Le-Tour-de-France-2015-Stage-14-Preview-

Volta A Catalunya – Stage 6 Preview

Life has been hard at this year’s Volta a Catalunya for any sprinters in attendance, their opportunities already thin on the ground, have been scuppered twice by the exploits of Alejandro Valverde. On stage 6 interference from the general classification riders should be put on hold, meaning that as long as any breakaway is kept under control, the sprinters still present should finally have a shot at glory.

Course:

Stage 6 is a 194.1km trip from Cervera to PortAventura along rolling roads for the most part, with the inclusion of the category 1 Alt de Prades; topping out 106.3km from the finish. This 11km climb has an average gradient of 4% and only hits a maximum of 6%, meaning this should not feel too arduous to conquer. A long descent follows, eventually levelling out once again before the peloton then ascend the category 3 Alt del Coli Roig at 3.7km long (avg 5% max 6%.) A little over 40km will remain by the time the peloton reach the summit, after which they will then descend for a short period, before finding themselves on level terrain which will lead them into the finish.

The finish itself is relatively simple, but does include a selection of roundabouts to navigate for the second day in a row. A finishing straight of 600m will ensure a drag race for the sprinters to duke it out upon, made likely to be an even faster affair by a decline of 2% towards the line.

Spokenforks-Volta-a-Catalunya-Stage-Six-Preview

Contenders:

As mentioned throughout Spokenforks’ coverage of the Volta a Catalunya, the race is notoriously hard to predict from one day to the next, but day six should be gifted to the sprinters. That is not to say it will be easy to control, assuming that the overall contenders decide to keep their powder dry before the final day, breakaway hopefuls will sense a chance to snatch a win from a peloton light on teams interested in chasing them.

Giant-Alpecin will head any such chase in the name of their sprinter Luka Mezgec, guaranteed to be one of the fastest men present in the possible bunch kick. He has not impressed much so far, taking his highest placing of 30th on stage 2’s ride into Olot – won by Valverde. His team will do a solid job of keeping him into contention throughout the day and should be confident of a podium placing in PortAventura.

Another team who will not be a surprise to see at the front of the peloton will be Europcar, working hard for sprinter Bryan Coquard. The Frenchman is probably the fastest man in such a finish and will benefit from the lack of leadout trains which usually smother his chances of a win. He has a habit of accelerating late in the sprint, often unsuccessfully, but will hope the accumulative fatigue of the previous day’s shall have blunted his opponents’ top speed.

The sprinter who has been climbing best up to this point and finishing most consistently in the absence of bunch sprints is José Joaquín Rojas. His team leader Valverde has snuffed his chances’ so far in this race and could certainly do the same once again, but it seems more viable that Alejandro will save his efforts for the final day where he could overturn the deficit. In this scenario, Rojas is worth watching on the back of his performances so far this week and should have hopes of charting high here.

As mentioned, it would be reckless to totally exclude Alejandro Valverde from contention on stage 6; having showed such desire to win the race overall this week. His speed is well documented and can certainly compete with some of the fastest in this race in a ‘man v man’ sprint finish. If he times such a move well enough, Valverde has a chance of winning the stage by a big enough margin (with the time bonus) to head into the final day as race leader.

Etixx-Quick Step might have faith in Julian Alaphilippe to rediscover the form he had at this race last year when battling Mezgec for several stage wins. He clearly has the capability to feature in the finish of such a stage, but will hope that the majority who are faster than him suffer more in order to level the playing field in his favour somewhat.

Beyond this the likes of Jonathan Hivert and Roberto Ferrari could both be present at the finish behind the quicker men. Ultimately, the day fails to favour any obvious type of rider and will perhaps be rich pickings for the breakaway at the end of the day.

Outcome:

1st José Joaquín Rojas 2nd Bryan Coquard 3rd Luka Mezgec

Ronde-Van-Vlaanderen-Tour-Of-Flanders-2015-Spokenforks-Preview

A Stepping Stone – E3 Harelbeke Preview

Situated between Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke comes as an opportunity for the classics minded riders to keep their legs’ ticking over between weekends. Not only does it offer an insight as to the condition of the season’s favourites, it also provides the first real venture onto the Belgian cobbles for many of the big names this year. Contested upon a course including most of the hellingen apparent in the following week’s Tour of Flanders, E3 is not won exclusively by strongmen, nor guaranteed to be duked out by sprinters. This openness makes the race a consistently difficult affair to predict, but only adds to the tension as the pressure ratchets up towards the day’s decisive moments.

