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Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana will have their only battle before the Tour de France at a star-studded Volta a Catalunya

Photo: Tinkoff-Saxo

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VOLTA A CATALUNYA

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20.03.2016 @ 19:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The spring classics season may be about to begin but that doesn't mean that the stage racing will be completely shelved. While the one-day specialists do the first battles of the cobbles, Catalonia will be the scene of the first big fight between Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador when they test themselves against each other in this week's Volta a Catalunya. After several years of suffering, the Spanish race has become the preferred testing ground for almost all the stage race stars and the organizers could not have imagined a better turnaround as a start list featuring three of leading grand tour contenders will make it one of the most competitive stage race before July.

 

Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico play a special dual role as they both serve as the final, crucial preparation for the classics specialists and the first big test for the stage race riders. After the end of the Italian race, however, the coming month has traditionally been almost entirely about the classics, with the one-day battles in Northern Europe taking all the spotlight.

 

That doesn't mean that the grand tour riders are doing nothing these days. Several stage races - highlighted by the WorldTour races Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco - take place in the southern part of the continent over the next few weeks and even though they are partly preparation for the Ardennes classics, they are much more than that. For those of the grand tour riders that avoid the one-day races entirely, they are some of their biggest objectives in the early part of the season and usually the scene of some of the most exciting battles between the stars that will shine in the three-week races later in the year.

 

Traditionally they may have struggled a bit for attention at a time where the classics are on the minds of most fans but in the last few years the Volta a Catalunya has bucked the trend. The Spanish race has had several difficult years but is now going through its revival and the 2014 and 2015 editions are the most exciting in recent history. For the third year in a row, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome are set to face each other in their final battle before June's Criterium du Dauphiné and this year they will be up against Nairo Quintana too. In fact, almost every grand tour star apart from Mikel Landa, Rafal Majka, Alejandro Valverde, Thibaut Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali will be at the start in Catalunya. That's a fight that is just as intriguing as the one Alexander Kristoff, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Sep Vanmarcke, Niki Terpstra, and Peter Sagan will be engaged in on the Belgian cobbles and during the next week, Catalonia will be the centre of the cycling world.

 

The strong line-up marks a bit of a turnaround for the Spanish race. Held for the first time in 1911, it is actually the oldest professional race in the Iberian country and the fourth-oldest stage race in the world, only behind the Tour de France (1903), the Tour of Belgium (1908) and the Giro d'Italia (1909). Right since its early days, it has played an important role on the cycling calendar and played a big role in cycling's history. Although naturally dominated by Spanish winners, the race has always attracted the biggest international stars, and riders like Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Bernhard Thevenet, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly, Robert Millar, Claudio Chiappucci, Laurent Jalabert, and Alex Zülle join the biggest Spanish riders on the list of winners.

 

The 2000s, however, have been a difficult time for one of the most historic races on the cycling calendar. The 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 and the biggest riders were rarely even close to their best form, meaning that the race winners were a bit down in the rider hierarchy.

 

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. It has taken the place of the now defunct Setmana Catalana and later the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon which has been moved to an April date.

 

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. While the month of May is usually a training period for the grand tour riders not doing the Giro, late March and early April is typical the time for the first peak condition for the Tour de France contenders. Even though it's always hard to find the right combination of the four early WorldTour stage races, Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, Volta a Catalunya, and Vuelta al Pais Vasco, meaning that not all the biggest stars are present, the days when the race is mere Tour de France preparation are certainly over.

 

The race still finds itself in a difficult battle though. The week after Milan-Sanremo also offers high-level racing in Criterium International and Settimana Coppi e Bartali. With the former being organized by Tour organizers ASO, the teams have a special incentive to attend the French race and in 2013 the Tour start in Corsica - the new venue for the short French race - meant that most of the Tour contenders, including Froome and Contador, preferred to head to France.

 

With that incentive now gone, the Catalonian race has certainly been the big winner of the battle in recent years and the organizers can offer a start list that will be the strongest of any one-week race this year. The race has attracted the three reigning grand tour winners and one can throw in a number of other in-form stage race riders, with Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte both having finished on the podium in the recent Paris-Nice.

 

Last year's race was expected to be an exciting battle between Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde but things turned out differently. Froome came back from a bout of illness and was far from his best level. Instead, Richie Porte took over the captaincy role at Sky and he went head to head with Contador in the only uphill finish of the race, distancing the Spaniard after having been dropped earlier on the climb. Valverde crashed in stage 3 and lost time in the queen stage but started the process of getting back into contention by picking up stage wins. He won three of the seven stages but it was not enough to overhaul Porte as he was four second short in second. Domenico Pozzovivo made a rare move in a flat finale to win stage 3 and that was enough to give him third place while Contador had to settle for fourth. Porte, Pozzovivo and Contador will all be back in 2016 but Valverde will miss the race as he turns his attention to a rare cobbles campaign.

 

The course

The Volta a Catalunya has always been a mixed affair and the terrain makes it possible for the organizers to vary its toughness quite a bit. In the past, it has included short, flat prologues and mountain time trials but in the last five editions, there has been no timed event in the Catalonian race.

