Ladies and gentlemen, March is coming to a close and Milano-Sanremo is out of the way, so you know what that means: Yes, it’s time for World Tour stage racing in what most people will tell you is Spain. In a fortnight it’s time for the Euskal Herriko Itzulia but for now we’re in Catalunya for the Volta. Both of these races are clearly the standout cycling events of the next month and I will not hear anything to the contrary. I’m not sure of the reasons behind this, but it seems that Catalunya occupies a strange spot in the form graphs of riders where they can’t be on form to win the race if they’re going to win the Tour — hence Chris Froome would win an early season race, take a short break, then head to Catalunya and get dropped on all the climbs. It could be a wise precaution — no Catalunya winner has gone on to win the Tour since 1992. Anyway, it’s time to answer the main question of this article, the one I pose in the headline: what is going on in Catalunya? Who’s doing it? What will they do next? Let’s find out.
Catalunya has traditionally only been matched by pop music and post-race interviews for repetition, presumably only able to draw from a small pool of towns and ski resorts who are willing to pay them any money at all for the privilege of having the race come by. So when, in a minute, when you see the names Calella, Vallter 2000, La Molina, Valls and of course, Barcelona on the names of starts and finishes, you wouldn’t be wrong in feeling a sense of déjà vu. Since 2012, at least four of them have made an appearance in every single edition of the race. However, that’s not to say there’s nothing new this time — there are some hilly stages that seem pretty new to me in terms of locations, if not format.
Stage one, however, keeps the locations constant and changes the format, as the circuit from Calella out to the hills and back to the coast is a bit harder than before. This is my fault, but as I write this, the stage has started, so discussion about what I think should happen (a breakaway win) might be irrelevant. Stage two should be a reduced sprint, as might stages five, six and seven, so let’s look at the poor souls who came here bearing fast-twitch muscles. So there’s Michael Matthews and Alvaro Hodeg, let’s see, who else...no that’s it. André Greipel, Erik Baska and Hugo Hofstetter are also here, but they won’t win sprints for differing but good reasons. The sprints in Catalunya must be some of the most dangerous because they get up to a very high percentage of the speed of a Grand Tour sprint with only a very small percentage of the know-how. So I know it’s shocking to contemplate teams not having confidence in their sprinters to win here, but breakaways are a strong possibility on any of the non-mountain days.
Those mountain days are where the race will be won — this is defined even more than usual, with slightly easier flatter days. There’s no Port Ainé, the hardest climb routinely used by the Volta, this year and the field will have to be separated by Vallter 2000, a climb that has the twin issues of being 2000 metres tall, and hence quite attractive to adverse conditions for cycling in March, and also not really being worth climbing even when you can do so.
The two previous times Vallter was climbed, television coverage was an issue and the top guys all finished within a pretty short space of time. A hilly stage a la Tirreno-Adriatico last week would do a better job, if you ask me.
La Molina is similar enough, though the stage is a very difficult one as the final climb is done twice in addition to an eighteen kilometre monster.
This is similar to last year, when Movistar broke the race up and handed a win to Valverde in a sprint over Bernal. Don’t expect a solo win here.
As for the GC, you’re always going to get a battle in Catalunya just because of the quality of miles in the legs. The Yateses have to be mentioned as big contenders. Usually I’d offer a reason why the route suits Simon, but to be honest he seems to have eschewed caring about routes in his relentless campaign to win everything. Maybe he’ll win a bunch sprint next, all the cool kids are doing it. And if there were ever a race to try it, it’s this one. As a person with a twin, I can say that Adam will want to show that his brother isn’t the only kid who’s been working hard in the family, so hopefully any competitive spirit can combine well with teamwork to create an exciting strategy for the Michelton pairing.
Egan Bernal is bookies’ favourite after showing he was the real deal in Paris-Nice. I would be wary of the peaking curve problem as nobody has won both Paris-Nice and Catalunya since Jalabert in 1995, plus Bernal’s sprint isn’t exactly a weapon. This is a problem in a race that can and has come down to bonus seconds. Sky also bring Chris Froome (you remember Chris Froome don’t you) and Ivan Sosa, so their tactics remain up in the air. I will remind the reader that Chris Froome has never been in good form at this race.
Then there’s Movistar, and with Valverde, Quintana and Carapaz, they can go pretty much however they want with this. I would personally suggest pulling for Valverde, with bonus seconds a pretty big incentive to do this. Plus, you know, he’s going for three in a row. He must be doing something right.
Miguel Angel Lopez really needs a win, if he wants to continue to be viewed in the light he has been viewed his whole career and I for one hope he gets it.
Richie Porte won this four years ago and is on paper a good bet to win it. If cycling were raced on paper, Porte would be one of the sport’s greatest legends. He is not.
If you look at it, pretty much every team has a genuine candidate for victory if things go right for them. Mas, Bardet, Pinot, Woods, Martin, Kruijswijk, this is a packed field. But form is a funny thing, and some will have it as a higher priority than others. Who better to choose as a winner then, than the many who is always on form. Alejandro Valverde.