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Will Nacer Bouhanni get his revenge after Saturday's disappointment in the Catalonian opener?

Photo: A.S.O.




20.03.2016 @ 19:02 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

An almost all inclusive list of grand tour stars will be ready to battle it out in the Volta a Catalunya but they will have to bide their time for a little while before they get the chance to test themselves. For the fifth year in a row, the first stage will have the same finale and while the strong sprinters all hope to survive the many climb on the course, it will be all about staying safe and not losing everything for the GC riders.


The course

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 of 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 will 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


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.




The weather

There are no guarantees that the riders will have good weather in Catalonia where they have often faced rainy and even snowy conditions. However, this week seems to be great and it will definitely get off to a nice start. Monday will be relatively cloudy, especially in the afternoon but the temperature will be a pleasant 16 degrees and there will only be a 15% chance of rain.


The wind has often played a role in Catalonia. On Monday, there will be a moderate wind from an easterly direction. This means that it will be a headwind in the first part before the riders hit a long crosswind section. It will be tailwind on the first two calimbs and then a cross-headwind until the riders hit the coast and the headwind with 8km to go. It will be a cross-headwind sprint.


The favourites

The first stage of a stage race can always be a bit tricky. There is no GC hierarchy yet and so there is no leading team with the responsibility to control things. However, the first stage of the Volta a Catalunya has always been even stranger as a breakaway has made it to the finish twice. In 2012, it was Michael Albasini who rode to a solo victory and when the queen stage was neutralized, he suddenly ended up as a hugely surprising winner. Last year the peloton was apparently given wrong time checks and this allowed Pierre Rolland and Bart De Clercq to get a head start that nearly cost the favourites the chance to fight for the overall win. Both stages had the same finale in Calella that will be used for this year’s opener.


It is no surprise that things are trickier than usual in Catalonia. In most races, the first stage is flat and this means that the sprint teams take control. However, the opening stage in Catalonia is much harder to predict. The late climbs mean that the sprinters rarely ask their teams to chase as they don’t know whether they will survive. With no obvious favourite, the break can suddenly get a big gap as no one feels any responsibility to chase.


This year the stage has been made even harder, especially with addition of the steep climb of Montsany close to the finish. This may make things a bit more difficult for the sprinters and makes it less likely that they will ask their teams to control things. Nonetheless, we are very likely to see a repeat of last year’s scenario. Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador are here to win the race and they will definitely remember last year’s disaster. Hence, they will take the responsibility to make sure that the early break doesn’t make it to the finish.


That doesn’t mean that there will be any lack of trying. Given the history of the stage, many riders will be keen to join the break so we should have a fast start. When the break gets clear, the three major teams will control things. At the same time, there will be a crosswind in the early part and this means that things will be nervous. The wind is probably not strong enough to split things, especially not this early in the race, but everybody has to be attentive.


The only sprint team that could probably lend the major teams a hand as we approach the finale, is Cofidis. Nacer Bouhanni is never afraid of asking his team to work, even in stages that could seem to be too hard for him. He will be extra motivated after the Milan-Sanremo disappointment but apart from the French teams, we don’t expect any sprint teams to come to the fore.


In the end, the break is likely to be brought back and then it will be a matter of survival for the sprinters. History proves that the mellow gradients of the final climb are not too tough for the fast finishers, especially not this year when there will be a cross-headwind. The real challenge will be the Montsany climb which is so steep that it can really challenge the fast riders. However, it is hard to see that anyone has an interest in making things hard. Most of the sprinters will have some doubts so they won’t go full gas. Philippe Gilbert may fancy his chances but he has just come back from illness and BMC are here for the GC.


They key to the stage is Orica-GreenEDGE. Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey want to get rid of the sprinters and their best chance comes on that climb. If the Australians go hard here, it will be too much for most of the fast guys and it will be more selective than usual. Otherwise, most of the sprinters will be there in the finale.


On the final climb, we can expect Sky to set a fast pace. Everybody remembers how things split on the descent in 2013 so they all want to be in a good position. When that’s the case, Sky always come to the fore but the climb won’t be a big challenge for the sprinters here who are all great climbers.


In the end, we should have a sprint finish and the main question is which riders will have made the selection. There is no doubt that Nacer Bouhanni is the fastest rider in this race and the Frenchman is in outstanding condition. He was already climbing well in Paris-Nice and he was never in difficulty in Milan-Sanremo where he always stayed near the front.


There is no doubt that Bouhanni will be able to survive the final climb and the big challenge will be the penultimate ascent. While he often suffers on longer climbs, he is very strong on shorter ones and this one is not too long. They will have to go really fast to get rid of the in-form Frenchman.


