Movistar desperate to reverse season’s fortunes at a race they usually dominate
Things are not going well for Team Movistar. As of March 19th, they are one of only three teams (along with Astana Premier Tech and Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert) in the World Tour still without a win this season; worse still, they’re the only team without even a podium finish to their name.
That makes for an even worse start to the season than in 2020, a season in which they ended up with only two wins all season.
The Volta a Catalunya may represent a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel for the Spanish squad. It’s a race they’ve dominated in recent years, winning three successive editions between 2016-2018, and they’re set to bring a very strong line up to this year’s race, with Alejandro Valverde returning to a race he’s won three times in the past, along with Marc Soler, who showed some signs of emerging form at Tirreno-Adriatico.
But their main hope will be Enric Mas. He was the team’s outstanding performer in 2020 and, with Valverde’s age finally starting to show, as well as the absence of defending champion Miguel Angel Lopez (who is still yet to make his debut for the team having moved from Astana in the off-season), Mas looks like their only genuine hope of pushing for overall victory.
Ineos Grenadiers start as favourites
So far this season, Ineos Grenadiers have found it impossible to contain the individual brilliance of Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). The Slovenian superstar first got the better of Adam Yates to win the UAE Tour, then made it successive World Tour stage race victories at Tirreno-Adriatico, where Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas failed to lay a glove on him.
Thankfully for Ineos, Pogačar isn’t set to ride Volta a Catalunya, which means (what with Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič also not being present), Ineos Grenadiers are favourites to land what would be their first overall victory in the World Tour this season.
They certainly have the strongest team on paper, with at least four riders all looking capable of overall victory. Adam Yates started the season on fire with second place at the UAE Tour; Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte could both use their skills against the clock to gain the overall lead after stage’s two’s time trial; and Richard Carapaz will make his first appearance of the season having impressed so much during his first season for this team in 2020.
On top of that, they also have an enviable engine room and super domestiques to rely on, with Rohan Dennis, Luke Rowe and Jonathan Castroviejo completing the line-up.
It’s in races like this, without a single outstanding favourite like Pogačar and Roglič, that the formidable strength-in-depth Ineos have built for this season should really become apparent, and make it very difficult for other teams to compete.
Froome hoping to be among the GC contenders
Chris Froome will take another important step in his quest to arrive at the 2021 Tour de France as an overall contender when he lines up at Volta a Catalunya for his second race of the season.
His first, the UAE Tour, suggests he’s still got a very long way to go, but Froome is still confident that he’s on course to peak in July.
Even during his peak years, Froome didn’t tend to win stages races as early in the season as this, so certainly shouldn’t be considered among the top favourites for overall victory.
Instead, the teams most likely to take-on Ineos Grenadiers could be BikeExchange, following promising early-season form from both Simon Yates and emerging talent Lucas Hamilton; and Jumbo-Visma, who, even without Roglič, have the dangerous trident of Steven Kruijswijk, George Bennett and Sepp Kuss.
Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) has a great record in this race, having won in 2016 and finished in the top five in each of his other four most recent appearances. But the addition to the route this year of an 18.5km individual time trial may make matters more complicated for riders like him, and swing things in favour of climbers who are good against the clock, such as João Almeida (Deceuninck – Quick-Step).
Carthy among big names making belated starts to the 2021 World Tour
Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) will appear in his first stage race since finishing third at the Vuelta a Espana last year, a performance that now makes him an automatic favourite for races like this.
Although he appeared in a couple of French classics during February, Britain’s new Grand Tour star opted to skip all the other early World Tour meets in order to wait for Volta a Catalunya, a race he made a major breakthrough at five years ago when he won the best young rider as a 21-year-old.
For other big names (like the aforementioned Richard Carapaz), the Volta a Catalunya will be their first racing of any kind this season. Giro podium finisher Wilco Kelderman, for instance, will make his debut for Bora-Hansgrohe, for whom Tour de France stage winner Lennard Kämna will also start his 2021 season.
Esteban Chaves will make his 2021 bow as part of a strong BikeExchange squad alongside Simon Yates and Lucas Hamilton. And, perhaps most intriguingly of all, Marc Hirschi makes his long-awaited debut for UAE Team Emirates following his sudden surprise transfer from DSM in January.
Yates vs Yates
Having ridden together for seven successive seasons as team-mates before Adam’s move to Ineos Grenadiers, this year’s Volta a Catalunya will be the first professional race that the Yates twins have ever ridden against each other.
It could be a heated contest, too, as both look capable of challenging for the overall. Although the time trial will hinder both, the parcours still features plenty of climbing with consecutive mountain top finishes on stages three (Valter 2000) and four (Port Aine) where they can gain time.
They could also battle it out for several stage wins, too. Only stage six looks like it could end in a bunch sprint (reflected in a line-up in which all of the major sprinters are missing), as the opening day, closing day and stage five all look like opportunities for the puncheurs.
Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) should be a contender on these days, as could Marc Hirschi if he can find form quickly, while Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) will be eager to get into breakaways and add to his impressive career tally of four Catalunya stage wins.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has decided to skip a couple of Belgian classics in order to build up his form here and looks like he’ll use this week to work his way into form rather than contest for stage wins
But as two of the quickest puncheurs around, both Yates should also be contenders — and for once we won’t have the old problem of distinguishing one from the other.