Course:

It is a 215.3km ride which separates the riders from the start in Harelbeke to the finish; which is also in Harelbeke. Though the distance has increased marginally from 2014’s edition, all the usual array of hellingen will be waiting for the peloton to encounter along the way. The riders will have 32km to warm up before they are tasked with their first hill, the Katteberg’s 600m of 6.7% (max 8%), which is soon followed by the Leberg (700m avg 6.1% max 14%.) The obligatory breakaway will be formed on these early ascents, which are also peppered with cobbled sectors along the way. A rhythm will have been established by both those out front and the real contenders secured within the pack at this point; limbering up for when the real race starts after 102km. La Houppe is 3440m long and has an average gradient of 3.32%, but attention will be focused more on its ramps which stretch up to 10%. Though this will not be decisive enough to impact upon who wins, a costly error in positioning by a favourite could mean getting held back by a crash or puncture; even at this point it will be hard to make it back to the main bunch. Rapid fire hills come thick and fast after this, Berg Stene (1560m, avg 7.3% max 10%) is bridged by the cobbled Varentstraat sector directly into the Boigneberg which ups the maximum gradient to 15% (2180m, avg 5.8%). The peloton are afforded a 4km break from hills and cobbles, though anxiety will be growing as teams seek to keep their leaders safe at the front of affairs before striking the Eikenberg. This is a 1200m long cobbled hill at an average of 5.5% (max 11%) and is swiftly followed by another cobbled climb in the shape of the Stationsberg (460m, avg 3.2% max 5.7%.) Next to be ticked off the day’s agenda is the Taaienberg’s gruelling cobbled slopes, 650m in length with ramps of 18% upon its 9.5% average gradient. This seems certain to see some race action occur if nothing has done so already, often acting as the foundation for a Tom Boonen attack over its entire distance; with no ‘Tommeke’ here it will be interesting to see who picks up the mantle this year. Despite having tackled all of the afore mentioned challenges, the peloton will still have only just dipped several kilometres under the 90km to go marker by this point. The next two climbs do not appear until 72km remaining; this time it will be the Knokteberg (1530m, avg 5.3% max 13.3%) then the Hotondberg (1200m, avg 4% max 8%.) Approximately 8km of flat road then follow before heading onto the Rotelenberg (1100m, avg 3% max 6%) which is separated by hardly a kilometre to Kortekeer and its 17% maximum gradients (1000m, avg 6.4%.) An interesting 12km break from the climbing then follows; a unique passage which is hard to predict how the favourites will approach it tactically.

E3 Harelbeke’s decisive final third begins with 46km remaining as the peloton start the relatively sedate Kapelberg (900m, 4%, max. 7%.) Afterwards the infamous Paterberg will need conquering, only 700m in length, but boasting an average gradient of 12% which rockets up to 20% in places. This is like a sharp jab to the ribs compared to what follows upon the Kwaremont’s cobbled slopes, demanding respect from the riders over its 22oom of 4.2% gradient (max 11%.) This leg breaking double header should have formed the group from which we will see the eventual winner emerge from come the end, but 37km still need negotiating before those present can begin dreaming of victory. Seemingly named after the gasping noises expelled by the riders, Karnemelkbeekstraat (1530m, avg 4.9% max 7.3%) will be the first of the final two clear opportunities to attack upon with 30km left. A cobbled sector is next in the form of the Varentstraat, but the last hellingen is the Tiegemberg. The one kilometre run of 6.5% average gradient (max 9%) is the last chance to shake things up as the frantic race dips under the 20km to go marker. Once into the final 5km, the leading rider(s) will need to negotiate a couple of corners before the final turn places them onto the finishing straight with 600m left to decide the champion.

Spokenforks-E3-Harelbeke-Preview

Contenders:

Defending champion Peter Sagan comes here as a major contender for the win in Harelbeke and will treat this as more than just a rehearsal for the following weekend’s Tour of Flanders. Sagan has found form elusive so far this year, but encouraging performances have been apparent regardless. He will arrive at E3 Harelbeke off the back of a solid fourth place finish at Milan-San Remo and will believe his form is beginning to return. On paper the race suits him nicely, which comes as no surprise considering he won last year’s edition, but this still does not quite feel like enough to enforce his claims. If he arrives before the line as part of an elite group, there is a good chance that he could be the fastest man present; whether or not he clings on long enough to find out remains to be seen.