Much will depend on Bouhanni’s motivation. He considered skipping the race after his huge disappointment in Sanremo where he had a chain problem just as he launched his sprint. However, history shows that Bouhanni is at his best when he is angry and the rage is likely to fire him up. He doesn’t have the best train here and there are no guarantees that Geoffrey Soupe and Borut Bozic will be there to support him. However, he is great at positioning himself and doesn’t need much assistance. If he’s there in the finale, Bouhanni will be very hard to beat.


Orica-GreenEDGE are aiming for stage wins with Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey and both could be given their chance in this stage. They are both very fast at the end of a hard race and have won this kind of bunch sprints in the past – Gerrans in Catalonia and Pais Vasco and Impey in Pais Vasco. Gerrans has only done one day of racing since the Tour Down Under so he may need a few days to get into the rhythm. Hence, we expect the team to be riding for Impey in tomorrow’s stage. If they go full gas on the penultimate climb, they will get rid of many fast guys. At the same time, they will have a great lead-out as the pair will support each other. That could make all the difference and both have a big chance to win this stage.


It is no secret that Ben Swift is much more than a sprinter but he has still surprised most with the way he has been climbing this year. He sent climbers out the back door in Paris-Nice and there is no doubt that he will be able to survive the climbs in this stage. Most recently, he showed his good form by sprinting to second in Sanremo.


However, Sky are fully focused on Chris Froome so there won’t be any support for Swift. Furthermore, he is usually not fast enough to win this kind of sprint. On the other hand, his form is simply excellent and if the race becomes really selective, he could very well be the fastest survivor.


Gianni Meersman has a great history in this race where he dominated the sprints in 2013. However, he has been riding poorly in both 2015 and 2016. He showed some kind of form by taking third in Handzame Classic but two days earlier he was off the pace in Nokere. He is clearly not in his best form and so this stage could be too hard for him. On the other hand, this is the kind of stage that he usually likes and he claims to be satisfied with his progress. He is one of the fastest here and with Julian Alaphilippe and Petr Vakoc, he has a good lead-out. Those two riders will take their chance if Meersman is dropped.


Lampre-Merida are here with Davide Cimolai who likes these hilly stages. He wasn’t very strong in Paris-Nice but he got better and better and finally took a fine fourth place in the Mont Ventoux stage. A crash took him out of contention in Sanremo so we didn’t get the chance to gauge his form. He doesn’t have much of a lead-out and even though he is one of the fastest here, the lack of support could be costly.


Jonas Van Genechten is no longer as fast as he once was. Instead, he is climbing better and better and we have been impressed with his climbing skills this year. It will be touch-and-go whether he makes it to the finish in this stage but if he does, he should be one of the fastest and he will have Martin Elmiger for the lead-out.


Tosh van der Sande is always a contender in the sprints in this race. Last autumn he even improved his sprint significantly and did very well at the Vuelta. He has been riding well in the Belgian races so his form is good and he is one of the best climbers among the fast finishers. Unfortunately, he is probably not fast enough to win.


This is the kind of race that Alexey Tsatevich likes and this year he will skip the first cobbled races to target stage wins here. He has been riding strongly all year and proved his speed by taking second in the Clasica de Almeria. However, there won’t be much support from a Katusha team loaded with climbers and he is usually not fast enough to win a flat sprint.


Trek are here with Kiel Reijnen who has dominated the sprints in these hilly races in the US. Now he will try to make use of those skills in Europe. However, he has been riding pretty poorly in his first races for Trek and he has not shown much form. He looked better in Strade Bianche though and this is a sign that he could be up there.


On paper, Nikias Arndt is one of the best sprinters in this race but we doubt that he will be there in the finale. The German has just come back from injury and even though he was better than expected in Tirreno, he was not good enough to be a contender in the sprints. This means that this will probably be too hard for him. On the other hand, he is a very good climber so as his form comes along, he could be a contender.


Carlos Barbero has had a mixed start to the year as he crashed in the Etoile de Besseges. He was off the pace when he last raced in February but he claims to be in good form. He is fast in a sprint and a decent climber but he probably needs an uphill sprint to win.


This race will be a big test for FDJ sprinter Lorrenzo Manzin. He has proved that he can win sprints at a high level but this stage is likely to be too hard for him. However, if he is there, he will have Kevin Reza for the lead-out and will be a contender. If not, Reza will take his own chance.


Finally, Philippe Gilbert deserves a mention. This would usually be a good stage for him but as he is coming back from illness, we doubt that he will mix it up in the sprint. On the other hand, he has a competitive mindset and if the race becomes really hard and a small field arrives, he may give it a go. To win, the race has to be selective but if it is, he will have a chance.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Nacer Bouhanni

Other winner candidates: Daryl Impey, Simon Gerrans

Outsiders: Ben Swift, Gianni Meersman, Davide Cimolai, Jonas Van Genechten

Jokers: Alexey Tsatevich, Tosh van der Sande, Kiel Reijnen, Nikias Arndt, Carlos Barbero, Lorrenzo Manzin, Philippe Gilbert



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