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Who'll win the highly anticipated queen stage of the Volta a Catalunya?

Photo: A.S.O.

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VOLTA A CATALUNYA

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23.03.2016 @ 20:05 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

La Molina lived up to its reputations as a climb that is too easy to make a big difference and so Dan Martin made use of his puncheur skills to continue his revival at Etixx-QuickStep. However, he faces a tough challenge in tomorrow’s queen stage where the much harder climb of the Port Ainé will offer the real climbers a chance to put the punchy Irishman under pressure on a day that is likely to decide the overall winner of the race.

 

The course

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 at 9% but the road levels out a bit in the finaleas the final kilometre averages 5.4%. There’s an 11% section just before the flamme rouge and a 10% inside the final kilometre

 

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 were neutralized, meaning that the climbers suddenly had no chance from taking back time from surprise winner Michael Albasini who was expected to be no overall threat.

 

 

 

 

The weather

Dan Martin would probably hope for a repeat of the 2012 scenario when this stage was cancelled as it would virtually secure him the overall win. However, there is no risk of a cancellation this time as Thursday will be another day with beautiful sunshine and a maximum temperature of 15 degrees at the bottom of the final climb.

 

It will be less windy, with a moderate wind blowing from a northerly direction. This means that the riders will first have a headwind but then it will be a crosswind for most of the day until they reach the summit of the penultimate climb. It will be a headwind on the descent and a crosswind on the lower slopes of the final climb. In the finale, it will mainly be a tailwind.

 

The favourites

As expected, La Molina failed to create big time differences but it gave the first answers about the condition of the key contenders. There’s a vast difference between today’s explosive finish and tomorrow’s longer mountain but today’s stage still allows us to draw certain conclusions.

 

Most notably, it was a very bad day for Sky. The team did everything to set up their three leaders but none of them had anything left in the end. Wout Poels hit out early and then it was left to Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas to try to finish it off. The latter is clearly no longer at his Paris-Nice level as this climb was actually really good for him. The Tour de France champion should also have been much stronger even though the climb was too easy for him. When he is at 100%, he is strong even in punchy finales but today he only drifted backwards when the pace went up.

 

Furthermore, it is evident that Alberto Contador has a good reason to claim that he is feeling as good as he did in his fantastic 2014 season. This kind didn’t suit him at all but he still managed to beat much more explosive riders. This puts him in a great position – especially because he claims to have had a relatively bad day. Nairo Quintana also looked strong in a finish that didn’t really suit him while we can completely write off Joaquim Rodriguez and Fabio Aru. The former has had a complicated build-up and when he fails to be up there in a puncheur finish, he will be nowhere near the best on a longer climb.

 

The big winner is of course Daniel Martin who is back on track after he joined Etixx-QuickStep. He now finds himself in pole position and he has fond memories of tomorrow’s stage. When it was last used in 2013, he laid the foundations for his overall win by taking the win here. However, back then he did so by joining the early break and if Alejandro Valverde had not gone down in a crash which prompted Movistar to stop the chase, he would never have won that stage.

 

Tomorrow he will have to beat the best climbers in a head-to-head battle and that won’t be easy. Today’s stage suited him down to the ground but tomorrow is a day for the pure climbers. Overall it is not a very hard climb as it has several relatively easy sections but there are some steep sections in the finale. Furthermore, it’s a very long climb and this means that it is much more suited to the real grand tour stars.

 

With the riders starting with a tough climb, it will be a brutal start and we could very well see a very strong group of climbers get clear after what will be a fast and aggressive start. Then it will be left to Etixx-QuickStep to set the pace and they will probably be pleased to see the break stay away. If there are no dangerous riders in the break, they will leave it to others to bring them back. However, the break will have little chance as Movistar and Tinkoff both want to win the stage. None of them have their best teams here but the Spanish team should at least be strong enough to bring the break back. Furthermore, Sky are never ready to throw in the towel so we may again see the Brits doing most of the pace-setting in the finale.

 

This means that the stage will come down to a battle on the final climb. Tinkoff want to make it hard but they don’t have the team to do so as only Yury Trofimov who is still far from his best condition, should be able to stay with Contador just for a reasonable part of the climb. Movistar have a solid Winner Anacona but with the loss of Ruben Fernandez, Quintana could also be isolated pretty early.