 

The 2008 and 2010 editions also stand out as being rather easy as they featured no big summit finish, meaning that the race was mostly decided in a pair of rolling stages. In the last few years, the race seems to have found a rather fixed format, with no time trials, one or two major summit finishes in the Pyrenees at the mid-point of the race, and several rolling stages. This has made the race one for the pure climbers and in fact it is probably the WorldTour stage race that is best suited to this group of riders. However, the summit finishes have rarely been very tough and more suited to riders with an explosive finish than the real mountain goats.

 

One thing is unavoidable: there is no incentive for the pure sprinters to travel to Catalonia. The terrain is very hilly and while not many stages take place in the high mountains, there are no completely flat stages either. Many of the stages are often decided in sprints but it requires a good set of climbing legs to still be in contention in the final dash to the line. It is no surprise that the recent editions have been a treat for riders like Gianni Meersman and Luka Mezgec and as this year's edition is very similar to the previous ones, that type of riders will again find plenty of opportunities during the 7-day race.

 

In 2013 and 2014, the race had two big summit finishes but last year only the fourth stage ventured into the high mountains. This year the race will again include two of the well-known mountaintop finishes that have been used in recent years. The remaining five stages are all rolling affairs that could suit attackers or fast riders who can win a reduced bunch sprint and where bonus seconds or crosswinds can come into play. Overall the race follows a very traditional format and is definitely harder than last year.

 

Stage 1:

For the fifth year in a row, the race kicks off on the Mediterranean coast in the city of Calella which again hosts both the start and the finish of the opening stage. Those five stages have all had different routes but the finale has been the same, meaning that the riders will know what to expect from a stage that has traditionally been suited to sprinters with good climbing legs.

 

At 175.8km, this year's first stage is shorter than last year. After a short flat section along the coast, the riders will head inland along flat roads. In the city of Angles after 55.5km f racing, the road will slowly start to point upwards. That leads to the first intermediate sprint at the 79.7km mark and moments later the riders hit the bottom of the category 2 Alt de les Guilleries (4km, 4.5%, max. 6%) whose summit comes at the 85.2km mark.

 

A short descent now leads to the category 3 climb of Alt de Viladrau  (2.7km, 5.5%, max. 7%) which also featured in last year’s stage. The riders will follow the route from 2015 during the next few kilometres. There is no real descent as the riders stay on a plateau until the hit the category 1 Alt de Coll Formic (9.3km, 5%, max. 9%) whose top comes 65.1km from the finish.

 

The climb is followed by a long descent back towards the valley road but compared to last year, there’s a small twist as the riders will go up the steep category 2 Alto del Montseny (2.7km, 6.8%, max. 9%) just 39.8km from the finish. From there they will continue the descent to reach the finale that is almost unchanged compared to the last four years, with the final intermediate sprint coming 29.6km from the line. It consists of the category 3 climb Alt de Collsacreu (3.3km, 4.7%, max. 6%) whose top comes 18.2km from the finish. Those final kilometres consist of a partly technical descent back to the coastal road where the riders turn left to head along flat roads for the final 8km back to the finish in Callella. There is a slight rise 5.5km from the finish and a few small uphill sections in the final 3km but otherwise the finale is uncomplicated. The riders turn right in a roundabout 2km from the finish and from there it is straight all the way to the finish. The roads are both slightly ascending and descending in the finale. A small descent leads to the final 500m where there’s a short little rise and then it’s slightly downhill to the finish

 

While the finale is unchanged, the first part of the stage seems to be a bit harder than it has been in the past four years, especially with addition of the steep climb of Montsany close to the finish. This may make things a bit more difficult for the sprinters but history proves that the mellow gradients of the final climb are not too tough for the fast finishers. The other big climbs all come pretty far from the finish. Last year the GC teams nearly lost the race when wrong information meant that they failed to catch a breakaway. With the sprinters uncertain about their ability to survive, the new climb in the finale, the main teams will probably have to do the majority of the work. They won’t repeat last year’s failure so a bunch sprint is the most likely outcome but the riders need to stay aware of crosswinds and of splits on the final descent.

 

In 2012, they failed to catch the early breakaway which allowed Michael Albasini to take a solo win that set him up for his final overall victory. In 2013, all was set for a bunch sprint when Sky split things on the final descent, with Bradley Wiggins, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Michele Scarponi, and Daniel Martin being some of the 13 riders that arrived 28 seconds earlier than the peloton. Gianni Meersman had made the split and the Belgian had no trouble taking the first of two stage wins in the sprint. In 2014 things were less complicated and it ended in a bunch sprint where Luka Mezgec came out on top before Maciej Paterski took a surprise breakaway win in last year’s stage where the GC teams failed to bring the strong front trio back and nearly lost the race

 

 

Stage 2:

The early part of the Volta a Catalunya is traditionally dominated by the same kind of rolling stages where a late climb is followed by a descent to the finish. In 2015, it will be more of the same as stage 2 should be a similar affair to the opening stage. In fact, the final part of the stage is completely unchanged compared to last year’s second stage and so the riders know what to expect in what should be a sprint stage

 

Like last year the 178.7km stage brings the riders from Mataro on the Mediterranean coast to a finish in Olot but the first part of the stage has been changed. After a lap of a flat 10km circuit around the starting city, the riders leave the coast to start their journey towards the finish and they will travel in a northwesterly direction for most of the day. The roads are mainly flat, with the category 3 Alt de Can Bordoi (2.4km, 6%, max. 7%) at the 26km mark being the main challenge.

