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Starting at 15.15 CET you can follow the first big mountain stage of the Volta a Catalunya on

Photo: ASO / B. Bade


26.03.2014 @ 15:30 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After two easier days, it is finally time for Chris Froome and Alberto Contador to lock horns for the first time in 2014 when the Volta a Catalunya tackles the first of two consecutive mountain stages. With the final climb being a rather easy affair, it may not be a day to produce big time differences though and unfortunately it may all get cancelled if predicted snowfall make the major mountain passes impassable.


The course

After two days for the sprinters, it is time to go into the high mountains for the first of two consecutive summit finishes that is likely to decide the final classification. The 162.9km stage starts in Banyoles and ends at the top of the category 1 La Molina climb at 1725m above sea level after a big day of climbing.


The first part of the stage consists of a long westerly run as the riders turn their back to the Mediterranean coast and its rolling terrain to head into the high mountains. The first 31.6km are all slightly uphill as the riders get closer to the serious climbing but the hostilities commence in earnest when they take on the category 1 Alt de Coubet (10km, 5.5%, max. 10%).


From the top, the riders follow a rather easy and gradual descent back to the valley and the city of Ripoll where they continue their westerly journey along slightly ascending roads. The truly brutal part of the stage starts just after the city of Gombren when 84.9km still remain.


The riders now go up the first HC climb of the race, the Alt de la Creueta (21km, 4.5%, max. 9%). The top comes 63.9km from the finish and the riders will now do a short descent before going up to La Molina. Here they pass the finish line from the opposite direction to start the long descent to the city of Alp.


The riders will now do a small flat loop in the valley, contesting the intermediate sprints 35.3km and 22.6km from the finish. Having returned to Alp, they will head back up the road they had previously been descending to do the category 1 climb up to the finish in La Molina. The actual climb is only 5.3km long with an average gradient of 5.3% and maximum ramps 8% but it is uphill for the final 11.9km of the stage.


From 3 to 2km from the finish, the gradient is 6% and then it gets a bit steeper with a 500m section of 8%. The road flattens to just 4% for the next 500m while the final kilometre has an average gradient of 5.5%. In the finale, the road is winding with several sweeping bends, the final one leading onto the 150m finishing straight.


La Molina hosted a stage finish in the 2001 Vuelta where Santiago Blanco won from a breakaway while only Jose Maria Jimenez managed to escape on the final ascent, finishing 4 seconds ahead of an 18-rider group that contained all the main contenders.



The weather

It's always risky business to bring the riders high up into the mountains at this time of the year and the organizers learnt the lesson the hard way when they virtually had to cancel their queen stage midway through the race two years ago. Unfortunately, the Spanish race is not blessed with the excellent weather of the recent Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and at present it seems that tomorrow's stage is at risk of getting modified.


Today Catalunya has had really bad weather with lots of rain that will have fallen as snow in the high mountains. It will require a lot of hard work for the organizers to make the roads ready for a bike race. Tomorrow should be a rather mixed day that will both offer sunshine, clouds, and a risk of showers. In the valley at the bottom of tomorrow's major climb, the temperature is expected to reach a maximum of just above the 5-degree mark, meaning that any rain will fall as snow in the mountains.


There will only be a very light wind from a northerly direction, meaning that the riders will mostly have a crosswind, turning into a cross-headwind on the Alt de la Creueta. Having done the short circuit near the end, the riders will turn into a cross-tailwind when they got up the climb from the other side.


The favourites

Of course we will base our analysis of the favourites on the assumption that things will go ahead as planned but there is a risk that the stage will be modified. The entire cycling world will cross their fingers in the hopes that nothing will be changed and that we will get the anticipated big showdown between the top 4 from last year's Tour de France.


After two stages for the sprinters we will see a complete change of scenery in tomorrow's stage and it is time for the GC riders to come to the fore. Giant-Shimano won't do an awful lot to defend the jersey and even though they may dutifully roll a bit along on the front of the peloton in the early stages, it will be left to the major GC teams to control the day's proceedings.


Based on last year's surprise result where Dan Martin based his overall win on a successful breakaway, several riders should be keen to make it up the road and we should be in for a rather animated start to the stage. Due to the rather easy opening kilometres, however, it should be possible for teams like Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo to make sure that the early break is not too big and too strong. At the same time, the best climbers may want to save some energy for Thursday's queen stage which should be a better option for potential escapees.


There is very little chance that the early break will succeed. Even though there are no bonus seconds at the finish, Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo will moth be keen to win the stage and they will make sure to bring things back together for the final climb. They may get some assistance from Movistar and Katusha who may have similar plans. At the same time, we can expect Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, or Movistar to set a hard pace on the day's first big climb to tire out their rivals. The final climb is a rather easy affair and if the stage shall produce any bigger time differences, the riders cannot be allowed to be too fresh at the bottom of the final climb.


Due to the mellow gradients, it would be unwise to expect too much of a spectacle with long-distance attacks and direct battles from afar between the best riders. In fact, finishes on 5-6% climb have a tendency to end in a sprint from a 15-20 rider group and there is a chance that this may be the case tomorrow.


However, we expect some time differences to occur at the end. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador have proved on several occasions that they never pass away any opportunity to attack and tomorrow they won't do so either. When Contador won his first stage in the Tirreno, the final climb was much longer but it wasn't any steeper and in that race, he managed to make a difference. At the same time, those two riders are at such a high level that they usually can separate themselves from the rest even on this kind of slopes. Finally, the tailwind will make it easier to produce a selection.


