Team Sky's sports director Nico Portal has confirmed that, as expected, Chris Froome will be leading the team in the Volta a Catalunya, whilst the British squad will have Geraint Thomas and Wout Poels, two of their strongest riders of the first part of the 2016 season as other options for the week-long stage race.
Team Sky won the Volta a Catalunya last year with Richie Porte, whilst Froome, coming back from illness, turned in a much more uneven performance, losing nearly 30 minutes on one mountain stage.
This year, although Porte - the WorldTour leader for much of last spring - has moved on to BMC, Sky have had a very strong start to the season. A large part of that was due to Froome when he won his first race of the season, the Herald Sun Tour in early February, and Sky, with Froome and Pete Kennaugh dominated the Australian event from beginning to end.
But as Portal points out, that was over a month ago. Since then Froome has been putting in some solid training blocks, but although he has been going well outside racing, exactly how Froome will measure up in Catalunya, his first European and first WorldTour race of the season against a very strong field "is an incognito for now." At the same time, Poels won in the Volta a Valencia, that was as long ago as Froome's win in Australia, whilst Geraint Thomas has just won Paris-Nice, beating Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) for a second time this season - but had a crash late on in Milano-Sanremo.
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Speaking to Cyclingnews on the eve of the Volta a Catalunya, Portal had yet to reach the team hotel in Catalonia and talk with Thomas, but he says initial reports are that the Welshman is in good shape despite the crash. "Tomorrow" - in a hilly opening stage where the race has broken up in the past - "we'll have a better idea."
"Given G was so good in Paris-Nice, he should be good in Catalunya, but this race is very different. The climbs are longer and harder and there's a very high number of big names here, all the biggest hitters."
Such a broad field of possible contenders creates yet more question marks about riders relative condition. "Within that group there are riders like Contador [Tinkoff] who have done two stage races, and others like Froomey who haven't raced for a while.
"Chris has told me he's going well, so we'll see. We've got two stages before the high mountains to pick up the race rhythm. Froomey is the leader, but G and Woet will have their options."
As Portal points out, with riders of Froome's calibre, "it's different when he's done other races like Tirreno or Paris-Nice straight before here, because then you'd know exactly how he's going. But for now he's an incognito."
The inclusion of an individual time trial in the Volta a Catalunya route, Portal says, "would have been good for Froome, above all because he's been doing a bit more work on his time trial bike, given there's that time trial in the Tour which is so important." As things stand, the stage to the major climb to Port Ainé on Thursday, will be all but decisive.
"It's not that hard a climb, but it's very long and going up at this time of year is different to in the summer. Then we're at more than 50 kilometres at more than 1,000 metres above sea level during that stage. Plus there's the double ascent of La Molina on the day before.
"I think if a rider can make a difference [overall] on those two stages, it'll be very hard to get it back on the last stage to Montjuic - although, if someone has a bad day, it's possible. Really, this is like Paris-Nice, it can all come down to the last moments of the last stage."
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