A rider who has shown consistency in the classics, but is also lacking a major win like Sagan is Sep Vanmarcke. The Belgian is surely set to fill the shoes of Tom Boonen in coming years and seems guaranteed to play a major role in how the race will develop tactically. His performance at this year’s Strade-Bianche was quite incredible, managing to bridge to within spitting distance of the winning group, just before they took off to contest the win. The Italian classic certainly failed to suit him as much as E3 does and with the evidence of how deep he is willing to dig in order to stay amongst the favourites, he is a class act worth backing. It appears he has tried to stay relatively fresh by only riding Tirreno-Adriatico since Strade-Bianche; meaning he should arrive at the start line as one of the fittest contenders. Vanmarcke will do his best to be part of a small elite group and hope to put the others to bed with his solid sprinting capabilities if he has not already soloed away come the finish.

The man who won Strade-Bianche in imperious fashion was Zdenek Stybar, who has not quite managed to keep the ball rolling with his form. He came third in almost a repeat of the Italian classic’s results on stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico and then crashed upon the crucial descent of the Poggio at Milan-San Remo. He should not struggle with the terrain in itself, though he is likely to find his crucial competitors in better shape heading into this race. No doubt he will be part of the Etixx-Quick Step team which animates the day, the win however might be a stretch too far at this point in time for the Czech. Stybar’s teammate Niki Terpstra will also be at E3 to make life difficult for the other riders, but will be in need of ideal tactical conditions in order to benefit most. The Dutchman is known for taking off from an elite group solo and essentially time trialling his way to the finish; this lacks a key factor though. For this to work most effectively, he usually ensure there is at least one other team member present in the group, upsetting the chasing dynamic and forcing others to pursue. If he does find himself and teammate Stybar in the deciding group, then this seems the most likely way he could challenge for the victory.

Geraint Thomas is exhibiting some of the best form we have ever seen at this time of the year from him on the road so far this season. Working for teammates Richie Porte and Ben Swift at Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo respectively, demonstrated how the Welshman can blow a race apart with sustained pressure at crucial points. He has been jinxed in recent years when it has come to the cobbled classics, but he seems destined to win a title at some point in his career; it could be soon. Thomas is aware that the likes of Wiggins, Stannard and even Swift are all able to keep him from taking command of the team at a monument in the near future; meaning he should see E3 as a golden opportunity. He has form here, having finished 3rd and 4th in the last two years, but he has never appeared in such great shape before when arriving at Harelbeke. His difficulty comes in envisioning a situation where he can win from; a solo effort seems unlikely given the chance of a draining headwind and an elite group is likely to contain several riders who can all finish faster than him. Perhaps his best bet is to attack within 5km of the finish from whatever group he finds himself in, regardless of what his plan might be for the day; Thomas remains a man worth watching.

Another contender is Greg Van Avermaet of BMC, a man who consistently challenges for the major races but often finds himself short when the odds are stacked in his favour. Like Stybar, his early season form has been impressive, but Avermaet’s does not seem to be ailing somewhat like the Czech rider’s. He should be part of the key moves late in the day and will also find a close ally in teammate Daniel Oss. The Italian has often demonstrated total commitment to his leaders, sacrificing his chances of winning when setting up the likes of Avermaet for a win. Oss has shown potential in these sorts of races before and seems to be returning to the sort of form he wielded on the cobbles in 2013. Between the two of them, BMC will be confident of causing a stir, but it is hard to say who will have the bigger impact upon the race of the two.

Having won Milan-San Remo last weekend, John Degenkolb will certainly feel the pressure to win a race such as E3 has decreased somewhat. The German sprinter is clearly in imperious form this spring, but might want to keep his powder dry ahead of further monuments he will have his eye on already. He managed to stay with the winning group for the most part last year, eventually finishing 15th after being dropped near the end. His climbing has certainly improved judging by his showings on the Cipressa and Poggio, but any group will do their upmost to shell the German before the line, as he is likely to be the fastest man here at the finish.

A few years ago, Fabian Cancellara would have been the favourite for this, but nowadays it seems his classics crown has firmly slipped. He did not look the man of previous spring campaigns at Milan-San Remo and lacks the potency he once wielded to take off solo; decimating the field behind. He will as ever be worth watching out for, but a win seems beyond him; especially given the in-form talent listed above.

Other contenders for the day are: Alexander Kristoff, very strong this year but likely to find the hillingen too arduous. Sebastian Langeveld, always a modest performer at these races, though likely to be swamped by greater talents. Jurgen Roelandts, seems to be coming back to the classics form which originally cast him as ‘the next big thing’.

