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Most attention will surround Bradley Wiggins (Sky) who takes on his first race since the Tour of Oman. Wiggins impressed most with his ability to win three major stage races in his build-up to last year's Tour, but it would nonetheless...

Photo: Movistar Team

ALEJANDRO VALVERDE

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CHRISTOPHER HORNER

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JOAQUIM RODRIGUEZ OLIVER

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JURGEN VAN DEN BROECK

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MICHELE SCARPONI

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RIGOBERTO URAN

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VOLTA A CATALUNYA

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18.03.2013 @ 11:23 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

With most of the cycling world gearing up for another classics season, some of the sport's strongest GC contenders prepare for another WorldTour battle on the back of the Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. With its usual mountainous route and no individual time trial, the Volta a Catalunya  once again lends it hands to the pure climbers, and with the likes of Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky) on the start line, the race has once again been able to amass a formidable line-up.

 

Volta a Catalunya was maybe the biggest loser with the introduction of the now defunct ProTour in 2005. Moved from its usual June spot, Spain's oldest stage race was held during the second week of the Giro and as a consequence it gained little public attention. Among the riders, it was mostly seen as a first race back after a short break in the lead up to the Tour.

 

With the Tour of California wishing to turn into a spring race, an opportunity arose to revive the struggling Spanish race. In 2010 the calendar was restructured, and the Catalan race has since been held in March as another opportunity for the strongest GC riders to make use of any early season peak of form.

 

The effect on the race has been massive, and with the added bonus of important WorldTour points at hand, the race has since been able to line up a number of the sport's biggest names. This year is no exception, and even though the race continues to fight for its existence in the tough economic climate, its sporting value has increased dramatically.

 

Last year's race was, however, negatively affected by its earlier calendar spot. The race's queen stage was neutralized under chaotic circumstances, and with limited topographical challenges in the race's remaining stages the pre-race favourites failed to take back the time won by Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) in a successful early breakaway on stage 1. The Swiss ended up winning the race ahead of Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), and it was another display of the amazing early-season momentum of the new Australian team.

 

The course

The Catalonian geography offers plenty of difficult terrain, and with almost no flat kilometres the race has few opportunities for pure sprinters. As a consequence, the fast-men in attendance are mostly those with some strength on the climbs.

 

The organizers were a little cautious to enter the mountains this early in the season in the first year with the new calendar slot, but for the last two years they have had mountaintop finishes on the route. Last year's neutralization showed the risks this may pose, but it has not held the course designers back, and no less than two stages arrive at the end of long climbs in this year's edition. If the weather permits it, we should be in for the hardest edition for years.

 

The race opens with a typical Catalonian stage. There are almost no flat kilometres on a route with 5 categorized climbs (1 in the 1st category and 4 in the 3rd), and the last top is reached with less than 20 km remaining. The stage looks suited to a reduced group sprint, but with no GC in place, a breakaway may - like last year - benefit from an unclear division of responsibilities among the favourite teams to go all the way to the finish.

 

The second stage is one of the few opportunities for the sprinters. With just one 3rd category climb early in the race, the peloton will travel along the sea to reach the city of Banyoles where they will do four laps on a final finishing circuit.

 

The race hits the first decisive stage on its third day. Two category 1 climbs in the early part of the race just serve to tire the legs ahead of the final HC climb of Vallier 2000 - the highest point of this year's race (2200 meters above sea level). Riders need to save some strength for the final 500 meters which rise at an average gradient of 11%.

 

With tired legs, the riders enter the race's queens stage, a 217 km journey with 5 categorized climbs. After the initial ascents of a 3rd, 1st and 2nd category climb, things get earnest in the last third of the stage with two HC climbs on the menu. The riders finish atop Port Aine, a 19 km climb with 19% pitches along the way. Both the length and difficulty of the climbs will make for a very hard day of racing.

 

With the GC most probably settled, the fifth stage is another opportunity for the sprinters with just a 2nd category climb midway through the stage before a downhill run into the finish. The 6th stage seems to be a perfect opportunity for a successful breakaway with a category 1 mountain preceding a category 2 climb which peaks just 15 km before the finish. If the GC is close, we could be in for another battle between the favourites on the slopes of the final climb.

 

The race finishes with a prestigious stage in Barcelona containing 8 laps on a finishing circuit with the short, legendary Montjuic climb. After cresting the summit for the last time, less than 5 kilometres remain. Remembering how much damage one ascension of the climb did when Philippe Gilbert won a similar stage in last year's Vuelta, 8 repetitions could should make for a hard final to the race.

 

Favourites

Most attention in the race will surround defending Tour champion Bradley Wiggins (Sky) who takes on his first race since the Tour of Oman in the middle of February. Wiggins impressed most with his ability to win three major stage races in his build-up to last year's Tour victory, but it would nonetheless be a surprise to see the Brit battle for the victory. The lack of a time trial makes the course unsuited to his abilities, and he would most probably have chosen another race if he was really gunning for a top result.

