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The final podium of the 2013 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya (L-R): Joaquim Rodriguez, Daniel Martin and Michele Scarponi
The 94th edition of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya kicks off on Monday, March 24 with the fifth round of the UCI WorldTour boasting a deep roster of the peloton's general classification stars.
2013 champion Daniel Martin, Girona-based like many of his Garmin-Sharp teammates, returns to defend his title in the region of Spain where he resides during the season, and the Irishman faces a tough parcours and arguably an even tougher list of GC rivals eager to stamp their authority on the race.
Facing off against Martin are recent Tirreno-Adriatico champion Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), recent Paris-Nice champion Carlos Betancur (AG2R La Mondiale), former Catalunya champion and 2013 runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Chris Froome and Richie Porte (Sky), Laurens ten Dam and Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), Sammy Sanchez and Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar).
The seven-day stage race is devoid of time trials, and due to the hilly nature of the route - featuring two mountain finishes among the week's 25 classified climbs - there's nary a sprinter in sight on the start list.
The race begins with a 169.7km stage starting and finishing in Calella for the third straight year, and once again the inclusion of a couple of stiff climbs in the final 40km favours the likes of Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) - the opening day winner last year from a 13-man escape group and the type of rider whose finishing kick packs quite a punch in the absence of pure sprinters.
The second stage, 168km from Mataró to Girona, also features some climbing close to the finish line, but not quite as arduous as the previous day. Nonetheless, with a punchy climb just 6km from the end and downhill from there to the finish line, it may prove a day for someone like Carlos Betancur who won his first of two stages at Paris-Nice under similar circumstances.
Stages three and four at Catalunya is where the general classification picture should solidify as the peloton faces back-to-back mountain finishes. The 162.9km third stage concludes on the category 1-rated climb to La Molina while the 166.4km fourth stage finishes on the hors catégorie Vallter 2000-Setcases ascent, whose elevation of 2,200m is the high point of the entire race and terrain favoured by Nairo Quintana, the winner on Vallter 2000-Setcases in 2013.
Stage 5 has a similar feel to the first two stages with a category 2 climb situated a mere 8.9km from the finish line while stage 6 may be the only day for fast men like Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing), Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida) or Leigh Howard (Orica GreenEdge) to shine as the peloton faces a slight downhill over the final 55km.
The race concludes with a 120.7km stage in Barcelona that packs a sting in the tail as the peloton negotiates eight ascents of the Montjuic climb in the finale as part of the day's finishing circuit.