Outcome: 1st Geraint Thomas 2nd Sep Vanmarcke 3rd Peter Sagan

Spokenforks-Volta-a-Catalunya-Stage-Five-Jose-Joaquin-Rojas

Volta A Catalunya – Stage 5 Preview

The American Tejay Van Garderen stole the show on the Volta a Catalunya’s queen stage, crossing the line ahead of a pursuing Richie Porte who missed out on challenging the BMC captain by only 2 seconds. Though the drama was focused at the front of affairs, it was an understated performance from Bart De Clercq which allowed him to slip unexpectedly into the leader’s jersey. He should not have to worry immediately as to how he will defend his lead, as stage 5 is a rolling affair with a sharp climb before a long descent to the finish; many riders will do their best to make the day’s breakaway. If any of the sprinters who have survived this far are present at the finish, then they should benefit the most on a day when the general classification riders are expected to be quiet, but 2015’s Volta a Catalunya has failed to be so predicable thus far.

Course:

A long gradual descent will form the opening 80km of stage 5’s 195.4km ride from Alp to Valls, offering only the one categorised climb to conquer throughout the whole day. At the 80km marker the peloton will take the small rise up to Oliana, this is followed by a downward slope before levelling out for a flat ride to the start of the ascent to Belltall. This is an uncategorised climb which gently sweeps skywards before dropping sharply once again, placing the peloton this time at the foot of the day’s only noted climb; the Alt de Lilla. Its average gradient over 4.1km is 4.8% and with a maximum of 7% at times, this has the potential to knock a few riders out the back after a lengthy day’s ride. Only 10.1km remain once the top of the Alt de Lilla is reached and the descent lasts until 3.4km from the line; it is only here the road levels out once again. The non-technical downhill will not benefit a breakaway as their is little chance of slipping out of sight, nor tasking the cumbersome peloton with negotiating difficult bends. In contrast the flat section is reasonably taxing; this includes road furniture, several bends, a 90 degree turn with 600m remaing and even a roundabout only 100m from the line.

Contenders:

Those with eyes on the general classification will up the tempo on the Alt de Lilla in an attempt to crack the legs of the current unlikely leader Bart De Clarcq. Time gaps are certainly possible, but their interests will not be centred on winning the stage finish in Valls, increasing the likelihood of a breakaway or sprint deciding the day. With such a limited stock of sprinters still present in this race, it will be hard for teams working for a bunch kick to control a well organised breakaway group; many sprinters’ teams now harbour general classification aims instead too. All of this adds up to a very difficult task of calculating who is most likely to not only make it into a decisive move, but to also have the ability to win the day overall.

A rider who offers the diverse skill set required to succeed on stage 5 is perhaps Julian Alaphilippe, an extremely talented rider who could be allowed into the breakaway given his team leader Uran’s diminishing chances of winning overall. He is unlikely to be concerned by the terrain and will see the final 10km as a golden opportunity to demonstrate his descending ability, before hopefully sprinting for the win from a select group.

Present within that group could be Jonathan Hivert who has been riding impressively during the Volta a Catalunya thus far. He had managed to finish alongside the major contenders in the first three days of the tour, but finally lost ground when dropping almost 28 minutes to Tejay Van Garderen’s win on  stage 4. Having conceded hope of a modest general classification placing, Hivert is likely to turn his attention to smuggling himself aboard the day’s decisive breakaway. He possesses a similar array of talents to Alaphilippe and would be confident of picking the right move; hopefully earning a decent placing at the line in Valls.

If a larger group makes it to the line then Kevin RezaJosé Joaquín Rojas and Bryan Coquard could all be in contention with such quick finishing speed. The terrain is not too harsh for any of the afore mentioned riders, but it is only the former who is bound to have the full backing of his team if he sticks the pace. The other two stated above are easier to back in regards to their pace, but it remains unclear how much support they will find given teammates Pierre Rolland and Alejandro Valverde’s respective tilts at the general classification.

Speaking of Alejandro Valverde, the Movistar leader would definitely be a contender for the stage win if he makes it to the final kilometres within the lead group. We have already witnessed him sprinting to victory during this Volta a Catalunya and there is no doubt he will seize the chance to replicate this if possible on stage 5. A man to rival him if such a situation does arise in the absence of a breakaway or pure sprint finish is Dan Martin once again; a rider who will have been annoyed at missing out on victory already this week. Though he is not in top condition quite yet, he will certainly be where it matters coming into the end of day 5 and would be one of the quicker finishers from a group containing the mountain men.

Others who could all feature in a variety of ways include Cyril GautierMartin ElmigerPavel Kochetkov and Rafael Valls. These all performed well on day two, when Valverde convinced teammate Rojas to gift him the win. Ultimately, stage 5 is very much a lottery and anyone who predicts the eventual winner deserves a pat on the back.

