A star-studded line-up headed by Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky) should see the sparks fly at the week-long Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, which starts on Monday and, with no time trial on the route, will once more probably be decided in its few mountainous stages.
For the fourth year running, the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya begins with a trek through rolling terrain inland from the start/finish coastal town of Callela. If past history is anything to go by, both this stage and a much flatter stage from Mataró to Olot the next day will end in bunch sprints.
The mountains begin to kick in, albeit gently, on stage three, with a double ascent of the Alt des Angels climb, classified with a first category status which its level of difficulty arguably does not deserve, close to the finish in Girona.
Stage four, on the other hand, with a 21-kilometre special category ascent of La Creuta – very long but never too steep – and a first category summit finish at La Molina, is far tougher. Taking the riders deep into the Pyrenees, the weather, should it turn bad, may prove as big a factor as stage four’s four categorised climbs and the Volta's only summit finish.
A last kilometre uphill sprint by Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) netted the Catalan both the stage and the lead at the same finish of La Molina in the Volta last year and the Catalan held on to his minimal four-second advantage through to the last day’s hilly stage in Barcelona’s Montjuic Park. On paper, given there is no time trial and the only real remaining challenge on the route is the same stage through Montjuic on the last day, whoever takes the top spot overall at La Molina could well follow in Purito’s wheel tracks and be crowned the outright winner 72 hours later.
One of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya’s key attractions for some fans is that it will host the second round of the much-heralded Chris Froome-Alberto Contador ‘duel’ following their first encounter of 2015, in the Vuelta a Andalucia in February. In a hard-fought five day race, Contador beat Froome in the time trial and netted the toughest mountain stage, but Froome bounced back with a vengeance to secure the following day’s stage win and a narrow overall victory over the Spaniard.
Tirreno-Adriatico was, in theory, where the two were due to go head to head again, but Contador was nowhere near his 2014 condition for the recently completed race, finishing fifth, whil Froome missed out on it altogether because of illness.
It will be intriguing to see which of the two turns in the better performance in what is set to be their only remaining encounter prior to the Tour de France. For the record, Contador finished second last year, Froome sixth. But as Nairo Quintana (Movistar)’s triumph in Tirreno-Adriatico perhaps indicated, Contador and Froome's near-automatic status of favourites may simply mean more added pressure for the two while other top riders, flying a little lower under the media radar, can focus purely on winning.
The line-up of other top contenders is certainly impressive: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), the defending champion Rodriguez (Katusha), former Volta winner Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin), Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing) – winner of a stage there last year – Fabio Aru (Astana), Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick Step), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) all have the potential to steal Froome and Contador’s thunder.