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Hard but not huge climbs will keep time gaps small
The podium of the Volta a Catalunya 2009: Dan Martin, winner Alejandro Valverde and Haimar Zubeldia.
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The Volta a Catalunya, one of the oldest stage races in professional cycling and the second stop on the UCI's ProTour, is set to begin in Lloret de Mar on March 22 - nearly two months earlier than previous editions thanks to the move of the Tour of California to May.
The Spanish race used to take place in June and was one of the prime races for preparation for the Tour de France, having seen past winners in Miguel Indurain, Claudio Chiapucci, Joseba Beloki and Roberto Heras.
Since 2005 it has languished, overlapped by the Giro d'Italia, in a May slot which it has occupied since the inception of the ProTour. In recent years it has attracted a string of B-teams and Tour riders not at their peak of form. The organisers have played with the formula to attract the big names, shortening the time trial down to under 4km in recent years to lure in sprinters.
The race broke from tradition last year, keeping the prologue but adding in several tough mountain finishes to attract the likes of Alejandro Valverde, who won the race by a handful of seconds over Garmin's Dan Martin and Haimar Zubeldia of Astana.
This year, the race has moved to March at a time when the Grand Tour contenders are still building their form and the high peaks of Andorra are buried in snow. As a result, the pendulum swung away from the pure climbers with a flatter parcours. However, its close proximity with Milan-San Remo means that the top sprinters, like two-time prologue winner Thor Hushovd, will not be present at the start.
The race has managed to attract Mark Cavendish, who will be using it to make up for a winter disrupted by dental problems, and Andy Schleck, who aims to use it as a build-up to the Ardennes Classics, but all eyes will be on the on-form attackers like Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank), Luis-Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) to vie for the overall win.
At 3.7km, the opening stage has gone to Hushovd in recent years, but in his absence look to powerful riders like Sanchez, Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank), or maybe a surprise from Milram's Luke Roberts or HTC-Columbia's Tejay Van Garderen to be fighting it out over seconds to claim the first leader's jersey.
Stage two contains one category 1 hiccup early in the stage, but will most likely be a bunch romp into Banyoles after 182.6km, especially considering the Alt dels Angels did not stop Hushovd from claiming a second consecutive stage back in 2008 when the same climb was 100km closer to the finish.
The following day, which heads into the hills for one hors categorie mountain and three category 2 climbs, is a prime opportunity for the breakaway artists who can use the ramps before the big plunge down to La Seu d'Urgell to stay clear to the finish. In 2008, that man was Cyril Dessel, who claimed the yellow jersey here but failed to hold on for the overall win.
Stage four offers a bit of relief during the first half of the stage, heading back down toward the coast. However, a nasty climb, the Alt de Paumeres, on the two finishing circuits could prove to be the launch pad for another escapee to steal time toward the GC.
The climb proved fatal to Dessel's 2008 lead when it was crossed only once. At 8.6km in length and an average 9 percent grade, and passed twice in the final 50km of this nearly 210km stage, this will be one day where the climbers will have a distinct advantage.
This will be a good test to see if Bradley Wiggins' switch from time trial specialist to GC contender has paid off, and for Garmin's Christian Vande Velde and Liquigas' Ivan Basso as a test of form, and it will certainly be the most critical stage for the overall classification. A fast descent of just over 10km could keep the time gaps to a minimum, however.
Stage five from Asco to Cabaces contains four classified climbs with a little kicker to the finish and a category two climb blocking the way with 15km to go. As the last real opportunity to open up big time gaps, expect plenty of action on the Alt de la Figuera.
The last two stages should be a good test for Cavendish, the penultimate day testing his ability to climb as what should be a bunch sprint will be made more difficult by three passes of a short, sharp climb before the finish in Barcelona, while the pancake flat final day is perfectly suited to the Manxman or Saxo Bank's fast brothers, JJ and Sebastian Haedo.