Outcome:

1st José Joaquín Rojas 2nd Jonathan Hivert 3rd Kevin Reza

Volta A Catalunya – Stage 4 Preview

Dan Martin and Rigoberto Uran placed in the top three on stage 3 as predicted by Spokenforks yesterday, but Alejandro Valverde was left missing from the front of affairs having lost time in a crash. The Movistar leader was snarled up by a peloton splitting incident 35km from the finish; conceding around 20 seconds to the day’s contenders as they tackled the Alt des Angels. A disappointing result which negates the time he took when winning the second day’s race into Olot, leaving the likes of Martin, Uran, Contador, Aru and Porte all ahead of him in the general classification. This year’s queen stage is set to light the fuse on a flurry of attacks from those who fancy their chances of taking the overall lead, with one well timed attack on the summit finish into La Molina.

Course:

It is a 188.4km from Tona to the summit of La Molina, but riders will be afforded some time in order to get their legs into gear as the opening 50km are relatively gentile; especially compared to what lies in store for them later on. The opening exchanges will begin on the slopes of the category 1 Alt de Bracons, stretching over 10.5km with an average gradient of 4.9% (max 12%), the waters might be tested here. A flat section will follow the climb’s descent, before the riders begin facing up to the category 1 Alt de Coubet. The 10km climb boasts an average gradient of 5.5%, with slopes which rise up to a maximum of 10%, summiting after just over 90km of racing. Another drop in altitude will follow, lowering the tempo before racing becomes decisive with a little more than 63km remaining. The day’s sole HC climb comes in the form of the Alt de la Creueta, a tiring 21km in length which bores away at the riders with an average gradient of 4.5% (max 9%). Only 42km will remain once this gruelling ascent has been tackled, but life will be about to get increasingly harder with the summit finish up to the line at La Molina standing between them. Despite only being 5.3km long, the 5.8% average gradient is compounded by ramps of 9% to make life difficult for the favourites and form the stage for a winning attack. It is not uphill right to the line however, as La Molina is not quite a thoroughbred summit finish with the terrain dipping in the last kilometre, before edging up to 3% in the final 500m.

Spokenforks-Volta-a-Catalunya-Stage-Four

 

Contenders:

Ever present favourite Alejandro Valverde will be fancied to live up to expectations on this terrain and take the win in La Molina. It suits the Spanish rider down to the ground and offers the sort of finish which is easy to envision seeing him romp away upon or sprint to victory from a depleted group of contenders. However, a crash on stage 3 meant he lost time and had to work hard on the front of a chase group in order to prevent the gap growing out of control to the leading riders. This impressive effort can be viewed in two ways, first of all as a dominant display of the sort of stage winning form he is currently competing in; a good sign for stage 4. On the other hand, this sort of effort is likely to have taken a fair amount out of any top rider and with a two arduous climbs to conquer on stage 4, you have to wonder if Valverde’s potency may have been blunted somewhat.

Though the day’s terrain does not scream his name, Richie Porte has been in all conquering form when afforded the loosening of his leash this season. His condition is strong at this time of year, with Paris-Nice demonstrating his ability to attack late in a stage when winning on the road to Croix de Chaubouret alongside Geraint Thomas. If the majority are still together with only several kilometres remaining, busy exchanging glances between Contador, Aru, Valverde, Uran and Froome, Porte seems the favourite to gain a gap as those behind hesitate while he tears off to victory.

The Colombian Rigoberto Uran has been ticking over nicely so far this season and his certainly due a stage win sometime soon. He is yet to look in troublesome waters during this race and could have been biding his time for a big attack on the queen stage’s climb to La Molina. Given its relatively short length, Uran would be able to give it everything on the sharper slopes and hope to stay clear on the later section with his fast finishing speed if required.

Fabio Aru and Dan Martin are placed well on the general classification and have been riding well; even challenging for stage honours on day 3. Despite this, neither appear set to be in their top condition at this point of the season; compared to that of Valverde or Porte for example. The terrain fails to play into the hands of either rider and it seems likely they will both see their names slip down the order by the end of the day.

If the favourites are found to be occupied playing cat and mouse with one another late on, a man such as Rafael Valls could benefit and take the win. Though he did lose time on stage 3, the steeper slopes of La Molina do suit his style of attack and he would commit fully to any such move if the opportunity arose. Giampaolo Caruso is another rider which the favourites would be stupid to let get away late on La Molina, he climbs well on this sort of terrain and will be Katusha’s best chance of making their appearance here worthwhile.