 

Compared to last year, the stage has been harder as the riders will head to Girona where they will contest the first intermediate sprint at the 78.3km mark. Then they will tackle the famous category 1 climb of Aly de Els Angels (10km, 3.8%, max. 9) whose summit is located 70.2km from the finish. Then it’s back down to the flat valley road as they pass Banyoles where the final intermediate sprint comes with 37.9km to go.

 

As they get closer to Olot, the riders will hit last year’s course which finished with a circuit. With around 17km to go, the road starts to climb with a hard 2.1km section with an average gradient of 4.5% and a maximum of 7% ending 14.7km from the finish. After a short descent, the roads are gradually rising.

 

The summit comes with 6.2km to go and then there’s a short descent before the riders hit a long, mainly flat section. Inside, the final kilometre, there’s a small risen and then the final 500m are slightly descending at an average of 2%. The finale is pretty uncomplicated with just two small turns between the 2km and 1km to go marks. The final right-hand turn comes with 1300m to go and from there it is a long, straight road to the finish.

 

The profile may look pretty difficult but last year’s stage proved that the final uphill section was no big challenge and most of the sprinters made it to the finish. This year’s stage is a bit harder but the category 1 climb comes too early to make a difference. The next two days are for the GC contenders so this is an opportunity that the sprinters don’t want to miss.

 

Last year was the first time that this finish was used. The stage was held in torrential rain but this did not prevent a bunch sprint finish. Jose Joaquin Rojas did a perfect lead-out for Alejandro Valverde who picked up important bonus seconds by winning the downhill sprint, with Rojas making it a 1-2 for Movistar.

 

 

Stage 3:

The first two stages have had lots of climbs but for the GC riders, they are unlikely to have been hard enough to make a selection. The riders that are expected to battle for the overall victory will probably have to wait for Wednesday’s first mountaintop finish before making their first moves. For the third year in a row, La Molina will play host to a big summit finish in the Pyrenees and last year it largely decided the race. With another mountaintop finish coming in stage 4, it will be less decisive in 2016 but it will still be one of the two key days.

 

The stage has the same finishing climb as the two previous editions but most of the rest of the stage has been altered and the finish line has been moved slightly. Like last year, the organizers have shortened the flat section between the two final climbs to make things a bit tougher.

 

At 172.1km, it is shorter than it was 12 months ago and brings the riders from Girona to the summit of the La Molina climb. The first part of the stage is completely flat as the riders spend most of the day travelling in a northwesterly direction towards the Pyrenees. The early highlight is the first intermediate sprint which comes at the 42.4km mark. 10.2 later, the climbing hostilities start when the riders hit the category 1 Alt de Coubet (10km, 5.5%, max. 10%) after which the riders continue to climb  for a few kilometres to reach the top of the uncategorized Alt de Canes. A fast descent leads to the final intermediate sprint in Ripoll and a long, gradual uphill section.

 

With 62.1km to go, the riders will hit the bottom of the category 1 Alt de Toses (6.3km, 7%, max.10%) which is a new edition to this year’s stage. After the descent, the riders will go up to La Molina for the first time to contest a category 1 KOM sprint at the finish line (10.1km, 4.5%, max, 8%) which they will pass from the opposite direction to start the long descent to the city of Alp with 25.2km to go

 

In 2014 the riders now did a loop of a flat circuit in the valley before they returned to Alp and started the final climb. Like last year they will simply turn around immediately to head back up the road they had previously been descending to do the category 1 climb up to the finish in La Molina. The climb is 11.1km long with an average gradient of 4.5% and maximum ramps 8% but it is uphill for a little bit longer. The changes mean that the penultimate climb is located 21km closer to the finish than it was in 2014.

 

The final climb is a bit deceptive as the top actually comes with 3km to go. Then next 1000m are slightly downhill before the road again kicks up for the final 2km, with the final kilometre averaging 7%. There are several sweeping turns inside the final 1500m but the real challenge is the very sharp U-turn just 100m from the line.

 

The stage contains a lot of climbing but the Catalonian climbs are long, gradual ascents that are not very steep. Furthermore, the final climb is pretty easy as it is both short and only has a pretty easy average gradient. Overall the stage seems to be harder than it was in 2015 but it can’t change the fact that the nature of the final climb makes it more suited to punchy riders than real climbers. Nonetheless, this is a key day where the stage race specialists have to make a difference. Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador will have to make the race as hard as possible but it remains to be seen whether the final climb will be hard enough for them to drop the punchier guys.

 

In 2014 Rodriguez showed that he is perfectly suited to this climb when he first responded to Chris Froome’s many attacks before he made one of his trademark accelerations to win the stage with a 5-second advantage over Alberto Contador while Nairo Quintana followed four seconds later. However, no less than 48 riders finished within a minute of the stage winner which says a lot about the easy nature of the climb. Last year Tejay van Garderen exploited the fact that he was out of GC contention to attack from afar and while the GC riders battled for the overall win, he took the stage victory. Richie Porte had initially been dropped by Contador but fought his way back to pass the Spaniard and take second on the stage. In 2001, a Vuelta a Espana stage finished here and it was Santiago Blanco who 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.

