In a race that was decided over a similar parcours by single-digit seconds between the top three last year, the 2:40 minutes that the peloton gave up in today's opening stage of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya to three escapees could very well be the end for the GC hopefuls. Maciej Paterski (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), winner of the mountains classification in last year's Tour of Poland, Pierre Rolland (Europcar), fourth overall in last year's Giro d'Italia, and Bart De Clercq, a Giro stage winner in 2011 are not exactly the class of throwaways who should be put on such a long leash, so what happened?
Trek Factory Racing directeur Alain Gallopin sees the situation as a result of modern-day cycling. "In the past such a situation would not have happened," he said. “There was a problem with the organisation of the race, they announced a gap of six minutes but in reality it was 13 minutes, which surprised everybody. With a stage like today with a lot of uphills and downhills, it was difficult to close that gap. We can close a gap in the uphills, but not in the long downhills. I think that also played into their win.
“I also think that the teams don't talk together as they used to,” Gallopin added. “Letting guys such as Rolland or De Clercq have such a large gap on the GC is probably not a good idea."
The oddities began early in the stage, when a breakaway formed that seemed to be the standard make-up of riders who would be given a few minutes lead before being pulled back for a sprint finish, but Orica-GreenEdge chased it down only 40km into the stage.
According to the race website, the group had contained Jan Polanc (Lampre-Merida), Johannes Fröhlinger (Giant-Alpecin), Martijn Keizer (Lotto NL-Jumbo), Christophe Laborie (Bretagne), Jose Sarmiento (Colombia), Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Loic Chetout (Cofidis), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Anton Vorobyev (Katusha) and Manuel Senni (BMC).
Orica-GreenEdge directeur sportif Dave McPartland explained that they weren't happy with the composition of the breakaway, which "had rival sprint teams which would have had us chasing all day, so we brought that back."
The next group to go would be the winning move, but an impasse between the sprinters' teams and the teams of the GC hopefuls caused the trio's gap to balloon and despite a furious chase, no team could close it down.
Katusha directeur sportif Dmitry Konyshev was confused with Orica's reluctance to help chase the trio after they pulled back the first breakaway. "We were happy to have Vorobyev in the original break and really did not understand why Orica-GreenEdge chased so hard to bring them back, especially when they did not chase at all when the next three went away. In general there were many strange team tactics in play today," Konyshev said.
But Orica's McPartland said they chased for a while, but gave up after not getting any help. “It was a reasonable group – a small group, no sprint teams," he said of the trio, "but we couldn’t do 150km on the front alone. When we had no collaboration from other teams to bring it back to a sprint, we called it off.
“From there, the big general classification teams had a big standoff looking at each other until they hit panic stations when we hit 70km to go and the gap was still 12 minutes and began to chase.”
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), was surprised at how hard it was to close the gap down. “The peloton was pulling hard, really hard, in an unbelievable way! It was indeed surprising that the gap wasn't narrowing at all. At the end, we gave all we had and managed to bring the gap down. However, given the stages we have ahead, that difference isn't a joke at all," Contador said.
Giant-Alpecin could have been expected to work to bring back the breakaway for sprinter Luka Mezgec, who last year won a similar opening stage, but their strategy dictated otherwise. "We decided before the stage that we avoid chasing if possible as the profile seemed too much to set up a sprint and it proved that the pace over the climbs was too high for Luka as he dropped off the pace with Johannes and Tom [Stamsnijder]," said directeur sportif Addy Engels.