Outcome: 1st Porte 2nd Uran 3rd Valverde

Volta a Catalunya – Stage 3 Preview

Spokenforks may have predicted Alejandro Valverde’s presence as a danger-man on stage 2, but nobody expected that he would find success at the expense of his teammate. Having highlighted José Joaquín Rojas has the most fancied sprinter to haul himself over the final climb; it looked certain he was set to take his first win in the absence of any other quick men making the select group come the finish. What pundits failed to estimate was the level of desire Valverde had been harbouring in order to begin shrinking the time he had lost on unexpectedly on the first day. Sadly for the battling Rojas, this meant scrapping the chance of a stage win in order to help Valverde cross victoriously and scoop the additional time bonus for the winner.

Course:

Day three at the Volta a Catalunya will feel like a trip home for many of the peloton’s riders, as the popular city of Girona hosts the start and finish of stage 3’s 156.6km route. Many professionals have made Girona their European base in recent years, meaning those with ingrained local knowledge of the roads will certainly be viewed as dangerous men. Two category 3 climbs will form the first 60km worth of racing and are unlikely to have much impact upon the day; they are the Alt de Romanya (2.6km avg. 3.4% max. 6%) and the Alt de la Ganga (3.7km avg. 4%, max. 6%.) A small flat section will follow these two climbs once overcome, but attention will soon turn to the category 1 Alt des Angels; which at 6km long (avg. 5.5% max. 8%) is sure to be the backdrop to the day’s winning move. Though this will not happen on the first ascent, instead the riders will drop back down into the valley and tackle the category 2 Alt de Santa Pellaia (5.9km avg. 4% max. 6%); leaving them with less than 40km left to ride once summited. Their focus will then once again fall upon the decisive Alt des Angels climb, one which is harder than it seems on paper and will guarantee a heavy shelling of many cyclists from the peloton. This will leave an elite group to drop down the subsequent 10.4km descent, which well then place them upon the remaining 2.6km of flat terrain to the finish line. Though the process will be selective, it is likely a larger group of riders (approximately 10-15) will stay in contention for the most part of this climb and descent; only once the road becomes flat are attacks bound to fly. Taking all of the above into account, the fastest finishing mountain man could benefit the most and take victory in Girona with a rapid sprint.

Spokenforks-Volta-a-Catalunya-Stage-Three

Contenders:

Given the ruthlessness he demonstrated today when depriving his teammate of a well deserved win, Alejandro Valverde seems guaranteed to have a big say as to the outcome of stage 3 in Girona. The terrain will allow him to pace the day well and break the legs of the thoroughbred sprinters on the final ascent of Alt des Angels. His intent to win this race has become apparent, meaning he will be a marked man in the eyes’ of the other general classification hopefuls during the day. Though this means he will have a hard time to distance Chris Froome or Alberto Contador before the finish, he is clearly the fastest man present in such an elite group and will fancy his chances of taking another time bonus with a win in Girona.

A man who has local knowledge which is bound to come in handy during Catalunya’s third day in the saddle is Irishman Dan Martin. He is not always on promising form at this time of year, despite having previously won this tough race overall in 2013, but has shown intent when taking bonus time at an intermediate sprint already this week. Similarly to Valverde, this finale will suit his potent sprint finish, one which helped him win Lombardy at the end of last season when others sat watching over their shoulders’. Not only is the attraction of winning a stage at home a great lure, he will also know that he is unlikely to stay the pace with the bigger name on the queen stage; so stage 3 would be the day to make a move.

Rigoberto Uran looked strong in Tirreno-Adriatico and boasts a challenging turn of pace to that of Valverde if it all comes down to a sprint. The supporting evidence to his claim for day three’s win is his performance on the same stage in 2012; taking third place in a sprint finish alongside Michael Albasini and Dario Cataldo on that occasion. He will be in contention, but whether he makes the stage winning move is hard to say given those who are likely to sit beside come the finish.

Beyond those named above, it is possible to make a case for the 15 or so riders who are likely to stick the pace right to the descent of the Alt des Angels. Of course a dark-horse always has the chance to cause a shock, so Julien Simon, Jonathan Hivert, Rafael Valls  Julian Alaphilippe should be noted in case the mood takes their fancy on the day.