 

 

Stage 4:

After the relatively easy course for the 2015 edition, the climbers will have a second chance to make a difference in 2016 as the race is back to the traditional format of having two consecutive mountaintop finishes. After a two-year absence, the Port Ainé climb is back on the menu and as it is a much harder climb than most of the mountains in Catalonia, there is little doubt that this is the day where the climbers will have to decide the race. 

 

The 172.2km stage brings the riders from Baga to the top of Port Ainé. The starting city is located at the foot of the Pyrenees and the hilly surroundings will be felt right from the start as the riders will go up the category 3 Tunel del Cadi (5.4km, 6%, max. 10%) straight from the gun. Before heading into the Pyrenees, they will do a small loop in a flatter part of the area and the rest of the first half of the stage is slightly descending. The highlights will be the two intermediate sprints which come in quick succession after 28km and 33.5km of racing respectively.

 

Having tackled the small loop, the riders will head west towards the Pyrenees and the climbing hostilities will start at the 84 mark. From here, there will be no room for recovery as the peloton will tackle three big mountains in quick succession with very little flat in between. The first challenge is the category HC Port de Canto Cima Peris (24.3km, max. 4.5%, max. 12%) whose descent is followed by the category 1 Alt d’Enviny (8km, 6.8%, max. 12%) whose summit comes with 35.9km to go. Then it’s another descent and a short flat section before the riders change direction to go up the final climb to Port Ainé which is of the HC category.

 

It’s 18.5km long and averages 6.8%, with a maximum of 12%. The final part is much steeper as the final 3.9k average 8.3%. There’s a harpin bend at the 2km to go mark and then it’s a winding road until the riders make a left-hand turn 50m from the line. The penultimate kilometre is steep but the road levels out a bit in the finale.

 

Stage 3 is likely to only have created minor damage so this is the day to really make the differences. Port Ainé is a very hard climb which can create much bigger gaps than we usually see in Catalonia. The final 3.9km average 8.3% and the climb is very long so this is a day for the pure climbers. Sky and Tinkoff will make the race hard in a quest to set up the first big battle between Froome, Contador and Quintana and at the end of the day we will probably know who’s going to win the Volta a Catalunya.

 

Port Ainé was last used in 2013 when Daniel Martin laid the foundations for his overall win by emerging as the strongest from a breakaway after a crash for Valverde had halted the chase. Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana were the best of the favourites, putting 11 seconds into Jurgen Van den Broeck and 15 seconds into Robert Gesink. One year earlier the stage had to be shortened and the riders never got the chance to do the final climb. Instead, Janez Brajkovic won a controversial stage where a finish line was drawn in the snow and all time gaps wee neutralized.

 

 

Stage 5:

After the big battle between the GC riders in the Pyrenees, it is back into flatter terrain as the riders leave the high mountains to head back towards the coast and the traditional finish in Valls that is back on course for the fourth year in a row. The battle for the GC is likely to have been largely decided but the riders will have to be attentive on a stage that has been marked by strong winds in the past and which is well-known as the finale has been used numerous times.

 

The 187.2km stage starts in the city of Rialp at the foot of the Pyrenees and the stage is a bit of a transitional stage that will see the riders ride in a southerly direction all day as they start their journey back towards the coast. Unlike in the previous stage, the riders won’t venture into the high mountains. Instead, they will travel along gradual descending roads until they hit the bottom of the category 2 Port d’Ager (9.6km, 5%, max. 8%) after 64.8km of racing. The first intermediate sprint comes halways up the climb att the 68.4km mark.

 

After the descent, the riders will hit slightly ascending roads while contesting the final intermediate sprint with 64.5km to go. The road gradually gets steeper until they hit the top of an uncategorized climb with 34km to go. Then a short descent leads to the final challenge, the category 2 Alt de Lilla (4.1km, 4.8%, max. 7%) which is a nasty little sting in the tail after a very long day in the saddle.

 

From the top, only 10.6km remain and they are almost all downhill, with the riders reaching the bottom just 2.5km from the line. However, the downhill is mostly on a long straight road that doesn't offer any real technical difficulties and it will be much easier for the peloton than for any escapees to keep a high pace in this section.

 

The stage ends on flat roads but the finish is a bit technical. 1.5km from the line, the riders turn left in a roundabout and 300m they go straight through another. Then they turn right in another one 400m down the road. It is immediately followed by a right-hand turn that leads to the final 90-degree left-hand turn just 600m from the line and the riders will even have to go straight through a roundabout just 100m from the finish. The road is slightly rising in the penultimate kilometre and then descends for the next 500m. The final 500m are ascending at an average gradient of 1%.

