Ineos defend title amid uncertain Grand Tour plans
Twelve months ago, Ineos Grenadiers produced one of the most dominant performances in the team’s history to seal a clean sweep of the podium at the Volta a Catalunya.
Of that line-up, the men who finished first (Adam Yates) and third (Geraint Thomas) will be missing, but the team remains very strong with Richie Porte (who was second last year) and Richard Carapaz both leading the line, alongside a talented and youthful contingent including Pavel Sivakov, Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana podium finisher Carlos Rodriguez, and Australian Luke Plapp, who was so impressive at the UAE Tour.
The race could be very significant in terms of how Ineos Grenadiers approach the Grand Tours this season. Egan Bernal’s injury has thrown the team’s plans into disarray, and at present it is still uncertain who will be their main man at the Tour de France — an unusual situation for a team that usually so meticulously plans everything.
Porte and Carapaz are both currently earmarked to ride the Giro d’Italia rather than the Tour, but how he and the others go in Catalunya could prompt a reshuffle in the team’s Grand Tour planned line-ups.
In this sense, the case of Carapaz is especially intriguing. Though he’s also down to ride the Giro, Bernal’s injury has prompted speculation that the Ecuadorian might be moved to the Tour instead, given that he’s the team’s most established fit Grand Tour rider. Would a continued struggle for form in Catalunya make this less likely; or, on the contrary, would that make him more likely to ride the Tour instead, if he can’t find top form in time for the Giro?
Whatever the long-term thinking is, for now the immediate aim is to defend their Volta a Catalunya title, especially considering that the team haven’t won a stage race yet this year. Although a repeat of that historic 1-2-3 might be unlikely, the absence of both Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) make Ineos Grenadiers look like the team to beat.
Valverde seeking one final Catalunya victory
Assuming he sticks to the plan of retiring at the end of the year, the 2022 season is a farewell tour for the indefatigable Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and the Volta a Catalunya is one the happiest hunting grounds he is saying goodbye to.
He’s won the overall title three times, including twice in succession between 2017-2018, putting him joint second with Miguel Indurain on the all-time list behind Mariano Canardo.
Even at the age 41, there’s still every chance he could add a fourth title. The Spaniard has looked as good as ever so far this season, winning the Gran Camino stage race and podiuming in several Classics, including a career-best second-place at Strade Bianche.
He’ll also have the full backing of Movistar Team, who would be having a disastrous season were it not for Valverde. Not only has the veteran delivered the team’s only three wins in 2022, he’s also the only rider to have placed higher than third in any race.
He’ll be supported by Carlos Verona, who impressed to finish sixth at the UAE Tour, and Iván Sosa, who was Valverde’s lieutenant at Gran Camino, but Movistar do look weak compared to the other main GC teams, so it may be up to Valverde to fend for himself on the key mountain stages.
A post-Valverde future certainly looks pretty bleak for Movistar, but for now they can rely on their star man to once again compete for an overall stage race title.
UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma do battle without Slovenian stars
So far this season, all three of the World Tour stage races have been won be either UAE Team Emirates or Jumbo-Visma
If either is to add another in Catalunya, however, they’ll have to do so without their respective Slovenian stars Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič, who are both having a well-earned rest after riding nearly 300km during the weekend at Milan-San Remo.
This will therefore be a stern test for the team’s back-up riders, as well as an opportunity for them to take on a leadership role.
For UAE, João Almeida will be the main man. The Portuguese has made a strong start at his new team, placing fifth at the UAE Tour and eighth at Paris-Nice, but you sense there’s more to come from a man who won the Tour of Poland and Tour of Luxembourg last year. With the one-form Marc Soler, George Bennett and the prodigious teenager Juan Ayuso also riding, the team should be right at the forefront of the race even without Pogačar.
For Jumbo-Visma, Tom Dumoulin is back with a chance to lead the team. Although his best time trialling legs seems to have returned to him, as evidenced by third in a stage at the UAE Tour, he was still well off the pace in the climbs there. It would be great to see him rediscover himself as a stage racing force after such a long time, but if not then Steven Kruijswijk could be an alternative leader, even if his climbing form is also currently a little short.
With such strong line-ups, the rivalry emerging between these two teams looks set to continue, with the expected showdown at the Tour de France looming ever closer
Climber-friendly parcours make Yates and Quintana leading contenders
This year’s Volta a Catalunya is one for the climbers. There isn’t a single time trial stage, and the back-to-back summit finishes of La Molina on stage three and Boi Taull on stage four will suit the purists.
That’s good news for both Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), both of whom are in great form and won't be hamstrung by their usual fear of losing time against the clock.
Quintana already has two stage race titles to his name this year at the Tour de la Provence and Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, and few riders in the world have been climbing better than the Colombian so far this year. He’s a former winner of this race, having triumphed when riding for Movistar back in 2016, but is without a WorldTour stage race title since the 2017 Tirreno-Adriatico. This looks like his best chance in a while to end that drought.
Yates time trialling has been less of an issue, and the Brit went really well to place fifth on the time trial stage at Paris-Nice, but even so this parcours suits him better. He was in great nick at Paris-Nice, where he finished second, and could also relish the punchy stages either side of the two mountain summit finishes.
Puncheurs and climbers headline race
There’s scant on offer for the sprinters at this year’s race, with even the flatter stages one, two and five are punctuated by small hills, while the final two stages look tailor-made for puncheurs.
The start list is therefore devoid of all of the top sprinters, save for those with more climbing ability — most notably Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco) who was fourth at Milan-San Remo, and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) hoping to recapture full fitness following a bout of bronchitis.
Instead, attention will be on the climbers and the puncheurs. The Israel-Premier Tech duo of Michael Woods and Jakob Fuglsang look ideally suited to attack the punchy stages, while Max Schachmann will be looking for results following the disappointment of failing to again defend his Paris-Nice title.
Schachmann could also go for the GC, although the tough climbing could be better suited to his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates Jai Hindley and Sergio Higuita, while EF Education-Nippo also have multiple options with Colombians Esteban Chaves and Rigoberto Urán.
Other possible contenders include Ben O’Conor, Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), Michael Storer (Groupama-FDJ), Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Fausto Masnada (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), while it will be intriguing to see how Masnada’s talented young team-mate Ilan Van Wilder performs on what will be his first WorldTour appearance for his new team.
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.