Preview: Volta a Catalunya 2016

Last year's podium. Photo via roadbikeaction.com
Last year’s podium. Photo via roadbikeaction.com

Just before the focus fully shifts towards northern Europe and the spring classics, down in Catalunya the general classification men are set to duke it out in a tough and testing edition of the Volta a Catalunya. The line-up this year is sensational, and for the third year in a row Chris Froome and Alberto Contador will go head to head in northern Spain, and, along with Nairo Quintana, this is the only time we’ll see them lock horns before the Tour de France. There are very few of the top general classification guys who aren’t here, testament to the race’s growing popularity amongst riders and fans alike. It features some serious climbs, tougher than those intended for Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, so it’s a great test of form for those looking to go well at the Giro and the Tour.

The race begins with two undulating courses, the first of which will likely end with a reduced bunch sprint to the line. In fact, the race offers nothing that looks like a pure sprint stage — hence the absence of many of the Milan-Sanremo superstars. So expect the punchier rouleurs to pick up the wins on stages 1, 5, 6, and 7, with many stages looking good for smaller groups to arrive at the line together. Those with an uphill kick will target stage 2, whilst the general classification will be decided mainly on the stage 3 and stage 4 summit finishes. Notice the lack of time trial — this one’s definitely going to go to the rider with his climbing legs in check.

The General Classification

Chris Froome hasn’t raced since the Herald Sun Tour in January, and he comes here with recent Paris-Nice winner Geraint Thomas as support. Last year Froome was returning from illness and wasn’t riding at his usual standard, so Richie Porte stepped up to take the lead and, eventually, the win. There can be little doubt about Sky’s hierarchy this year. Froome is dedicated leader, Thomas takes up the role of super-domestique. They also have great climbing talent in the guise of Nicholas Roche, Wout Poels, Ian Boswell, and Mikel Nieve, and they should be able to put up a good fight for the win overall.

Nairo Quintana also hasn’t raced since January, apart from the Columbian national road race, when he was riding in support of his brother and Movistar teammate Dayer at the Tour de San Luis. Again, this team is one-hundred percent built around Nairo and, as with Froome, it will be interesting to see what form he is in after six weeks away from racing.

There is no doubting Alberto Contador‘s form, though. He was climbing like a chamois and descending like a mad man on the final stage of Paris-Nice, and, with a few days to recover, he’ll be back all guns ablaze in Catalunya. He’ll be especially motivated to get one over on Sky, as he lost out by only a few seconds to Geraint Thomas in Paris-Nice. This race suits him better as the climbs are much harder and have longer steep sections, but he’ll have to be on peak performance to dance away from Froome and Quintana. He doesn’t have his usual lieutenants Roman Kreuziger and Rafal Majka, but the lack of time trial kilometres will benefit the Spaniard — it will be interesting to see how he goes this week.

This is also the first time that Richie Porte and Tejay Van Garderen will ride together in the colours of BMC. Both Rohan Dennis and Philippe Gilbert return from illness, but it’s a strong squad built around two team leaders. We’ll be curious to see how well they work together, or if we see two strong team mates going head to head in the high mountains — as we seemed to see with Astana in last year’s Vuelta. Tejay was disappointed not to show his climbing legs in the Tirreno, whereas Porte in Paris-Nice has shown that Oman was a blip and he’s got the form to stay with the likes of Contador on the tougher ascents and descents alike. The profile here is much more difficult though, so this could be the true selection event for BMC’s Tour de France.

Astana come here with Fabian Aru as their leader. He skipped Paris-Nice, so as not to suffer from over-racing. He looked okay in the Algarve, but couldn’t match Contador’s decisive attack on the final stage (although nor could anyone else, and Aru finished 2nd). He comes here young Columbian Miguel Ángel López, fresh from a strong performance at the recent Le Tour de Langkawi. Aru will be missing Mikel Landa, now at Sky, but López could grow into an strong and hard working support for him the mountains.

Katusha, like BMC, have two leaders. Joachim Rodrígruez is riding the now-familiar Tour-Vuelta plan this year, and so might not be in peak form this week. He did nothing of note at Tirreno-Adriatico, other than becoming a victim of crashes on the hilly stages. But year-on-year he never really does anything prior to this race, and he particularly likes the spikey profiles of Catalunya, his home race, so he will have focused on this week. Ilnur Zakarin is targeting the Giro, and so won’t want to reach a peak in form too early. However, he rode to a very impressive win on stage 6 of Paris-Nice, so we can expect him to try his luck on the mountains here.

