I know that I’ve been a bit grouchy about races recently. I don’t think that’s anything to do with how I feel about the races themselves. And I’m not, like, projecting or anything. A bit of ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek complaining is just a bit of fun, however. As are hyphens. However, here comes a race I don’t like to complain about — the Volta a Catalunya. I’m truly, every year, very enthusiastic about it. But maybe that’s because I’ve never been able to summon up the requisite amount of brimstone in my heart for Alejandro Valverde. Or maybe it’s because Dan Martin usually does well. Who knows? Anyway, over the last couple of years this race has waxed and waned in terms of the number of top names it’s brought to the region, and if anything, this is looking a bit like a lean year. I presume that’s nothing to do with the political tension but I really am rather uninformed. You know, in general.
Paris-Nice champ Marc Soler is here, but he’ll likely not be taking over leadership of Movistar with Valverde back in the squad having won Abu Dhabi and threatened in Strade Bianche (how strong he was in that race I couldn’t really divine). Quintana’s there too, having been Nairo Quintana for the last ninety years. Sky don’t bring Froome, who has usually suffered on the Catalonian climbs, but Egan Arley Bernal will attract a deal of attention. He’s supposedly in support of Sergio Henao, but the Colombian champion didn’t look the snappiest in Paris-Nice. Michelton-Scott have a dream team, with both (rather unreasonably strong) Yates riding, along with Esteban Chaves. Plus TDU winner Impey. And two very good young Aussie climbers, Haig and Power. All in all, they’ll be impossible to control if they are on song. Something similar can be said about UAE Emirates. Dan Martin, if he’s recovered from his recurring pneumonia, or whatever it is, always hits his stride here. He’ll be alongside Aru, who seems to be building form. Thibaut Pinot will be wearing Groupama colours, for only his third race day of the season. Alongside him will be David Gaudu. Oh, and Team Warren got invited too. Fine. Tejay.
To quickly go through the stages, this race has started with a lap beginning and ending in Calella ever since 2012. This year’s jaunt is flatter than usual, and Nacer Bouhanni should clean up. Stage two is a more interesting one — an attack can easily go on the final Alt de Lilla, but a sprint is just as possible. I’ll go for Jhonatan Restrepo as an in-between pick.
On stage three things get more interesting as the race heads up Vallter 2000. This isn’t a hellish climb (assuming it’s not snowed under, don’t expect the TV coverage to be up to much), it won’t completely fracture the pack, but attacks can get away. I’m going for a Yates to win, probably Adam. Stage four is the other big mountain day, but the final ramp makes it ideal for Valverde. I’m very confident he’ll win it.
Stage five is a confusing one, there seems to be a climb to 1550 metres that is not in fact categorised, but with an Especial category mountain it won’t be a sprint day. It looks like a breakaway stage, of which there is usually one in this race. Jarlinson Pantano is my pick. Stage six might also go the break’s way, with Thomas De Gendt always a reasonable guess as to the winner. Then there’s the regular stage seven over the Montjuic climb. It’s usually good for drama, but rarely good for time gaps. This race should probably be won on La Molina. Unless, that is, nobody can really get much of a time gap on either mountain stage, and in that case bonus seconds (three, two and one at the intermediate sprints and ten, six and four at the finish lines) will come into play. In fact, that’s not all that unlikely, with no time-trial to spread out the pack. Remember, last time Vallter 2000 was ridden in this race, the top seven were separated by eight seconds. The last time La Molina was used, twelfth place was eight seconds back. It is not likely that there will be huge time differences between the top riders, unless someone completely dominates the uphills.
And we all know into whose hands that plays. Alejandro Valverde is the master of bonus seconds. It’s hard to see that changing. He will be one of the top favourites for stages two, three, four and seven. He’ll very likely win at least two of those. He can nab the points at a few intermediate sprints if he has to. It is not easy to keep up with that. Daniel Martin is probably the next best sprinter and puncheur among the favourites, but even he can’t come near Valverde in any kind of a kick for a drawn line. I’m also extremely tentative about his form. It is in fact the Michelton-Scott team who will have the best chance of dealing with him and Movistar. (I’m not saying I think this is going to turn into Valverde, Quintana and Soler vs Simon Yates, Adam Yates and Chaves, but I am saying that’s a hell of a storyline to peddle). With the two extremely strong teams, with at least two on-form riders a side, I can see attacks flying. Adam Yates was so strong in Tirreno, most notably on the stage he won, but remember, he lost one minute and thirteen seconds to winner Kwiatkowski on the flat stage two, only to finish fifth on GC, one minute ten behind. Simon Yates was his equal on Paris-Nice’s first two mountain stages, only to fade, if only slightly, at the last hurdle. Either could win, but Adam is my pick to do the best in green-accented navy. To round out the podium, I’ll pick Aru. I’m reluctant to go for his team mate.