Outcome:

1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Dan Martin 3rd Rigoberto Uran

Spokenforks-Volta-a-Catalunya-Stage-Five-Jose-Joaquin-Rojas

Volta a Catalunya – Stage Two Preview

Spokenforks predicted that the peloton would have to be on high alert in order to prevent the Volta a Catalunya being lost on the first day; they very nearly let exactly that happen. With a breakaway of Bart De Clercq, Pierre Rolland and eventual stage winner Maciej Paterski going clear early on to establish a advantage in excess of ten minutes over the bunch of title favourites. Whether or not riders are correct in blaming inaccurate updates from motos for allowing danger man Rolland to gather so much time during the day, they came agonisingly close to haemorrhaging enough time after the first three and a half hours of racing to render the following six days redundant. Eventually crossing the line only 2′ 40″ down on the three man breakaway, the favourites will be confident of overturning this deficit, but will have to up their focus and ensure this does not happen again.

Course:

Offering a terrain which fails to favour that of general classification riders or sprint teams, stage 2’s 191.8km run from Mataro to Olot will be another day which the peloton will need to keep a close eye on the breakaway’s composition. Yesterday was considered to be the only guaranteed day for a sprint finish, having blown this in quite spectacular fashion, it seems likely that many teams will work much harder to make stage 2 worthwhile for the breadth of sprinters assembled at this year’s Volta a Catalunya. Any such breakaway will be kept on a tighter leash; if only to buy insurance against the inconsistent time checks received during stage 1. The day’s riding will be a rolling affair, with the decisive moments likely to come in the final 15 kilometres as the peloton approaches the finish in Olot. Life will begin heading skywards before the bunch begin ascending the concluding category 3 climb of Alt de Montagut, once they are on the slopes of the climb, they will face 2.1km at an average gradient of 4.5%; maximum ramps of 7%. This will be summited with less than 15km left to race, but an uncategorised 3.8km section at an average of 5.2% will also need to be tackled before Olot’s finish line comes into view. Once completed, the bunch or breakaway will find only 6.2km separating them from a possible victory, the finish is extremely simple with few bends; the concluding 1300m being one far stretching boulevard to contest the win upon.

Spokenforks-Volta-a-Catalunya-Stage-Two

Contenders:

Though the first day offered nothing of great interest to suggest the form of any of the fast men, it equally failed to dismiss the chances of those originally fancied for stage one. Assuming the peloton will still be smarting from failing to control the previous day’s breakaway, the teams which possess a sprinter will do their upmost to make their presence here worthwhile. Fancied once again will be José Joaquín Rojas, predominately due to the much increased amount of climbing in the finale compared to that of the previous day’s stage final kilometres; something which will play into the hands of this sprinter who climbs so well. The last 1300m’s straight nature will be a negative for the Movistar rider however, benefiting the likes of Bryan Coquard more so if he manages to stay in contention. The young Frenchman can climb well and will be the fastest man left from a reduced bunch if able to represent his Europcar team at the finish. His compatriot Julian Alaphilippe might invest the most effort of all of the sprinters in order to contest the finish, especially given the support he is likely to find from his Etixx-Quick Step team. Despite being young, he is beginning to show the ability to endure these tougher conclusions in order to sprint for the win, but he might find this finish too close to his abilities’ limits right now. A man previously known for his support of Coquard is FDJ’s Kevin Reza, a rider who is bound to fancy the day’s rolling terrain given his noted ability to climb on such rolling terrain. Considering he left his support role as leadout man to Coquard, he will see this stage as a solid opportunity to prove why it was worthwhile; likely to be one of the fastest left after a testing day’s ride to Olot.

In terms of outsiders for the day, perhaps it is worth watching out for Alejandro Valverde and Dan Martin in the final 15km of racing. The latter showed intent to stay in contention when sprinting for a bonus second at the intermediate sprint on stage one and could find the concluding moments vaguely reminiscent of his recent win at Lombardia. With that in mind, Valverde is another quick finishing puncheur who would be able to cope with the climb of Alt de Montagut; before going on to contest the finale with his notoriously quick finish.

Outcome:

1st José Joaquín Rojas 2nd Kevin Reza 3rd Julian Alaphilippe 

 

Spokenforks-Volta-a-Catalunya-Stage-One-Jose-Joaquin-Rojas

Volta a Catalunya – Stage One Preview

With the year’s first classic out of the way, attention will once again turn to a battle royale amongst the major names in stage racing. Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Tejay Van Garderen, Rafal Majka, Romain Bardet, Dan Martin, Fabio Aru, and Rigoberto Uran are on the bill for what is likely to be a difficult to predict edition of the Volta a Catalunya. The week’s racing bears no time trial for the likes of Froome, Porte or Contador to hammer home an adavtange, nor does it offer their favourite types of climb to demonstrate their talents. Often here, those with a knack for short anaerobic efforts over sharp gradients will gain time on the pure climbers; meaning puncheur style riders are capable of causing an upset on the general classification with one well timed attack during the week.