With Contador's resurgence, it should be a close battle but Chris Froome has to be the favourite. The Brit may have lost a few days of training and may not have done a race for more than a month but his outstanding condition in the Tour of Oman suggested that he was already at a fairly advanced level. As his 2013 performances proved, he is not the kind of rider that needs an awful lot of racing to reach his best condition and his training will have been enough to keep him at a high level. Tirreno-Adriatico was probably his biggest goal of the early season and as his withdrawal was a rather late one, there is no doubt that he was ready to go when he was hit by his setback. Furthermore, he has managed to complete a rather hard block of training at the Cote d'Azur and this will make his ready for this race.


What makes Froome the favourite in the race is his performances in last year's races and in Oman. In last year's spring races, he proved that he was not only the strongest rider but that he was far ahead of his rivals. He underlined that status in Oman where he crushed the opposition on the Green Mountain. That climb may be very steep but at only 5.7km, it is also a very short one. In less than 2km, he put almost half a minute into his nearest rival and he was even up against an almost all-inclusive line-up of grand tour stars. Despite his late attack, only 7 riders finished within a minute of his time. At the same time, Contador was winning in Algarve but only managed to hold off Rui Costa and Michal Kwiatkowski by seconds on the Alto do Malhao whose gradient are only slightly easier than the ones of the Green Mountain.


Froome may not be known for his sprinting prowess but he has a fierce accelerations on the slopes as he has proved on several occasions. On these easy gradients, that is of a very big importance. When he secured the overall win in last year's Tour de Romandie, he dropped his rivals on slopes that were not steeper than the ones found tomorrow. In 2011 on Pena Cabarga and in 2012 on La Planche des Belles Filles, he has proved that he has a solid kick at the end if he needs to sprint for the win and this could be the case on tomorrow's rather easy climb. He doesn't have a sprint like Joaquim Rodriguez but against Contador he should be the fastest. We doubt that Contador will be able to drop Froome and this means that can win both from a sprint and riding away from the rest.


If anyone is strong enough to beat Froome, it has to be Contador. His performance in Tirreno-Adriatico was simply excellent and proved that he is not too far from the level he had in his heydays. He would certainly have preferred a much tougher climb but when he won the fourth stage of Tirreno, he showed that he can also win on this kind of ascent.


In a sprint against Froome he is likely to get beaten and so he will most probably have to rid himself of the Brit before the finish. If he has anything left in the tank, he will certainly give it a try. If one had asked us in February if he had a chance to do so, we would have firmly denied it. The Tirreno changed things though and even though it is unlikely to happen, it will not be impossible for the Spaniard to get a mental advantage ahead of the Tour de France.


The big question mark is Joaquim Rodriguez. The Spaniard hasn't raced since the Tour of Oman and has instead prepared himself on the Mount Teide. In the first races of his season, he was not riding for the win but in his home race he is targeting results. His form usually starts to come around at this time of the year - last year he finished 2nd in this race - and his attentive riding in the flat stages prove that this is no training race for him.


Usually, we wouldn't leave Rodriguez much of a chance against Froome and an in-form Contador but on tomorrow's easy climb he has a chance. If it comes down to a sprint finish from a select group, everyone knows that Rodriguez possesses an impressive kick. The selection is likely to be made rather late on the easy climb and very few can ride the final kilometre faster than Rodriguez. We doubt that the Katusha leader will be able to match his main rivals in Thursday's queen stage but on tomorrow's easier climb he has a solid chance.


In Tirreno, Nairo Quintana had to realize that he is still not at the level of Contador and it is likely that he is still not able to match the Spaniard. Compared to Froome and Contador, he cannot allow himself to be too far ahead in his training as he is targeting the Giro. However, Quintana is such a talented athlete that he doesn't need an awful lot of racing to get into condition and there is no doubt that he will be at a higher level in this race. However, we don't expect him to have closed the gap yet and the final short, explosive climb doesn't suit him too well. He has a solid acceleration but in this kind of finish it will be hard for him to win.


With this finish suiting the explosive riders, it is hard not to mention Carlos Betancur. The explosive skills were exactly what gave the talented Colombian the win in Paris-Nice and they will come in handy in tomorrow's stage. Betancur is still overweight and not in his best condition and so it will be hard for him to match the best climbers in the race and we expect him to fall off the pace in Thursday's queen stage. However, tomorrow's easier climb provides him with a chance and if he is still there at the finish, he will be a danger man.


The same can be said of his compatriot Rigoberto Uran. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step leader showed great condition earlier in the season but in Tirreno he was only a domestique. Hence, the results don't tell anything about his actual form and we expect him to be at a good level. It is unlikely to be enough to match the best climbers but if the climbs proves less selective, he has a fierce sprint that will be hard to match at the top of this kind of ascent.


Finally, we will select our joker. Julian Arredondo proved in Tirreno that he already has the level to match the best when he finished 5th overall. He still struggles a bit on the longer climbs as he is more of an explosive puncheur that a true climber. Those skills will come in handy in tomorrow's stage where the final climb is very short. He may have preferred it to be a bit steeper but his final kick should put him up there. He is obviously in great condition and there is no reason to be surprised if the continues his excellent start to his professional career by producing another stunning performance.


UPDATE: Julian Arredondo suffers from stomach issues and may not be at his best in tomorrow's stage.


CyclingQuotes' stage winner pick: Chris Froome

Other winner candidates: Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez

Outsiders: Nairo Quintana, Carlos Betancur, Rigoberto Uran

Joker: Julian Arredondo



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