Contador, Aru, Froome and Quintana to clash in star-studded Volta a Catalunya

The 2016 Volta a Catalunya will boast an all-star cast thanks to the presence of the winners of last year’s three Grand Tours, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Fabio Aru (Astana), and two-time Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar).

Prior to the Criterium du Dauphiné, the Volta a Catalunya (March 21-27) is the one occasion in the first half of the 2016 season in which Froome and almost all of his top Tour de France rivals will cross swords. Two very tough Pyrenean stages and the prestige of winning Spain’s oldest stage race, which began in 1911, will likely ensure the Volta is once again much more than a mere warm-up exercise en route to July.

After his early win in the Herald Sun Tour and his training camp in South Africa, the Volta a Catalunya will mark Froome’s debut both in Europe and in a WorldTour event this season. A bout of illness last year made the Volta a Catalunya a tough race for Froome, and he may well want to set the record straight in 2016, particularly when there are so many of his key rivals present.

Even for an event that has grown increasingly popular in recent years among cycling’s top stage racers, this year’s Volta a Catalunya has a bumper crop of star names. Apart from Contador, Aru, Froome, and Quintana, the start list includes defending champion Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), Daniel Martin (Etixx-Quick Step), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale).

Double overall winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), missing from last year’s race because of illness, will be another key name to follow.

The publication of the Volta’s detailed route this week reveals its usual combination of very hilly stages, a two-day incursion into the Pyrenees where the race will almost certainly be decided, and a final showdown in Barcelona’s Montjuic park.

Climbs as hard as the first category Col Formic feature mid-way through the 175.8 kilometre loop inland from the start and finish of stage 1 in the coastal town of Calella, which also hosted the Volta’s opening leg in 2015.

However, the decisive challenges will come on the stage 3 summit finish in La Molina, the Pyrenean ski station where Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) won in 2015, and Friday’s lengthy final ascent to Ainé, where Dan Martin (Etixx-Quick Step) took a spectacular lone victory in the 2013 race.

As is an unwritten tradition in recent Volta routes, after the Pyrenees the pressure then drops notably with two stages that have tended to do little but highlight the Volta’s continuing strange lack of a time trial. The short, hilly Montjuic circuit stage in Barcelona on the final Sunday has rarely seen any major upsets in the overall in recent years, either. But with such an exceedingly strong field and what tend to be narrow time gaps between the overall contenders, the chances are the sparks will fly right up until the final finish line.

2016 Volta a Catalunya stages:

Monday, March 21: stage 1: Calella - Calella 175.8 kilometres
Tuesday, March 22: stage 2: Mataró - Olot 178.7 kilometres
Wednesday, March 23: stage 3: Girona - La Molina 172.1 kilometres
Thursday, March 24: stage 4: Bagà - Port Ainé 172.2 kilometres
Friday, March 25: stage 5: Rialp - Valls 187.2 kilometres
Saturday, March 26: stage 6: Sant Joan Despí - Vilanova i la Geltrú 197.2 kilometres
Sunday, March 27: stage 7: Montjuic - Montjuic 136 kilometres.

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