Course:

Day one starts in the coastal town of Calella and also ends in the same Mediterranean town; making the 185.2km ride an out and back trip for the peloton. Opening with 75km of predominantly flat riding, the Alt de Viladrau will be the first uphill challenge of the week; 11.8km long and with an average of 3.8% (max 7%). This should be summited easily enough by approximately the 110km marker, but they are soon directed upwards once again by Alt de Coll Formic’s 7.8km category 1 climb (avg 5.2%, max 9%); topping out 55.5km from the finish back in Calella. Reward for completing this will be the subsequent long descent back towards the start town; though the day’s racing is not over yet. At 7.4km long with an average gradient of 3% and a maximum of 6%, the Alt de Collsacreu will form the launchpad for any final attempts to escape off the front, or for the day’s already established breakaway to drive their advantage to the line. The 10km descent from the summit will be a hectic affair, eventually levelling out with just 8km of racing remaining before the finish line; the last 500m contested upon a 2% gradient. Assuming a breakaway has failed to keep the peloton at bay, a sprint finish seems guaranteed after this testing opening day in Catalunya; one which should be interesting given the surprising depth of quick men at this year’s edition.

Spokenforks-Volta-a-Catalunya-Stage-One

Contenders:

Catalunya has frequently proven to be one of the hardest races to predict from one day to the next; this year appears to be no different on stage one. Given the course’s terrain, the peloton will have to be on reasonable alert to ensure no danger men sneak into the expected breakaway once out of Calella. The queen stage is the only clear cut opportunity to overturn a deficit, so those aiming for the general classification cannot afford to let someone capable of defending a lead make it into a break which sails in minutes ahead of the peloton. This should mean teams will work hard to guarantee a sprint finish come the end, making for fascinating viewing to not only see who has the legs to survive the climbs, but to also have the energy required for a stage winning effort.

Bryan Coquard is deemed the favourite by many for this curtain raiser in Calella, coming here on the back of promising performances at Paris-Nice and he will be eager to finally break his WorldTour duck in Catalunya. There is no question as to his sprinting ability, coming to the race as one of the fastest men in the peloton, but little is said of his climbing ability. The lightweight rider will be confident of making it to the finish in good condition and will benefit from a reduced bunch sprint with no leadout trains. In terms of raw speed, Caleb Ewan is possibly the next fastest man in Spain, but this is a big step up in quality for the young Australian. He travels to the race having picked up two wins at the Tour of Langkawi, where he found a nemesis in Andrea Guardini most days; competition was lacking for Ewan beyond that of Guardini though. Ewan climbs well for a man with such unbridled pace, but is likely to find the depth of talent here too much to overcome in order to win.

Despite abandoning on stage 7 of last year’s race, Luka Mezgec walked away with three stage wins and will have been excited to attempt the same in 2015. However, the Slovenian rider has been sick this year and had a torrid time during Tirreno-Adriatico where he crashed hard on the second day; eventually going home on stage 6. Beyond his win at this year’s Haut Var, it is difficult to gauge his current condition after such misfortune and he might only ride into form towards latter stages of the race. Consistently a few wheels down on Mezgec throughout last year’s sprint finishes in Catalunya was Julian Alaphilippe, riding here again with ambitions of stealing a win. The young Frenchman has not had an opening to the season much better than Mezgec, but appeared to cope well when supporting team leader Michal Kwiatkowski at Paris-Nice. He should be afforded greater freedom in the sprints during this race and is a talent which can only improve year on year; worth watching out for.

Perhaps the man coming to Catalunya with the most consistent sprinting form so far this season is José Joaquin Rojas, starting the race having finished Milan-San Remo less than 24 hours earlier. Often criticised for coming up short when it matters, 2015 is already showing encouraging signs for the Spaniards hope’s of taking a win on stage 1. During Paris-Nice he finished 6th, 5th, 5th and 5th in the bunch kicks; missing out on higher placings when bullied by those bolstering dominant leadout trains. The story will be different in Spain however, with many of the teams in attendance focusing their resources on the general classification, rather than supporting sprinters. He is one of the quickest after the likes of Ewan and Coquard, but his real strength comes in his ability to climb better than the rest of the sprinters. Rojas will be confident of overcoming the day’s climbing relatively easily compared to others and will seize any sprint finish here fervently.

Outcome: 1st José Joaquin Rojas 2nd Bryan Coquard  3rd Julian Alaphilippe