 

With the stage having featured on the course theree years in a row, everybody knows what to expect from this stage. The final climb is one of the final chances for the GC riders to try to make a difference and history proves that they have often tested each other. However, the final climb is not hard enough to make a difference and two of the past editions of this stage have both ended in reduced bunch sprints. However, strong crosswinds split the field in last year’s race so it could potentially be a dangerous day for the GC riders. As bigger time gaps have opened up, it could also be a day for a breakaway as many sprinters are uncertain about their ability to make it over the final climb. In 2014, the many attacks made for some very fast racing and it the riders had passed the halfway point before a break finally went clear. This year we can expect similarly aggressive racing and it should be a very fast stage on slightly descending roads.

 

Last year, the windy conditions split the field as they approached the final climb and it was a small group with most of the GC contenders that emerged, with Dan Martin being the notable absentee. With a number teammates to drive the group, they stayed away before Alejandro Valverde made a surprise attack to ride to a solo win. In 2014, a little less than 100 riders arrived at the finish and it was Luka Mezgec who beat Julian Alaphilippe and Samuel Dumoulin in the sprint. In 2013 Simon Gerrans won the stage he had targeted by beating Gianni Meersman in the sprint.

 

 

Stage 6:

The GC riders who lost out in the queen stage are all hoping that they may be able to create a surprise in the hilly final stage but first they have to get through the penultimate stage. On paper it has the easiest finale of all stages and even though it includes a climb along the way, it should allow the sprinters a final chance to shine.

 

The stage brings the riders over 197.2km from Sant Joan Desp to Vilanova i La Geltru. The riders are back at the Mediterranean coast for the start and the first part of the stage consists of a westerly run along the coastal road. It is mainly flat and only includes the small category 3 Alt de la Maladona (5.2km, 3%, max. 7%) at the 21.6km mark. The first intermediate sprint comes after 10km of racing and offers some early bonus seconds.

 

Before reaching the finishing city, the riders will head inlands along flat roads before contesting the final intermediate sprint after km of racing just before the feed zone. Then it’s another flat section until the riders hit the main challenge, the category 2 Alt de les Ventoses (7.5km, 6.7%, max. 9%) whose summit is located with 80.7km to go. From there, the riders do a small loop along rolling roads before they head into mainly descending terrain as they get back towards the coast where the finish is located at the seafront. There’s a small little rise inside the final 10km which are otherwise almost completely flat. The penultimate kilometre is slightly descending and the final kilometre is flat. The finale is not complicated as the final turn comes with more than 2km to go and from there the road only bends slightly to the right.

 

On paper, this is likely to be a day for the sprinters but at this late point in a stage race, a breakaway always has a chance. In both 2014 and 2015, the easiest stage also came on the penultimate day and on both occasions, the sprint teams failed to catch the breakaway, with Stef Clement soloing clear to take a surprise win and Sergey Chernetskii winning a sprint from a small group. A similar scenario could play out in 2016 but the most likely outcome is a final bunch sprint. The final climb is hard but it comes way too far from the finish to make a difference At the same time, the GC riders have to be attentive in case of some crosswind action.

 

Vilanova i La Geltru last featured on the course in 2014 when Stef Clement rode to a solo win from a breakaway. In 2000, Erik Zabel won a bunch sprint and Mario Cipollini was the fastest in 1999. The city hosted a stage finish of the 2010 Vuelta a Espana where Imanol Erviti emerged as the strongest from a breakaway.

 

 

Stage 7:

In 2013 the race ended with a stage in Barcelona that included several laps of a circuit with the famous Montjuic climb and it produced some very exciting racing as Michele Scarponi used the ascent to attack and move himself up into 3rd on the final day of racing. The organizers were so pleased with that stage that they again used the very same circuit in the Catalonian capital for the 2014 and 2015 editions and it will be back on the course for the 2016 race too.

 

The final day sees the riders tackle a short 136.4km stage and like last year, the race will both start and finish in Barcelona. In fact, the stage is very similar to last year’s and only has been modified in the early part which is a bit harder than usual. From the start at the L'Hospitalet de Llobregat on the western outskirts of the city, the riders head along flat roads in a northwesterly direction as they contest the first intermediate sprint already at the 8.3km mark before they tackle the category 2 Alt de l’Ullsatrell (7km, 3.5%, max. 8%) whose top comes at the 27km mark and is the northernmost point of the race.

 

At the summit, the riders will turn around and head along flat roads to the bottom of the category 3 Alt de Corbera (3.9km, 4.7%, max. 8%) whose summit comes at the 42km mark. From there, they will follow flat roads back to the centre Barcelona, contesting the first intermediate sprint at the 84.6km mark. They will reach the start-finish area after 75.4km of racing.

 

The race ends with 8 laps of the 6.4km finishing circuit in the Montjuic park and it is a tricky affair. From the line, it goes almost straight up the category 3 Alt Montjuic (2km, 5.7%, max. 8%) that is well-known for most bike riders. At the top, 4km remain to get back to the line and they are almost entirely downhill. The descent is not overly technical and follows a winding road. The riders will turn left in a roundabout with 2km to go and go straight through a roundabout around the flamme rouge and then the road only has some sweeping turns as it continues its way back down to the finish. The final 2km are descending at an average of 3%.

 

The Montjuic is an iconic climb in cycling. In 2009, Thor Hushovd won a tough uphill sprint on its slopes in the Tour de France while the climb last featured in a grand tour in the 2012 Vuelta. On that occasion, Philippe Gilbert and Joaquim Rodriguez escaped and held the peloton at bay on the descent, with Gilbert taking an easy sprint win, his first victory for BMC.

