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Mezgec continues his great momentum just a few days after his win in the Handzame Classic when by beating Howard in thesprint to become the first leader of the Volta a Catalunya

Photo: Team Giant-Shimano

JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE

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LEIGH HOWARD

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LUKA MEZGEC

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TEAM SUNWEB

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VOLTA A CATALUNYA

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24.03.2014 @ 17:32 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Three days after taking his first win of the season in the Handzame Classic, Luka Mezgec (Giant-Shimano) confirmed his great condition when he won today's first stage of the Volta a Catalunya. Despite being a lot in the wind in the finale, the Slovenian proved impressive strength by passing Leigh Howard (Orica-GreenEDGE) just before the line to take both the stage victory and the first leader's jersey in the Spanish WorldTour race.

 

Last year Luka Mezgec had a fantastic first professional season and crowned it all at the very end when he took his first professional victory in the very last race. When he finally crossed the line in first position it even happened in a WorldTour race as he took the final stage of the Tour of Beijing.

 

Today he proved that he has the potential to become a great sprinter at the highest level when he took his third win of his career and again it happened in a WorldTour race. Three days after winning the Handzame Classic, he took a very impressive victory in the first stage of the Volta a Catalunya.

 

In the very hilly Catalonian race, the greatest sprinters are all absent as there are no completely flat stages. Mezgec, however, is a much more versatile rider and he had no trouble surviving today's tough climbing.

 

After a frantic downhill run to the finish in Calella, it all came down to the expected sprint finish on the Mediterranean coast. Giant-Shimano, however, don't have their strong lead-out train in the Spanish race and so Mezgec was completely on his own in the hectic finish.

 

Being positioned a bit too far back, he had to hit the wind very early while on the front, Brett Lancaster was giving Leigh Howard a perfect lead-out. Despite the finishing straight being slightly uphill, however, Mezgec did a long sprint and went head-to-head with Howard on the front.

 

In the end, the Slovenian was clearly the fastest and took a rather convincing win to become the first leader of the race. Julian Alaphilippe (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) took a major result in his first WorldTour race when he finished 3rd.

 

Mezgec takes his 4-second lead over Howard into tomorrow's second stage which takes the riders over 168km from Mataro to Girona. Again it is a rather hilly affair but as the climbs are all located far from the finish, Mezgec has a great chance of making it two in a row.

 

A tricky stage

For the third year in a row, the Volta a Catalunya started with a stage starting and finishing in Calella on the Mediterranean coast and  the finish of the stage was identical to the one used for the two previous editions. After a flat start, the riders had to tackle a category 1 and category 3 climb inside the final 50km before the final 18km flat and downhill run to the finish.

 

The 94th edition of the race kicked off at 12.15 in Calella under a beatutiful sunny sky with what is probably the strongest line-up for a one-week race in 2014. In 2012, a breakaway managed to stay away on the opening stage which had the same finish as today's and this inspired several riders to try to be part of the early action.

 

The break is formed

This caused a fast start to the race with several attacks being launched before the early move got clear. After 10km of racing, things were still together but two kilometres further up the road, the right combination was found.

 

Lotto Belisol youngster Boris Vallee was joined by Romain Lemarchand (Cofidis) and they started to build up a gap. Cedric Pineau (FDJ) tried to bridge across and stayed in between the groups for some time before realizing that it was mission impossible.

 

Lemarchand becomes first Miguel Poblet leader

At the special Miguel Poblet sprint after 18km, Lemarchand beat Vallee to take the first lead in the competition that honours the former Spanish rider. At that point, Pineau was still clear and he was the third rider across the line.

 

The gap only grew slowly and after 30km of racing, the two escapees were only 3 minutes ahead. However, the peloton decided to a take a short breather and this allowed the advantage to grow to 7.50 at the 50km mark.

