja Rural team had been forced to go through this stage? Putting a team time-trial in a race only works if the teams will be bringing rouleurs, which some of them are unwilling or unable to, and entirely reasonably! Take Katusha for example. They have to support Kristoff in Gent-Wevelgem and Zakarin in this race. Were Zakarin's team mate Tony Martin going to Catalunya, he'd have an excellent chance of taking time in the team time-trial, but of course Martin is not going to Catalunya, because that wouldn't make any sense! Sending practically any top time-triallist to Catalunya would be madness, because most teams can't afford to have that talent on the flats anywhere outside of Belgium. It doesn't make teams rethink their strategy, it just takes chances of a top GC placing away from the weaker teams and towards the teams who happen to have a load of rouleurs knocking around, and yes, I'm looking at BMC, because they are going to win this stage, and not by a small margin. Then you'll have Movistar and Sky, with Etixx, Orica, Trek and maybe LottoNL a little further behind. Majka, Bardet, Meintjes, Fuglsang, Talansky, Zakarin and whatever guy on a pro conti team that we've never heard of who will have a monster week can kiss a top placing goodbye.
Then you've got some classic Catalunya, a stage ending on La Molina, of which I'm frankly the tiniest bit tired. We know by now that it's not selective enough to split the peloton up in any decisive way - expect the top ten within fifteen seconds of each other - and they'll all be waiting for the more difficult summit finish later on.
Expect a high-quality uphill sprint between the best climbers. Valverde will be the likely winner, if Dan Martin doesn't repeat his win from last year.
Stage four is Catalunya's traditional boring stage, and they don't even have the decency to put in on the same day as E3.
The script for this stage is that the break will very probably win, after all the Belgian teams stayed up late either celebrating or drowning their sorrows after Dwars the previous day. Only one-pointers are allowed in that break. They're not allowed to win by a large margin, and they might get caught right on the line like last year's boring stage. Or maybe it was the year before. This is the boring stage, I can't be expected to remember.
Stage five contains the decisive mountain finish. I'll show you the stage profile if only to declare how useless it is.
A thousand metres, with that y-axis? Fine. It mustn't be very steep then. Oh wait, no, it's just very, very badly drawn.
So apparently the climb boils down to eight and a half kilometres at around nine per cent. That's enough to split up any peloton, so I have none of the problems I had with La Molina here. The best climber will almost certainly win solo. Enjoy watching him get to the top. I'm sure so many people will choose this stage over E3.
Then you have stage six, which contains an interesting first category climb pretty certain to turn the stage to the breakaway.
Gianluca Brambilla territory, I think. I can't imagine any team caring to chase down an escape on this horrible rolling terrain.
Finally, the race enters Barcelona as the peloton of Gent-Wevelgem hit the cobbles. Perhaps they'll pass the autonomous parliament discussing separation from Spain.
The race passes seven times over the Alt de Montjuic, which is not objectionable by itself. It's just the way that it's very nearly difficult enough for a GC contenter to break away from the peloton, but not quite, that annoys me. This stage is made for the likes of Valverde and Alaphilippe.
So there you have the stages, and the one which will pretty certainly have the most effect will be the team time-trial. It'll throw a huge, huge advantage to BMC, so it's with their GC men I must start. Rohan Dennis lost 1.17 to Nairo Quintana on Terminillo, and I can see him losing a similar amount to the winner of the Tortosa summit finish, enough to remove him from contention, TTT or no TTT. That leaves me with Tejay van Garderen. It goes against pretty much every fibre of my being to say this, but I actually rather like his chances. He has consistently done well in this race, finishing less than half a minute down on GC last year and winning a stage the year before, and more importantly he rarely gets any results before arriving in Calella. He's my tentative pick for victory.
Chasing him down (and as recent form would have it, narrowly losing) will of course be Alberto Contador. Contador's team won't be very far off (though they won't challenge for victory) in the TTT, endowed as they are with Pantano, Brändle, Mollema and Contador himself, and he may be the best climber in the race. A podium finish is practically written in stone, though there may yet again be one name above his on the results sheet.
Chris Froome never wins this race, and probably won't this year. It's in the spot on his peaking curve where he just isn't on form, and to predict that changing this year wouldn't make any sense with the little information available. I'd say that Geraint Thomas would be a far better gamble for Sky in a Quintana-less race, especially if they can gain some precious seconds on Contador on stage two. I assume their Tirreno troubles in that department will be over, and Thomas is climbing very well.
Movistar never have troubles in Spanish TTTs, and that could tee Valverde up for a good showing. Contador could crack him in the Ruta del Sol, however, and there's no indication that he will have come closer in climbing speed to his compatriot.
This is Daniel Martin's self-described favourite stage race, a claim he backs up with a victory and three podium finishes. We know he's got early form this season, and neither of the summit finishes should be too far beyond him. His Etixx team, not exactly full of men with skills on flat roads, but not the shabbiest in the race, should propel him to a high enough finish in the TTT. He should be able to back it up.
Adam Yates is my last pick, or rather he's the last decent climber who won't lose two minutes on stage two. Dropping out of Tirreno with illness is a concern, but the fact that he's riding this race is enough evidence for me that he'll be able to repeat performances equal to his Terminillo second place.