Those are the main guys looking to take the G.C., but there are plenty more strong challengers we must mention. Take Dan Martin for Etixx-Quickstep. Dan hasn’t raced sine Oman, where his form was wobbly, and illness forced him out of Tirreno-Adriatico. But he won the Volta a Catalunya in 2013, and he’ll be on the look out for a repeat performance this year, to prove to his new team that he’s still got what it takes to go up against the big boys. With the support of the in-form Gianluca Brambilla, he’s got a good shot at top five, at least.

Meanwhile, Esteban Chaves will be leading for Orica-GreenEdge, and he’s a rider who’s proven in the past that this sort of steeply ramped climbing is something he can easily work with. Ruben Plaza & Amets Txurruka will be making thier first big outing for Orica as support for Chaves in the mountains, so it’ll be good to see how well those three work together.

AG2R come here with their tried and tested double threat of Domenico Pozzovivo and Romain Bardet. Pozzovivo finished third here last year, and didnt get to show much at Tirreno, however, since his terrible crash at last year’s Giro, he hasn’t quite been the same rider. So focus this week will more likely be on the rising star Bardet. Bardet went well in Oman, finishing just behind Nibali on the Queen stage, and the intense gradients will suit his style well.

Tom Dumoulin returns to the country where he first showed his miraculous grand tour credentials, and we know he could easily tackle these sorts of climbs back last August. He’s had a quietly strong start to the year. However, he came unstuck on the final stage of Paris-Nice, and has since pulled out of Milan-Sanremo with influenza, which might explain his form on that stage. He wont have had time to recover, so we’re not expecting much from him. His teammate Warren Barguil makes his season debut after recovering from Giant-Alpecin’s awful January training camp crash, so we perhaps can’t expect too much from him.

Ryder Hesjedal also makes a return to racing since January. Another rider targeting the Giro and hoping to ride into form, he comes here with Haimar Zubeldia and Julián Arredondo as support for him in the climbs. However, given the time he’s spent away from racing, and taking into account his plans for the big tours, we can’t see him finding the podium here.

A more likely outsider is Rigoberto Uran. Uran’s Tirreno-Adriatico was ruined by a crash in the opening team time trial. He’d have been a sensible bet to go hard on the Queen stage after his crash, but, of course, that was then cancelled. Cannondale bring with Uran some great climbing talent, including Davide Formolo, Joe Dombrowski, and Michael Woods, the latter being the revelation of this year’s Tour Down Under. They also have Andrew Talansky, but he’s been regrettably underperforming of late. If the team work well for Uran, we might see the Colombian make podium.

Also riding for a shot at G.C. are Robert GesinkRafael VallsLouis MentjesIgor Antón and Hugh Carthy 

 

Stage 1

Testament to the difficulty of the terrain here, there are five relatively big climbs on the first stage alone. Due to the last 18km being a fast descent, the likelihood is that it will end in a reduced bunch sprint. The climbs aren’t too hard, and they come before the business-end of the stage. The race has had stages ending in Calella for the last five years, with the run into the finish being the same, so the riders will be familiar with these roads. Nacer Bouhanni is the only ‘star’ name in sprinting here, so if he can make it over the climbs in the front group then he’ll be the fave for stage win. Given his disappointment in Milan-Sanremo over the weekend, you can bet Bouhanni will be keen to take something home. Riders like Ben Swift, Simon Gerrans, and Davide Cimolai will also be targeting this one. José Joaquín Rojas, Gianni Meersman, and Nikias Ardnt are your probable outsiders.

Stage 2

The key part of this stage will be the category 1 climb of Alt de Els Angels (10km, 3.8%, maximum 9%) which comes 70km from the finish. It’s a good opportunity for a breakaway to launch an attack – it’s a tough ask, but they could gain enough of a gap on the descent, and the climb up to the finish, although long, isn’t too tough. It peaks with 6kms to go, and the final 500m are on a slight descent. The finale is identical to a stage last year, when Alejandro Valverde pulled away to take the win. This year, Dan Martin, Daniel Navarro, and Michael Woods could go well here. But expect the main G.C. contenders to be in the final mix, and they might want those time bonuses going into the first big test the next day.