 

Sky start to control

Chris Froome's Sky team and - surprisingly - Europcar were the first teams to start the chase and the gap started to come slightly down. At the first intermediate sprint, Vallee beat Lemarchand while Thomas De Gendt (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was the third rider across the line.

 

Europcar disappeared from the front and allowed it to GC teams Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo and the Giant-Shimano team of sprinter Luka Mezgec to control the advantage. After 70km of racing, it was already down to just 4 minutes where it was kept stable for some time as the peloton decided to slow down.

 

Vallee scores more points

Vallee was again first at the second intermediate sprint while David Lopez led the peloton across the line for Sky. The Spaniard was doing much of the early work for the British team.

 

As the riders entered the feed zone inside the final 60km, the gap was 3.45 but there was no real chase going on. Giant-Shimano was just patrolling the front for their sprinter Mezgec but as the category 1 Alt del Montseny was about to begin, Cannondale decided that it was time to make things harder for the pure sprinters.

 

Wurf sets a hard pace

The Italian team hit the front with their strong Australian Cameron Wurf, with occasional assistance from De Gendt, as he tried to set his sprinter Daniele Ratto up for the win. The battle for position was now fierce as everybody wanted to be well-positioned for the climb.

 

The increased pace brought the gap down to 1.59 by the time they reached the bottom of the ascent and riders immediately started to drop off. The first to succumb to Wurf's speed was Tom Peterson (Giant-Shimano) while Garmin-Sharp sprinter Koldo Fernandez also had to let the group go.

 

Txurruka goes on the attack

Halfway up the climb Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) started his mission of collecting points for the mountains classification when he set off in pursuit of the two leaders. He managed to get to within 30 seconds of the front duo but had to settle for third at the top where Lemarchand took maximum points.

 

Txurruka continued his hard pace on the descent but failed to get any closer until he reached the flat valley roads. Here he finally made the junction as they hit the bottom of the final category 3 climb.

 

A battle for position

Cannondale had led the peloton all the way down the descent but as soon as the roads flattened, it was time for the big teams to position themselves near the front. Last year the peloton had split on the descent and so all the GC favourites wanted to be well-placed when the downhill section started.

 

Danny Pate hit the front for Sky while Tinkoff-Saxo and Movistar were also up there near the front. The fierce battle for position automatically brought back the escapees, with Lemarchand being the first to give up.

 

New attacks

A few seconds later it was also over for Txurruka and Vallee, opening the door for Paul Martens (Belkin) to make an immediate counterattack. He was joined by Julian Arredondo (Trek) and Gianluca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and the trio managed to crest the summit - with Brambilla first across the line - a few seconds ahead of the peloton where Lopez was riding hard for Sky.

 

The trio were caught on the upper part of the descent when a Katusha rider brought it back together and instead Romain Hardy (Cofidis) showed excellent descending skills to open up a gap. He stayed clear for a little while but Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) led the peloton back to the Frenchman.

 

A trio is formed

Kelderman opened a small gap but was passed by Mikael Cherel (Ag2r) who was the next rider to gain a small advantage. Hardy and Kelderman joined him and the trio managed to build up a 19-second gap by the time they passed the 10km to go sign.

 

Giant-Shimano took control of the chase for Mezgec but the gap remained rather stable. However, it all came to nothing for the escapees when Hardy made a stupid mistake in a roundabout that forced both himself and Cherel to come to a standstill.

 

Kelderman is caught

Kelderman was now on his own and it was mission impossible for him of the straight coastal road. As Orica-GreenEDGE were now leading the chase, the main group caught the two front groups in quick succession inside the final 3km.

 

FDJ  took over with Jussi Veikkanen for their fast finisher Anthony Roux but when they passed the flamme rouge, it was Cannondale on the front. However, the Italian team lost out to the power of Orica-GreenEDGE who managed to deliver Howard perfectly on the front.

 

The Australian seemed to be destined to take a big win but Mezgec had different plans. The Slovenian made an impressive comeback from far behind and passed Howard a few metres from the line.

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