The 93rd edition of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya has attracted a strong field, including a number of likely contenders for Giro d'Italia and Tour de France honours. Among those lining up in the seven-day race are Sky's Bradley Wiggins, Movistar duo Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana, Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), BMC's Cadel Evans, Lampre's Michele Scarponi and local favourite Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
Featuring Caja Rural, Cofidis and Sojasun in addition to the 19 ProTour teams, the Volta kicks off with two stages that should favour sprinters, finishing in Calella and Banyoles, respectively. Day three brings a radical change of scenery as the race heads high into the Pyrenees to finish at Vallter 2000, where the Cima Peris tops out at 2,200m and is just a handful of kilometres from the French border.
The following day is tougher still. There are five climbs on the menu, the final two classed as special category. Although it averages less than five percent, the Port del Cantó climbs for almost 25km. The summit finish climb of the Port Ainé follows right after it. At 19km, this is another long one and is sure to be tougher given its average of 6.5% and all of the climbing that has gone before.
Stage five into Lleida is more straightforward, with a bunch finish likely. The penultimate day pays tribute to Xavier Tondo, the Catalan rider who died in tragic circumstances while training at the Sierra Nevada resort in May 2011. The stage finishes in Tondo's home town of Valls in front of the Xavier Tondo Sports Centre. The final short stage into Barcelona could produce a surprise or two as it includes eight laps on a circuit including the Alt de Montjuïc.
The race will also be paying tribute to the 100th edition of the Tour de France in the shape of a daily sprint for which a jersey and special prize will be awarded.
A stage winner in Oman and Tirreno, climbing ace Joaquim Rodríguez believes the course suits him perfectly. The Andorra-based Katusha leader was planning to look over the Vallter 2000 and Port Ainé climbs, where the Volta will almost certainly be decided. "For me, these stages are better than two time trials for example. If you look at the Tours of Switzerland and Romandy or Paris-Nice, they always have a couple of summit finishes, and they provide those races with the maximum of emotion," said Rodríguez, who also praised the decision to pay tribute to Tondo.
Good friends, the two riders broke away together on the 2010 Volta stage into Seu d'Urgell, where Tondo claimed the stage victory and Rodríguez the race lead.