Stage 3

The first true outing for the G.C. men brings with it a quartet of category 1 climbs. Expect the peloton to slowly diminish on the 40km-long slow rise up to the Alt de Toses, followed by a rollercoaster ride which takes in the Alt de La Molina twice.  Last year, Domenico Pozzovivo rode a tactically brilliant stage here and had the better of his rivals. He’ll be looking for another victory here, but the real battle will be between Alberto ContadorNairo Quintana, and Chris Froome. We’ll also be watching Dan MartinFabian Aru, and Rigoberto Uran.

Stage 4

If any of the climbers were struggling yesterday, today will ensure they explode entirely. They’ll be climbing from the gun, and, whilst it’s only a cat 3 ascent, anyone wanting to get into the early break will need to spend time on the rollers before the stage begins. Sore legs from yesterday will only get sorer, and morale might be low with the enormous climb up the outside-category Port del Cantó on the horizon, coming after 85km of slow downhill. They then descend, tackle a cat 1 climb, descend once more, and then take on the final outside-category climb up the Port Ainé. The final climb was last used in 2013 when Dan Martin took the win, on his way to overall victory. A repeat of that day, with this field, might be too much to ask of Martin. Expect Alberto Contador to attack up the last climb out of a very small group, followed by Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves, and Fabian Aru. Romain Bardet could enjoy the descents and pull out a gap, but he’ll need a pretty decent one if he’s to stay away.

Stage 5

This is one for the rouleurs and perhaps a breakaway, as the G.C. men will be recovering from yesterday’s trials. But if the time gaps at the top of the race are still tight then we could also see a late attack here. The profile may look like it’s all down hill, but there are two cat 2 climbs (Port d’Àger – 9.6km, 5%, max. 8% & Alt de Lilla – 4.1km, 4.8%, max. 7%), with a nasty uncategorised lump with 50kms to go. The climbs aren’t in the same league as the previous two days, but this is a long (200km) stage, and the final climb of Alt de Lilla, although only 4.1km, will feel like a lot tougher after a long day in the saddle. There is a slight kick up to the line, so again look to riders like Simon Gerrans, Philippe Gilbert, and Michael Woods, as well as breakaway  hopefuls like Thomas De Gent, Matteo Bono, and Gianluca Brambilla.

Stage 6

The last time the race finished in Vilanova was 2014, and Stef Clement went solo out of the breakaway to take the stage. That said, the lack of climbing kilometres on this stage, plus the novelty of a flat finish, makes Nacer Bouhanni a strong favourite. However, a small climb coming 2km before the finish could unsettle the fast men and be the catalyst for a late attack from the likes of Daryl Impey or even Bernard Eisel, strong men who could spoil the sprinters’ party.

Stage 7

Previously, the race has finished with a circuit around Barcelona featuring the Alto de Montjuïc (2km at 5.7%, max 8%), and it’s the same again this year, with eight laps of the ‘Circuit De Montjuïc’. However, before the circuits the peloton will leave Barcelona and tackle two climbs within the first 85km. Despite only being a cat 3, the relentless ciruits of Montjuïc will sap the legs of a tired bunch of riders. If the general classification is still tight, we’ll see the strongest of the contending teams driving a strong pace, forcing gaps and looking to score bonus points for their team leaders. If, however, the G.C. is well settled, look to riders like Omar Fraile, Julian Arredondo, or Nicholas Roche to have go at a breakaway win.

Picks:

Andy is going to go with the fairly obvious choice of Chris Froome. With a squad as strong as his, and Sky’s achievements the year before, Andy thinks they’ll be too strong a force to beat. Contador and his Tinkoff teammates would have put up a very strong fight, but without Majka he thinks Bertie will need to do too much on his own.

Chris picks Nairo Quintana. Given Contador’s slightly below-par squad, it will take something miraculous to defeat Froome — if he’s in form. Enter Quintana, who’s rarely unable to dance up the big climbs, even when he’s not in peak form. Without a time trial, it should be a close thing at the top.

James is hoping that Esteban Chaves can go on the attack early like he did in last year’s Vuelta. He’s had no chance to show off his form this year, and will relish the sharp climbing on offer. Coupled with a lack of time trials, this gives Chaves a great shot at the podium.

 

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