 

When the final stage finished on the same circuit in 2013, Thomas De Gendt and David Lopez attacked 22km from the finish to join the early breakaway and after dropping their companions, they were joined from behind by Michele Scarponi and Robert Kiserlovski. With Scarponi riding for GC, the quartet stayed away to the finish where De Gendt won the sprint to take his only victory of 2013 while Scarponi moved up to 3rd on GC. Behind, a 57-rider group sprinted for the minor placings. Joaquim Rodriguez tried to attack overall leader Dan Martin on the final laps but the climb was not hard enough to make a difference.

 

In 2014, the stage was held in rainy conditions and the organizers had to change the circuit to avoid the most difficult parts of the descent. Alberto Contador tried to attack overall leader Joaquim Rodriguez which turned out to be impossible. Meanwhile, the early breakaway managed to stay away and it was a strong Lieuwe Westra who dropped his companions and soloed away to a big win. Last year Alejandro Valverde had one final chance to take the overall victory but he quickly realized that it would be impossible to drop Richie Porte. Hence, he waited for the reduced bunch sprint which he won by beating Bryan Coquard in a close battle to move onto the podium by picking up bonus seconds.

 

This sets the scene for what we can expect from this year's final stage. It is the final chance for the GC riders and so if the gaps are small, they simply have to try a move on a circuit that is pretty hard to control. However, Montjuic is usually not hard enough to make a difference among the best climbers and it will be hard for anyone to repeat Scarponi’s coup from two years ago. The circuit is tailor-made for attacks and we should witness a very aggressive race. With no obvious favourite for the stage, an early breakaway has a good chance in this kind of stage but it could also come down to a sprint from a small group or a late attack on the finishing circuits could pay off.

 

 

The weather

The riders had terrible conditions for the second part of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and they will be hopeful to get some sunshine in Catalonia. For the organizers, it will be important as well as it is risky business to send the riders up to more than 1725m of altitude at this early time of the year. Three years ago the queen stage was held under tumultuous circumstances, with the finish line being relocated midway through the race and all time gaps being neutralized, and everybody will be hopeful to avoid a repeat scenario. Last year the final mountain stage was held in foggy conditions that made it impossible to produce live images from the race.

 

Unfortunately, the riders will probably have to tackle some rain in the first part of the race. Monday is set to be wet day on the Mediterranean coast and this could make the final descent even trickier. More rain is in store for Tuesday’s stage but it should be a less wet day than the opener.

 

Luckily things are set to improve for the final half of the race. Wednesday is forecasted to be cloudy but at the moment there is no rain on the horizon. Even more important, Thursday will be a beautiful sunny day in the Pyrenees and the only slight annoyance is the fact that it will be pretty cold. This means that the queen stage doesn’t seem to be in danger and hopefully we will get love images from the race. The beautiful weather is expected to continue for the final three stages but of course these are still early days and a lot can change before we get to the end of the race.

 

The favourites

The Volta a Catalunya may have struggled for attention but those days are now over. Even though the Belgian classics season will get underway at the same time, there is no doubt that the formidable line-up in Spain means that the cycling world will be just as focused on Catalonia as they will be on the Flemish heartland. Vincenzo Nibali may not be in attendance but with Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Fabio Aru on the start line, the scene is set for a huge battle in the most hotly contested stage races before the Giro d’Italia.

 

Last year the climbers were left disappointed as the easy course didn’t leave the much room to prove their climbing skills. They will be much more comfortable with this year’s route which will leave no room for surprises. While stage 3 is a stage for punchier riders, the climb of Port Ainé is so tough that only the strongest will come to the fire. This is a real mountaintop finish and will go a long way in determining the overall. Differences will also be made in stage 3 but they will be much smaller.

 

Bonus seconds can also come into play. Keeping with Spanish tradition, the race didn’t have bonus seconds for several years but they were introduced for the 2014 race. This year there will again be 3, 2 and 1 seconds in the intermediate sprints and 10, 6 and 4 seconds at the finish line.

 

Apart from the two summit finishes, only the crosswind can really change the scenario. Last year the windy conditions cost Daniel Martin a top result and riders will have to be vigilant throughout most of the stages. In the past, the descent on stage 1 has split things but that is unlikely to happen again. Stage 7 is hard but history shows that it is not difficult enough to change things. Hence, it will all be decided by a combination of the two summit finishes and bonus seconds, with the crosswinds always looming as a danger on the exposed roads in Catalonia.

 

With the race set to be decided by the climbers, the grand tour stars will battle for the overall win in Catalonia. The greatest star in that category is of course Chris Froome who has some unfinished business with this race. In both 2014 and 2015, he arrived in Spain on the back of a recent bout of illness that had cost him the chance to ride Tirreno-Adriatico. Hence, he has never been at his best in this race. He was solid in 2014 where he finished in the top 10 but last year ended as a real disaster as he finished 71st, his worst performance in a stage race for years.

