Chris Froome faces a formidable list of opponents in this year’s Volta a Catalunya, where after his impressive first win of 2016 in Australia, the Team Sky rider will be looking for more success. The race, which starts on Monday, will be his first WorldTour event of the season.
The line-up for the seven-day, 1,220 Volta a Catalunya includes almost all the main contenders for both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. In fact, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Mikel Landa (Team Sky) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are three of the few top stage racing names who will be missing from Monday’s race start in the coastal resort of Calella.
However, the line-up in Spain’s oldest stage race - which started in 1911 - reads like a modern-day Who’s Who of stage racing. Apart from Froome, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team), and defending champion Richie Porte (BMC Racing) will be amongst those headlining. The provisional start list of top names also includes double Catalunya winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team), Dan Martin (Etixx-Quick Step), Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida), Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and Ryder Hesjedal (Trek-Segafredo).
The list of sprinters, perhaps unsurprisingly given the Volta a Catalunya will once again have a fairly hilly route, is a little more limited. But Nacer Bouhanni’s strong showing in Paris-Nice suggests the Cofidis fastman will be the one to beat on the Volta’s few flatter days.
Given it is his first race in Europe this season, Froome will draw much of the media’s attention, though. Team Sky’s line-up shows that the Briton, whose best placing in four participations in Catalunya is sixth in 2014, will have all the backing he could wish for should he end up battling for the overall victory. Alongside Froome for Sky will be Geraint Thomas, whose recent performance in Paris-Nice and the Volta ao Algarve, beating Contador on both occasions, makes the Welshman another potential candidate for victory. The bulk of the Sky riders who gave Thomas sterling support in Paris-Nice mountainous stages - Ben Swift, Nicolas Roche, Mikel Nieve and Ian Boswell will be joined by Wout Poels, who took a convincing win for Sky in the Vuelta a Valencia in February, and defending World Time Trial Champion Vasil Kiryienka.
Once again lacking, somewhat inexplicably, an individual or team time trial, the Volta a Catalunya will - assuming the snowy weather that blighted Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico stays away - be decided by its two toughest mountain days, on stages three and four. It is not inconceivable, either, that the time bonuses on offer for stage wins have a major effect on the overall outcome. Stage three’s summit finish of La Molina in the Pyrenees, where Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing) won last year, is followed 24 hours later by the grinding, long ascent to Port Ainé, where Dan Martin (Etixx-Quick Step) pulled off one of his most memorable victories en-route to the overall win in 2013. And it could well be that given the easier, last three days that follow, once again the first rider home at Porte Ainé raises his arms as the overall winner in Barcelona on March 27th, too.