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.
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.
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