 

In 2016, he has finally had a smooth build-up to the race and there is no reason to suggest that he won’t be firing on all cylinders. It will be our first chance to really gauge him this season as he has only done the Herald Sun Tour which was way too easy for him. The level was too low to offer him many challenges and he easily won the race. Since then he has been training in South African so he arrives at the race with less racing rhythm than most of his rivals. However, Froome has always proved that he is able to reach great condition in training and he has always been very strong right from the start of the year. Furthermore, he has won the Criterium du Dauphiné on the back of a training block on two occasions.

 

There is no doubt that Sky will go all out for the win in this race and this is reflected in the line-up. The roster is very close to being the A team and Froome can rely on in-form climbers like Geraint Thomas, Wout Poels and Mikel Nieve to make the races hard. That’s exactly what he will try to do and we can expect the British team to spend most of the race on the front.

 

In the end, it will be up to Froome to win the race on the climbs. He has proved on numerous occasions that he is the best climber in the world and he has really only been beatable in the final part of grand tours when he has had an incident-free build-up. That’s the case for this year’s race and even though he is not in Tour de France condition, he will be hard to on Port Ainé. La Molina suits him less but he is more explosive than key rivals Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana so in the battle for overall victory, that relatively easy finale should be in favour of the Brit. If he can pick up a few bonus seconds there, we expect him to be his usual strong self in the queen stage and finally take the overall win in Catalonia.

 

Alberto Contador stands out as his biggest rival. The Spaniard has done nothing to hide that he is really fired up for his final pro season and he aims at going out with a bang. Everyone knows that Contador can make sacrifices like no other and there is little doubt that he has done everything right during the winter. That has been evident in the first races. He had a surprising bad day in Algarve but then went on to crush the opposition on the Alto do Malhao. In Paris-Nice he was clearly the best climber but La Madone d’Utelle was simply too easy for him. If it hadn’t been for the cancellation of stage 3, there is little doubt that he would have taken the overall win comfortably.

 

After Paris-Nice, Contador told Cadena Ser that he was very pleased with his feelings and felt like this year could be like 2014 when he felt better than ever and completely dominated the spring. If that assessment is true, he will be very strong in Catalonia whose course suits him a lot better than Paris-Nice. He probably lacks the punch to challenge Froome in La Molina but on a real climb like Port Ainé he has a chance. Until now, he has never been able to beat Froome when the Brit has been at 100% but that’s not the case yet. While Froome will be uncertain about his form, we know that Contador is riding at a high level. Based on his performance in Paris-Nice, Contador will be ready to strike if Froome shows the slightest sign of weakness.

 

Like Froome, Nairo Quintana is making an unusually late debut in Europe. He rode in San Luis in January and did the Colombian Championships in February but apart from that he has just been training in his home country. However, he has proved several times that he can get into top condition by having that approach and he has done nothing to hide that he is aiming for victory in Catalonia.

 

Quintana is less punchy than both Contador and Froome so he will probably have a hard time in La Molina but it will mostly be decided on Port Ainé. That’s a long climb at altitude which is perfect for Quintana. Like Froome, he misses some racing rhythm and he will be less certain about his form but there is no doubt that he will be at a high level. However, compared to his two key rivals, there is usually a bigger difference between his Tour de France and spring level and he has never been firing on all cylinders at this time of the year. That puts him into third place on our list of favourites.

 

Fabio Aru decided to skip Paris-Nice to avoid a heavy racing burden ahead of his big objectives. He hasn’t raced since Volta ao Algarve where he surprised himself by being stronger than expected. He was second in the queen stage behind Contador and in general he has been much better than usual in the early part of the year. That confirms his steady progression and we can expect him to be even better in 2016.

 

Aru hasn’t had great results in March in the past but that will probably be different this time around. With a focus on the Tour de France, he can allow himself to reach a first peak now and this is likely to be evident in Catalonia. The big mountaintop finish suits him really well and with no time trial, it’s a great course for him. Until now, he has not been able to match the real elite on the climbs but it may only be a matter of time. This race could be the first time where he really challenges Chris Froome in a summit finish.

 

Richie Porte goes into the race as defending champion. The Australian was pleasantly surprised by his result in Paris-Nice where he finished third overall. He had gone into the race on the back of illness and injuries and is deliberately aiming for a slower start. His good result speaks volumes about his talent and with another week of racing in his legs, he should be even stronger in Catalonia.

 

Porte has proved that he can match almost everybody when he is at 100% of his capabilities. We still think that he would have won last year’s Giro if it hadn’t been for his bad luck. In that race he matched Contador pedal stroke for pedal stroke in the first week. He was not far off the pace in Paris-Nice and he will be closer to the best here. To win the race, he probably needs to be at 100% which is definitely not the case yet but it won’t be impossible for him to defend his title.

 

Ilnur Zakarin had an amazing debut season but after his poor autumn, people were starting to question whether it was a fluke. That was definitely not the case as he proved by winning the queen stage in Paris-Nice and he goes into this race in great condition. At last year’s Tour de Romandie, he proved that he doesn’t have to fear anyone in a big summit finish and he will have the benefit of being less of a marked man. If the tactical battle evolves between the biggest favourites, Zakarin could be the man to benefit by sneaking away in the finale. He did so in Romandie and could do so again here.