 

The key to the stage are again Sky. It will be very interesting to see how they approach the stage. Will they ride tempo to set Froome up in his usual fashion or will they use their strength in numbers by launching Wout Poels and Geraint Thomas off the front? If Froome doesn’t feel confident that he can win a battle with the best, they will probably opt for an offensive strategy. That will put other teams under pressure but BMC, Katusha, Ag2r and Cannondale all have strong teams that will be able to help keep things under control.

 

Today Alberto Contador was the strongest of the pre-race favourites and this puts him in pole position to win tomorrow’s stage. The final climb suits him much better and we doubt that Dan Martin will do as well as he did today. In fact, it’s a sign of strength that Contador did so well in today’s punchy finale and fully confirms his own claims that he is very strong at the moment. He still speaks about the cold he suffered after Paris-Nice but it seems to be just one of Contador’s usual mind games. Just remember how he was in no condition to go for the win in the 2014 Vuelta a Espana which he ended up winning… Unlike his main rivals, Contador has a lot of racing in his legs and we doubt that anyone will be able to match the in-form Spaniard on a climb that suits him well. He may have to rely on other teams to control the stage but we expect him to take full advantage by winning the stage.

 

Nairo Quintana is making is return to competition in this race and he looked very strong in today’s stage. He made some stinging attacks but probably hit out a bit too early. He usually lacks the punch to do well in these finale so for him to do so well here is a sign of form. It is definitely no coincidence that he has set an optimistic tone after today’s stage. Tomorrow’s long climb is much better for him. When he returned to Europe in 2015, he beat everybody on the Monte Terminillo at Tirreno-Adriatico and we won’t be surprised if he does so again tomorrow.

 

Chris Froome was not at his best in today’s stage but it is still too early to write the Brit off. He hasn’t raced for more than a month and he should improve rapidly. Last year he was off the pace in the first mountain stage in Andalusia and then rode to a storming solo win one day later. With one big hit-out in his legs, he may do much better tomorrow in a finale that suits him much better. Froome is still the best climber in the world and he has a history of bouncing back when he seems to be suffering the most.

 

Richie Porte created the first big selection in today’s stage when he made a surge just before the flamme rouge and then rode on the front a bit too long which probably cost him a bit in the end. He still managed to finish very strongly and this indicates that he has improved his level since Paris-Nice. Of course he is not at his 2015 level yet but he is getting closer and tomorrow’s stage suits him better. If the likes of Quintana, Froome and Contador are too focused on each other, Porte will be ready to strike.

 

Ilnur Zakarin seemed to be one of the strongest in today’s stage but paid the price for his big work in the end. If he had gauged his effort better, he would have been much closer to the front. However, the performance again proved that his form is great and he has the benefit of being less marked than the biggest favourites. The Russian is one of the best here and will be ready to strike.

 

Daniel Martin was very strong in today’s stage but he will have a much harder time tomorrow. He is more of a puncheur than a real climber and he has never managed to follow the best on the long ascents. Furthermore, he will have to be a lot more conservative and won’t be allowed any leeway. That will make it much harder for him to win the stage. On the other hand he is one of the fastest in a sprint so if he can stay with the best he won’t be easy to beat.

 

Romain Bardet must be very pleased with his performance in a stage that didn’t really suit him. He seems to be a lot stronger than he was in Paris-Nice and he will find tomorrow’s stage much more to his liking. With his third place, he is now a real GC contender but he still looms a bit more in the shadow than the real grand tour stars. He always rides with panache and is never afraid of attacking. He will still be less marked which could allow him to take a surprise win.

 

Finally, we will point to Davide Formolo, Hugh Carthy, Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Navarro. None of them are very explosive riders and they all ended pretty close to the front. The former three are among the most talented climbers in the world and to see them do so well at this level shows that they should be watched in a stage that suits them much better. Especially Formolo looms as a danger man. After his splendid 2014 season, we regarded the Italian as the biggest climbing talent in the world but for some reason his progress stalled in 2015 where he never found his best legs. Now he seems to be ready to show his full potential. Navarro has been riding very well all year and he is never afraid of attacking from afar.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Alberto Contador

Other winner candidates: Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome

Outsiders: Richie Porte, Ilnur Zakarin, Daniel Martin, Romain Bardet

Jokers: Davide Formolo, Hugh Carthy, Merhawi Kudus, Daniel Navarro.

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