• Rúben Silva

Volta Ciclista a Catalunya Preview

In for one of the most contested stage-races of the season, the Catalunya region is one that many riders call a home and there is no surprise in seeing the region and the race are able to atract many of the best riders in the world, specially the climbers that every year come year to get good kilometers in the legs and to try to get an important win.

The race's mountainous and hilly nature provides plenty of chances for the climbers and puncheur to succeed, but the sprinters will also have their chances here. Movistar have won the last editions of the race, and besides 2012 it is always a climber taking home the win, and this year with the route's nature it should be no different.

The Route

Since 2012 Calella has welcomed the finish of the opening stage in Catalunya. In 2012 and 2016 the stage was conquered by the breakaway and it features similarly hilly routes as this year which automatically leads to believe that this is a stage suited to that type of racing.

The route is hard, with three 1st category climbs, but the last one comes with around 55 kilometers to go so there's the question over what sprinters will resist the climbs. The GC teams surely won't be looking for any gaps unless there are strong crosswinds, so a breakaway or a reduced bunch sprint are the likely scenarios to look at.

Another opportunity for the sprinters. Again, not an easy route for them but with riders like Matthews and Gibbons there will surely be teams trying to keep the race together, the stage in it's bulk is much easier than the previous day, but a 4rd cateogry clib close to the finish might motivate some moves.

It isn't a overly hard one, but then the final kilometer also features some hard gradients for the purest of sprinters to prosper.

The race quickly arrives in the pyrinees though, the 3rd stage will head north towards the mountain range and will finish over 2000 meters above the starting town. The first part of the route is somewhat flat but the second is much harder.

The climbing starts in the Port d'Oix (7.7Km at 5.2%), a small descent then leads to the Port de Rocabruna (7.3Km at 5.8%), with very little descending following, as a false flat will lead into the final climb in Valter 2000. Featuring 11.2Km at 7.6% average gradient, it has been raced only once in the race back in 2014 where in the middle of the snow Tejay van Garderen beat Romain Bardet in a thrilling finale.

On stage 4 the race remains in the mountains, a similar route to previous years' stage where riders like Daniel Martin and Alejandro Valverde won. The approach isn't the same but the climbs are, and then the Creueta/Molina combination returns from last year.

But this year, the Coll de Coubet (9.2Km at 5.5%) will precede last year's combo, the Port de la Creueta is a long climb, with 19.9Km at a 4.7% average gradient with a little descent in the middle. Then the race will enter a circuit where they will climb La Molina twice.

La Molina officially is 11.4Km at 4.3% average, but that's an innacurate look at the climb. On the road, the first 8.1Km are at 6.7% (with some steeper sections), and the final 600 meters at 8% reaching 14% at a point. It isn't a brutally hard climb but with an easier route last year Movistar completely bombed the stage in the climbs, so there's every reason to expect a lot of show here, more knowing it's the final chance to gain back real time for the overall contenders.

The race then will come back down from the mountains. The start by the border in Puigcerdà will provide the chance for strong and powerful riders to make a gap in the first climb of the day. Hard enough for a strong selection of riders to get away, and there will be lots of riders trying to do so as from there the finish will be 1600 below that point, so an ideal route for a breakaway to succeed.

It is definetely one which should balance out in favour of a breakaway, the rolling terrain in the middle of the stage accentuates it even more. In case of a bunch sprint it's also gonna be a hard one as the speed will surely be very high.

Perhaps the most sprinter-suited stage in the race. In theory 4 stages can fall to that side, but this one is the last chance for them and the parcours isn't as hard as the previous days (despite the 2246m of elevation gained). The bulk of the stage isn't easy, in the classic rompe-piernas spanish terrain, but the final 50Km are almost all downhill and should be terrain where an organized chase can easily bring back the escapees.

Specially being the final sprint stage all the teams with a strong contender will try and get some glory in here.

And the final stage is an already familiar one to all regular cycling fans. The circuit on the Montjuic climb is already one of the most iconic of the season. A short stage, Barcelona will host both the start and finish, after the start the route will tilt upwards where the Coll de la Creu d'Ordal will open things up for those looking for a stage win.

After the descent back to Barcelona the route will then roll around, climbing the Alt de Montjuic 8 times. With 2.1Km at 5.3% it isn't an easy climb to see gaps appear, but the fast descent and the small peak next to the Olympic stadium won't give anyone rest until the line.

Just a brief look at what the weather will look like. Girona is around the center of the region the race will go through so it's a good indicator, it looks like there won't be any weather events happening in the week to modify the race, with the temperatures in spring standards and the winds week.

The riders

Movistar won the last 3 editions of the race, and is a big focus race for the Spanish team so this year they come back with an equally as strong squad, Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana will likely have a shared lead. Both look in stunning form and the stages suit both very well, perhaps leaning more to Valverde as he is capable of capturing bonifications along the race better than his teammate. But even their domestiques are not to be sniffed at, Marc Soler and Richard Carapaz don't need any presentation, the first seemed a bit off in Paris-Nice but was a crucial help to Quintana in the final stage, whilst Carapaz raced in Tirreno Adriatico where his 20th place overall confirms a good current form.

After an impressive win in Paris Nice it's impossible to overlook Egan Bernal as a top favourite. He was the only one who was able to resist Movistar's moves last edition, but a violent crash in the final stage had him loose his 2nd place and abandon very few kilometers from the finish. Chris Froome will be here, his form never seems to be on spot at this time of season but he is still deserving of a good mention. Richie Porte returns after a worrying presence in the UAE Tour and Ilnur Zakarin and Wilco Kelderman fresh from Paris-Nice.

