Boasting what is arguably the strongest roster of any race so far this season, the 96th edition of the Volta a Catalunya gets under way in Spain on Monday (March 21).
Despite being the fourth-oldest stage race in road cycling, the Volta a Catalunya can slip relatively under the radar. It’s not usually earmarked as one of the unmissable races of the season, but the quality of his year’s line-up will have cycling fans salivating.
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Part of the race’s problem in the past has been the way it has been shifted around the calendar from autumn to summer to spring, before most recently settling in its current slot in mid-March.
Whereas other WorldTour races are able to build an identity based partly on what part of the season they are held (eg Paris-Nice as a ‘Race to the Sun’ that transitions from winter to spring, the Criterium du Dauphine as a Tour de France warm up, etc), the Volta a Catalunya has struggled to establish a clear selling point and appeal to riders.
However, now into its seventh season in the March slot, the race is beginning to form a new identity for itself – as the first meeting between the peloton’s top stage racers.
Whereas Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico clash, and the Tour Down Under is for many too early in the season, the Volta a Catalunya presents an ideal opportunity for the biggest names to test their form against each other.
Among them will be Chris Froome (Sky). The two-time Tour de France champion has limited his racing this season so far to just the Herald Sun Tour, so will be eager to mark his return to European racing with a reassertion of his superiority.
At his aid will be teammate Geraint Thomas, fresh of a career-best overall victory at Paris-Nice. That result suggests the pair will make a formidable team for Sky, especially given that many of the riders who lost out to Thomas in that race – including Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and Volta a Catalunya defending champion Richie Porte (BMC) – will again be present here.
Then there are a whole host of riders competing in their first major race of the season. Nairo Quintana rides in his first stage race since finishing third at the Tour de San Luis, and will again be accompanied by his brother Dayer, who he helped win in that race. Seeing them come up against Froome and Thomas will be fascinating, and could give an early indication as to how the Tour de France will play out in July.
Also riding will be the top two from last year’s Vuelta, Fabio Aru (Astana) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), as well as the breakout stars from that race Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin). Each is searching for their first win of the season, and will find ample opportunity in Catalunya’s lumpy terrain.
After an opening two stages that balance undulating terrain with what might culminate in a bunch sprint (although there is a distinct lack of sprinters on the startlist, with Cofidis’ Nacer Bouhanni the only star name), the riders face two consecutive mountain-top finishes – the first atop La Molina and the second to Porte Aine, both climbs that are long and selective enough to cause a major shake-up on the GC.
A category two climb close the finish on stage five will encourage what is likely to be one final chance to gain time, before a flat stage six and a final circuit stage around Barcelona round off the race.
Volta a Catalunya 2016: Stages
Stage one, March 21: Calella – Calella, 175.8km
Stage two, March 22: Mataro – Olot, 178.7km
Stage three, March 23: Girona – La Molina, 172.1km
Stage four, March 24: Baga – Porte Aine, 172.2km
Stage five, March 25: Rialp – Valls, 187.2km
Stage six, March 26: Sant Joan Despi – Vilanova, 197.2km
Stage seven, March 27: Barcelona – Barcelona, 136.4km
Volta a Catalunya 2016: Teams
Ag2r La Mondiale (France)
Caja Rural-Seguros RGA (Esp)
CCC Sprandi Polkowice (Pol)
Dimension Data (RSA)
IAM Cycling (Switzerland)
Roomport-Oranje Peloton (Ned)
Sky (Great Britain)
Verva ActiveJet (Pol)
Wanty-Groupe Gobert (Bel)
Watch: Men’s 2016 WorldTour contenders
Volta a Catalunya 2016: Live TV coverage
Eurosport will be broadcasting the race live.
Volta a Catalunya 2016: Recent winners
2015: Richie Porte (Sky)
2014: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
2013: Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp)
2012: Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE)
2011: Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD)
2010: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
2009: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne)
2008: Gustavo Cesar (Karpin-Galicia)
2007: Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d’Epargne)
2006: David Canada (Saunier Duval-Prodir)
Volta a Catalunya: Last year’s top 10 (2015)
1. Richie Porte (Aus) BMC, 30-30-30
2. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 4s
3. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r La Mondiale, at 5s
4. Alberto Contador (Esp) Tinkoff, at 7sec
5. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Etixx-QuickStep, at 18s
6. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana, at 27s
7. Darwin Atapuma (Col) BMC, at 33s
8. Rafael Valls (Esp) Lampre-Merida, at 43s
9. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 1-09
10. Dan Martin (Irl) Cannondale-Garmin, at 1-35