By Jeff Jones
The 86th Volta Ciclista a Catalunya one again forms part of the UCI ProTour calendar, and for the second year in a row is being run in May, at the same time as the Giro d'Italia. 25 teams will take part in the race: the 20 ProTour teams plus the Continental Pro outfits Comunidad Valenciana, Relax-Gam, Kaiku, Andalucía Paul Versan and 3 Molinos Resort. The clash with the Giro means that not all the top riders will be available, and by the looks of the field, the shift from June to May seems to have decreased its importance as Tour de France preparation. Nevertheless, there are more than enough good riders to make it an interesting race.
Last year's winner Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel) is missing from the line up, and his young teammate Trent Lowe will wear number one instead. Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (2004 winner) and Santiago Botero will be Phonak's main men, while Joaquín Rodríguez and Isaac Gálvez will be in action for Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears.
Rabobank has an interesting line up with Vuelta a España winner Denis Menchov, along with the experienced Michael Boogerd and Erik Dekker. T-Mobile is only taking six riders, including Tour candidate Giuseppe Guerini. Team CSC has its classics crew in Spain, with Paris-Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O'Grady, who is looking to rebuild his form after a bad crash earlier this year.
AG2R's grand tour man Francisco Mancebo will be showing himself in Catalunya, as will Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer and Davitamon-Lotto's Cadel Evans. Euskaltel will bring Samuel Sánchez and Dauphiné 2005 winner Iñigo Landaluze to the party, while Liberty Seguros has its young talent Luis León Sánchez back in action after a break. Filippo Pozzato is another rider to watch, while among the sprinters, Erik Zabel (Milram), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Àngel Edo (Andalucía-Paul Versan) will all line up.
Unlike last year's team time trial kick-off, this year's "Volta", as it's known, commences with a 12.6 km individual time trial in Salou. It's flat, and will serve to seed the riders for the coming week of racing in the mountains of north eastern Spain. Stage 2, 156 km starting and finishing in Cambrils, includes three category 2 climbs, and with the last one at 33 km to go, a bunch sprint is unlikely.
The third stage, 176 km between Salou and Sant Carles de la Ràpita, is definitely one for the sprinters, who have to do a lot of climbing this week. Apart from the Cat. 2 Coll de Fatxes after 65 km and the Cat. 3 Alt de Som, the rest of the stage is fairly flat. But stage four between Perafort and Vallnord (Andorra) is another matter. The queen stage of the race is 225 km in length and finishes with the special category ascent up to Vallnord Sector Arcalís. This climb is 2220m high, 17.1 km long, and averages 6.7% with a maximums of 8.8%.
The following day is another sprinters' stage between Llívia and Manlleu over 161.5 km, but the Cat. 2 Alt de Sant Agusti with 23 km to go might throw a spanner into the works. Stage 6 between Manlleu and Lloret de Mar starts with a long uphill section, then a descent from 810m almost down to sea level, before the Cat. 1 Alt de Sant Grau (6.3km at 6%) may split things up with 39 km to go. The final stage is from Lloret de Mar to Barcelona over just 121 km. Once again, there is a Cat. 2 climb in the finale, with 20 km to go, and the sprinters will have to survive this if they are to triumph in Barcelona.
Stage 1 - May 15: Salou - Salou ITT, 12.6 km
Stage 2 - May 16: Cambrils - Cambrils, 156.8 km
Stage 3 - May 17: Salou - Sant Carles de la Ràpita, 176.7 km
Stage 4 - May 18: Perafort - Vallnord (Sector Arcalís) Andorra, 225.0 km
Stage 5 - May 19: Llívia - Manlleu, 161.5 km
Stage 6 - May 20: Manlleu - Lloret de Mar, 166.4 km
Stage 7 - May 21: Lloret de Mar - Barcelona, 121.6 km