Another worrying double to say the least will be the Yates twins. Although Simon hasn't focused on the GC in any race so far, Catalunya is a race that suits him to the bone and where he's won last year, Adam in the meantime was busy in Tirreno Adriatico where only by a single second he didn't get to win overall. Both punchy climbers, both summit finishes suit them and they are also very capable riders of creating a gap in the final stage as they have a very strong accelaration.

On the punchy climber note we have Dan Martin also fit to race, a past winner here in 2013 he's still got the legs to repeat that feat, Romain Bardet just came from a solid Paris-Nice, here the lack of time-trialing kilometers may very well put him as a serious contender if he shows it on the climbs. EF duo Michael Woods and Hugh Carthy are outsiders, the Canadian hasn't raced since January in Australia, but as he resides in Catalunya his knowledge of the roads may be valuable. And Davide Formolo is also worth mentioning, having had some bad days in Tirreno Adriatico that ruined his overall ambitions, in one of the stages he showed amazing power.

With Astana's season start Miguel Angel Lopez and Pello Bilbao are under the radar aswell. 3rd and 6th last year in the Giro, they are both preparing the same goal but both are worth keeping under close watch. Steven Kruijswijk and Sep Kuss are yet another double that should be mentioned, but with both of them looking to save their legs to the latter part of the season it is unlikely to see the best of them already here. Thibaut Pinot hasn't shown his climbing legs in WT level yet this season, so he remains a joker for now, Enric Mas has raced only in the Algarve but showed strong legs in there so it's possible that his level is quite high right now.

Also in a vast list of outsider I'll name the following: James Knox, Rafal Majka, Esteban Chaves, Chris Hamilton, Giulio Ciccone, Sebastian Reichenbach, Tejay van Garderen, Tanel Kangert, Ben O'Connor, Pieter Weening, Damiano Caruso, Jesus Herrada and Guillaume Martin.

The sprinters

There isn't a whole deck of top-end sprinters present here, but with some stages easy enough to be controled and some flat finishes there are several riders who can definetely benefit and get an elusive WorldTour win.

It's certain that Greipel isn't the same as some years ago. But a quick check and we can see that it isn't due to his power, he can still put out 1800 watts in a sprint, he just lost his risk-taking edge, his positioning skills. Perhaps with a reduced sprinter field he can take advantage and take a very important win for Arkea in Spain.

Perhaps the biggest favourite is Alvaro Hodeg in the flat finishes, due to his leadout he is set to have the best of positions. Phil Bauhaus is the other powerhouse sprinter who with no surprise would take a win in here.

Michael Matthews is likely the most pointed out name though, and with good reason. The hilly stages suit him like almost no other sprinter, but his season as so far been marked by crashes. Despite positive feedback with a good showing in Milano Sanremo he didn't look like he was riding at his top level yet, and he needs that to be able to match the speed of the likes of the previous riders. Ryan Gibbons is another climbing sprinters if we can call him that. So far this season he has impressed more over his climbing skills, but underneath is a powerhouse sprinter, maybe this is the terrain where he can prosper at long last.

Hugo Hofstetter, Daryl Impey, Patrick Bevin and some other riders can also have a role in these stages, not the fastest of riders but all can climb well and may be the jokers on the road.

The Teams

Movistar/Mitchelton/Sky - These are the main overall teams. With the Yates, Quintana/Valverde and Bernal/Froome, these are likely the teams that will be controling the climbs and with good reason as all of them have a very strong support squad aswell.

Sunweb/Dimension Data - The teams that will control in the sprint stages, mostly the ones where they will look to push in the climbs as Matthews and Gibbons are very strong in that terrain.

Deceuninck/Arkea/Bahrain - The pure sprinter teams. No huge GC contenders so we should see them also trying to control the sprint stages, and trying to survive the climbs within them.

Astana/AG2R/Emirates/FDJ - Some outsider climber teams. All of these team's leaders can very well be in the final fight for the overall win, but their support isn't as strong as the first trio, and it won't be an easy race to control.

Jumbo-Visma/Trek/EF/Bora/Katusha - These 4 teams all have very strong leader but questions can be put over their current form, good but not safe option GC-wise, perhaps better for stage wins.

Lotto Soudal/CCC - The remaining WT teams. Not weak squads but definetely lacking a leader that can grab a win. Bevin/Vanendert are strong but not exactly on level to win a stage except a breakaway here I assume.

Roompot/Wanty/Cofidis - The foreign PCT teams (except Arkea). With Weening/G.Martin/Hofstetter they have an interesting set of riders, Jesus Herrada also another one who can have a good result but only from breakaways seeing the competition they face here.

Caja Rural/Euskadi/Burgos - The home teams, they should look out to show their sponsors as much as possible, no really strong rider who could in a normal scenario fight for a stage win, so a KOM or stage win would be a major success for any of them.

Prediction Time

Valverde, A.Yates, Bernal

Quintana, S.Yates, D.Martin, Pinot

Froome, Porte, MA.Lopez, Mas, Bardet, Kelderman, Woods

My bet is in Valverde. It isn't a confident bet as he hasn't shown us his flying form yet this season, but he's won this race now two years in a row and his team is absolutely focused on the race. He is punchy which may get him bonus seconds in several stages, if necessary he has a team that can carry him like no other, and it is almost like a home race for the team, they will want this really badly. Plus the strategic game that can be played with Quintana/Soler/Carapaz can be a valuable card to play, that I'm sure he'll be the protected one.

I see no reason why Simon Yates can't take this, but he hasn't focused on the GC in any race yet this year, and he is building up for the Giro so maybe he will try to play the stage wins again, and Bernal may be very strong but we saw the exact same situation last year where Bernal was very strong but against Quintana/Valverde nothing could be done.

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