 

The race has no firm pre-race favourite, but Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) seems to be the man to beat. The Spaniard has always been hailed for his ability to be competitive all year long, and this year seems to be no different. After a brilliant start to the season with a victory in the Mallorca Challenge followed by two stage victories and overall triumph in the Vuelta a Andalucia, he chose to skip both Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico in an attempt to accumulate fewer racing kilometres ahead of his main season objectives of the Tour de France, the Ardennes classics and the Vuelta. After a difficult first half of his comeback year in 2012, he seems to be back to his best, and on a course that suits him perfectly he will be difficult to beat.

 

Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) will be another star to gain much attention in the race, and his recent exploits in Tirreno-Adriatico - he won a stage and ended up 5th overall - suggest that his form is on the rise. However, the Spaniard does not have his natural strength on the long climbs, and he always seems to struggle on those in the early part of the season. A confirmation of this was his weak performance on the queen stage in last week's Italian race. History also points to a lack of consistency in the beginning of the year, and with two days in the high mountains it could be difficult for the Tour of Lombardy winner to repeat his 2010 victory in the race. He is, however, surrounded by an extremely strong team, and the likes of Denis Menchov, Simon Spilak, Alberto Losada,  Giampaolo Caruso and Daniel Moreno could take over the leadership role, should Rodriguez fail. In particular, Denis Menchov looks to approach his former strength, and if he can avoid getting trapped on a wet descent or in any windy stage, he should be in with a shot at overall victory.

 

Michele Scarponi (Lampre) has had a turbulent start to the year where a suspension by his team forced him to postpone his season debut until the beginning of March. He proved to be highly competitive in Paris-Nice and was clearly one of the strongest on the race's queens stage to Montagne de Lure. He finished it off with a strong showing on Col d'Eze, and had it not been for a puncture, he would have ended up in the overall top 10. With another race in his legs, he should be one of the main challengers.

 

Another potential winner is Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto). The Belgian rider seems to grow in strength every year, and his early-season exploits in San Luis and Andalucia suggest that this year will be no exception. With Lotto in a constant battle for important points, the team's Tour captain has made it clear that he will fight for victory in all WorldTour stage races he enters this year, and after skipping Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico he should be ready to continue his strong beginning of the season.

 

Rigoberto Uran (Sky) may be the one to take over the leadership role on Sky if Wiggins proves not to be up to the task. The Colombian was the last man in the impressive Sky train in the Tirreno-Adriatico, and he was seen taking massive turns in the head wind on the queen stage to Prato di Tivo. Had it not been for a bad day in the penultimate stage, he would probably have ended up in the top 10. Catalunya could offer him a rare chance to lead his team, and with a perfect course he should not be underestimated. He will be surrounded by the likes of Dario Cataldo and David Lopez whose blistering conditions were on show in Italy and France earlier this month.

 

Another Colombian to take over a possible leadership role could be Nairo Quintana (Movistar). The course suits him down to the ground, but with team captain Valverde targeting the race he will most likely have to put his services at the side of the Spaniard. If Valverde fails in his attempt - last year he did not make any result due to a crash in the second stage - the Colombian climber will certainly be ready. Had it not been for a crash in the fourth stage, he would have ended up on the podium in the Paris-Nice, and his third place on the Col d'Eze time trial is just another confirmation of his credentials on the climbs.

 

Veteran Chris Horner (Radioshack) once again proved that age does not seem to make him any slower. In his season debut in Tirreno-Adriatico, he impressed massively and was up there amongst the likes of Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali. Tirreno, Catalunya and Pais Vasco form his major targets in the early part of the year, and with added confidence from the past week he could add another WorldTour victory to his 2010 Pais Vasco triumph.

 

A lingering question surrounds a number of possible overall contenders. Robert Gesink (Blanco) was going strongly ahead of the Paris-Nice, and his prologue performance suggested that he was in with a real shot at overall victory. Breathing problems forced his race to end prematurely, but if he has recovered he could pose a threat.

 

Igor Anton (Euskaltel) returns from a training camp in the Sierra Nevada, and his form is a bit of an unknown. With his major season objective being the Vuelta, there is, however, scope for an early season peak, and he could be going strongly. The lack of a time trial certainly makes it difficult for him to find a stage race with a better course.

 

The last question - of course - surrounds Jose Rujano (Vacansoleil). He makes his debut for his new team after another bad year in 2012. His season objective is again the Giro, and with no races in his legs it would be somewhat of a surprise if he ends up among the best. However, he is one of the most unpredictable riders, and at his best he is one of the few with the climbing abilities to come out triumphant of this year's race in Catalunya.

 

***** Alejandro Valverde

**** Michele Scarponi, Joaquin Rodriguez

*** Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Chris Horner, Rigoberto Uran

** Robert Gesink, Igor Anton, Nairo Quintana, Denis Menchov, Simon Spilak

* Domenico Pozzovivo, Laurens Ten Dam, Kenny Elissonde, Ryder Hesjedal, Daniel Martin, David Lopez, Bradley Wiggins, Jose Rujano

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