 

Joaquim Rodriguez hasn’t shown much form until now but that’s no surprise. He has never been good in the first months of the year and then he has always come out with all guns blazing at the Volta a Catalunya. That was the case in this race in 2014. Back then, he was off the pace in Tirreno-Adriatico but he went on to beat both Froome and Contador in his home race.

 

We didn’t get the chance to see what he could do on the climbs in Tirreno where he was involved in some crashes that took him out of contention for the harder stages. Hence, nobody knows how he is going. At last year’s Vuelta, he proved that he still has what it takes and if he is at 100%, he will be the favourite to win in La Molina where it is more about punch than climbing skills. Port Ainé may be too hard for him in this top level field but you should never bet against Rodriguez in Catalonia.

 

For the first time, Porte will share leadership with Tejay van Garderen who was so hugely disappointed with the cancellation of the Tirreno-Adriatico queen stage. He never got the chance to test his climbing legs in Italy and will be even more motivated here. He has improved his climbing massively in the last two years and last year he even managed to beat Froome in a mountaintop finish at the Dauphiné. He is always very good at the start of the year and confirmed his form with his solid showing in Andalusia. It would be unwise to base too much on his poor time trial in Italy as he has lost all motivation after dropping out of GC contention due to a mechanical. He is probably not climbing well enough to win but he should be able to confirm his huge progress.

 

Aru is the clear Astana leader but the team has a two-pronged attack. Miguel Angel Lopez is knocking on the door for a big WorldTour win in Europe. Last year he finished in the top 10 at his first ever WorldTour race, the Tour de Suisse, and he beat several stars in a tough stage at the Vuelta a Burgos. This year he has already taken queen stage wins in both San Luis and Langkawi where he proved his class by winning a stage that should have been way too easy for a climber like him. The form is obviously there and this could be the race that finally unveils his huge talent to a wider audience.

 

Romain Bardet gradually gets stronger and strong which he confirmed with his great ride in Oman where he nearly matched Nibali on the Green Mountain. He had a harder time in Paris-Nice but that was no surprise as the easy climbs didn’t suit him. Now he sets his sights on Catalonia and the course here could hardly be better for him. Of course La Molina is too punchy for him but Port Ainé is a climb to his liking. He should be much better than he was in Catalonia. His level is not good enough to win but he should be a key contender.

 

Daniel Martin is a former winner of this race which is dear to his heart. It has always been the first place for him to show some kind of form. Admittedly, his win in 2013 was more based on luck than pure strength but he is always at a reasonable level here. This year he has had a better start than usual and the move to Etixx-QuickStep seems to have served him well. He will be one of the favourites for La Molina but Port Ainé is probably a bit too much of a real climb for him to win the race.

 

Esteban Chaves has the potential to win this kind of race. Last year’s Vuelta showed how much he will be capable of in the future. However, he is not at his best yet as he is building form for the Giro and this has been evident in his first races. Nonetheless, he was at a reasonable level in Tirreno and there is little doubt that he will be much stronger here. He is probably not in a condition to be a real contender but with a huge talent like Chaves you never know. In any case he has the skills to do well in both a puncheur finish and a big mountaintop finish.

 

Domenico Pozzovivo was third in 2015 and this is a race that suits him really well. Unfortunately, he has not been at his best level since he crashed in the Giro and it remains to be seen whether he can return to his best. Things were looking promising in Oman but then he faded in the queen stage. He was poorly positioned in stage 2 in Tirreno and so dropped out of GC contention. This is a small sign that he is still not at his best as he had overcome those weaknesses before his crash. However, we didn’t really have the chance to show what he can do on a real climb so he is one of the big question marks for this race.

 

Robert Gesink has had many difficult seasons but he is now back on track. In the Tour de France, he was the best of the rest behind the former grand tour winners and this year he could be even stronger. He is aiming for a slower start and had no real expectations for Algarve where he surprised himself by already being competitive. This race is first big goal of the year and based on his performances during the last 12 months, we can expect him to improve even further in 2016. He is probably not good enough to win but a top 5 is within his reach.

 

Finally, Michael Woods deserves a mention. The Canadian is the big joker for this race. He had an amazing WorldTour debut at the Tour Down Under where only Porte and Sergio Henao were climbing better than him. Last year he was able to match the best in Algarve and Utah so he has proved that he has a huge potential. Of course his race is at another level and he won’t win the race. On the other hand, he started his cycling career late after having been a runner in the past so there is so much room for improvement than nobody really knows how far he can get.

 

OBS: The weather has often been bad in Catalonia and the queen stage was partly cancelled in 2012. At the time of writing, the weather forecast for the mountain stages is good but much can change. This preview is based on the assumption that everything will go on as planned.

 

***** Chris Froome

**** Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana

*** Fabio Aru, Richie Porte, Ilnur Zakarin, Joaquim Rodriguez, Tejay van Garderen

** Miguel Angel Lopez, Romain Bardet, Daniel Martin, Esteban Chaves, Domenico Pozzovivo, Robert Gesink, Michael Woods

* Daniel Navarro, Davide Formolo, Geraint Thomas, Rigoberto Uran, Rein Taaramae, Primoz Roglic, Wilco Kelderman, Igor Anton, Merhawi Kudus

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