Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) will be the top British name in the Tour of Catalonia, Spain’s third biggest stage race which starts this Monday (March 22).

Cavendish is in the hunt for his first individual win of the season, and his chance could come as soon as the 3.6 kilometre prologue in Lloret de Mar, the same town where the Manxman took one of the earliest sprint wins of his career in a stage of Catalonia back in 2007.

The organisers have opted for an identical prologue course to the one used in the ProTour-level race in both 2009 and 2010. It starts with a short, but steep climb through the coastal town, follows with a very dodgy descent with a couple of sharp hairpins and then for the last kilometre concludes with a fast run along the seafront. Both years the prologue was won by Thor Hushovd.

If they’ve hardly taken an original approach to the prologue, the organisers have designed a much more unusual structure to the following six days racing. There’s no mountain-top finish, or individual time trial, instead they’ve laid on one hilly stage after another. Even Tuesday’s run from Salt to Banyoles, which is expected to end in a bunch sprint, has a first category climb early on.

Stage three which goes deep into the foothills of the Pyrenees is the hardest. With the race’s one hors categorie climb half way through, a second category climb follows almost immediately afterwards and despite there being 45 kiometres to the finish, the terrain is so rugged (and the descents so dangerous – with numerous riders crashing when they used the same roads two years ago) the bunch will almost certainly split apart for good.

Though not as mountainous as last year – when Dan Martin (Garmin) finished a fine second – and despite making its umpteenth change in calendar dates to its new slot in March it would be very wrong to consider Catalonia just as a build-up race for the Classics, if only because of its history.

Created more than three decades before the Vuelta (and for a time it was considered more important than the national event), former winners include Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain. Robert Millar is Britain’s only former winner, back in 1985.

Despite both Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) and Alberto Contador (Astana) pulling out of Catalonia in favour of the Criterium International, the race still has a very strong field.

Amongst those taking part are Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Carlos Sastre (Cervélo), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack).

Apart from Cavendish, other British riders down to race include Charly Wegelius (Omega Pharma-Lotto), in his first event after he injured his hip in a crash in the Tour of Mallorca, Steve Cummings and Chris Froome (both Sky).

Braldey Wiggins had been set to lead Team Sky at Catalonia but was forced to change his plans after suffering from a stomach upset.

Tour of Catalonia 2010: Stages
Stage 1, Monday March 22, Lloret de Mar, 3.6km ITT
Stage 2, Tuesday March 23, Salt-Banyoles, 182.6km
Stage 3, Wednesday March 24, La Vall d’En Bas-La Seu d’Urgell, 185.9km Photos>>
Stage 4, Thursday March 25, Oliana-Asco, 209.7km
Stage 5, Friday March 26, Asco-Cabaces 181.2km
Stage 6, Saturday March 27, El Vendrell-Barcelona 161.9km
Stage 7, Sunday March 28, Circuit de Catalunya, 117.8km

Tour of Catalonia 2010: Teams
Ag2r La Mondiale
Andalucia-Cajasur
Astana
Caisse d’Epargne
Cervelo Test Team
Cofidis
Euskaltel-Euskadi
Footon-Servetto
Francaise des Jeux
Garmin-Transitions
HTC-Columbia
Katusha
Lampre-Farnese Vini
Liquigas-Doimo
Milram
Omega Pharma-Lotto
Quick Step
Rabobank
RadioShack
Saxo Bank
Team Sky
Xacobeo Galicia

Tour of Catalonia 2010: British riders
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Chris Froome (Team Sky)
Steve Cummings (Team Sky)
Charly Wegelius (Omega Pharma-Lotto)

Tour of Catalonia: Recent winners
2009: Alejandro Valverde
2008: Gustavo Cesar Veloso
2007: Vladimir Karpets
2006: David Canada
2005: Yaroslav Popovych
2004: Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero
2003: Jose Antonio Pecharromán
2002: Roberto Heras
2001: Joseba Beloki
2000: Jose Maria Jimenez

1985 Robert Millar

Tour of Catalonia: Last year’s top five
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne
2. Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin-Slipstream at 15secs
3. Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Astana at 22secs
4. Mikel Astarloza (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 34secs
5. Jose Angel Gomez (Spa) Cervelo Test Team at 38secs

Related links
Illness forces Wiggins out of Tour of Catalonia
Stealthy Freire wins third San Remo, Cavendish suffers
2009: Martin takes second in Catalonia
Cycling Weekly’s Rider Profiles: Index


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