Tour Down Under 2014

24-30 March 2014

The line up in Tirreno-Adriatico this year was very strong but it’s nothing compared to what we will see in Volta a Catalunya. The Top 4 from last year’s Tour de France are here, together with a bunch of strong climbers and stage race riders. It’s difficult to pick an overall winner already, but one thing is for sure; we will be in for a great show!

The route:
There aren’t any time trials in this year’s Volta a Catalunya. This means every second gained will be of huge importance. It may sound like a broken record, but, like in Tour Down Under and Paris-Nice, the bonus seconds could very well end up deciding who’s going to win this race. There are 10, 6 and 4 seconds on the finishing line - except for stage 3 and 4 - and with a lumpy route, the GC riders will be eager to steal a few seconds whenever possible.

The way I see it, there is only one stage for the sprinters in this race, stage 6. The remaining stages all include a climb close to the finishing line. This means, it will be very difficult to control the race and we should see many attacks late in the stages. The Queen Stage of Volta a Catalunya is stage 4, finishing on the HC climb Vallter 2000. The stage features five categorized climbs and the winner of the day, will most likely also end on the overall podium in Barcelona.

However, nothing is settled until the final stage is over. With eight laps on Montjuic, the GC can still be turned upside down if the top favorites decide to go for it. The climb includes a couple of steep parts and, with 10 bonus seconds on the line, the leader’s jersey might change hands on the final day of the race. With two uphill finishes it might sound off, that the general classification still should be within seconds on the last day. Still, don’t forget that there were only 9 seconds separating the first nine riders on Vallter 2000 last year. There aren’t any bonus seconds up for grabs this day and since the four top favorites are on such an equal level, I doubt we will see much bigger gaps this year.

The favorites:
When I talk about the four top favorites, naturally I’m talking about Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. In Tirreno-Adriatico, Alberto Contador proved to be back at his former level. He won the two mountain stages and the race overall. Especially his second stage win was spectacular after attacking with 35 km to go. Now, the whole world is looking forward to seeing the fight between Contador and Chris Froome - arguable the two best Grand Tour riders in recent years. The duel was delayed after Froome had to skip Tirreno-Adriatico due to back pains but he now seems to be ready again. He’s probably not 100 % yet and therefore, I think Alberto Contador is the number one favorite for this year’s Volta a Catalunya.

Nairo Quintana is focusing on winning the Giro d’Italia this year. So far, his preparation has been flawless - winning Tour de San Luis overall and finishing second in Tirreno-Adriatico - and I’m sure he will continue to deliver here as well. The best GC riders in the world are taking part in Volta a Catalunya and the simple fact of this means that everybody will be extra motivated to do well. In my eyes, Nairo Quintana is the most gifted climber since Marco Pantani. He couldn’t keep up with Contador in Tirreno but after a tough week of racing, I think Quintana will be much harder to drop in Catalunya. However, don’t forget the Giro is his big target. All this is just a part of the Colombian’s preparation.

Update: After a few days in Italy, trying out some of the climbs for this year's Giro d'Italia, Nairo Quintana returned with a little cold. Therefore, he's starting out Volta a Catalunya on antibiotics.

Claiming that the bonus seconds will be important, I think Purito Rodriguez will have a good chance of winning overall as well. Being from Catalonia, Purito is naturally always aiming big in this race. He won it in 2010 and finished second last year. Purito showed to be in good shape in Tour of Oman in February where he finished fourth overall after taking fourth place on the big mountain stage. Since then, he’s been training on Teide, on Tenerife, and he’s now ready to start the first part of season that really matters to him. Purito is amongst the best climbers in the world and he’s fast on the line. Furthermore, he’s explosive on the short climbs. If he’s still within striking distance - and I think he will be - on the final day of the race, expect him to attack on Montjuic like he did in the Vuelta España in 2012.

The outsiders:
It would be a huge surprise if none of the four riders mentioned above won Volta a Catalunya this year. However, the field is extremely strong and there are great climbers on almost all the teams. Ag2r is leading the World Tour team ranking after great performances from Carlos Betancur, Domenico Pozzovio and Jean-Christophe Peraud. The first two are on the start list here and together with Romain Bardet, the French team should be able to put at least one rider in Top10 overall again. Betancur is very fast on the line - he proved that by winning two stages in Paris-Nice - and if he wins one of the first stages, the bonus seconds will put him in a perfect position for another great result. However, originally Carlos Betancur wasn’t planning to ride this race. His first target was Paris-Nice, which means he’s now ‘only’ looking to win a stage and then support his team’s designated leader.

Another Colombian with a good chance of success in Volta a Catalunya is Rigoberto Uran. He did very well in Tour of Oman, finishing second after Chris Froome. He also put in a great performance supporting Michal Kwiatkowski in Tirreno-Adriatico. This race is one of the first big goals for Uran this year and I think he will get very close to the overall podium. Uran is as strong as an ox in the mountains and he’s actually quite fast on the line as well. If he can get some bonus seconds, he will be a dangerous outsider for win.

I could mention more or less half the peloton as interesting jokers for this race. However, I will only pick a few. One of these is Ivan Basso. The Italian is, once again, aiming for the Giro d’Italia this year and this race is an important test for him. Usually Basso only does well in very few races each year. Often he’s just taking part in these kind of races as training, like he did in Tirreno-Adriatico. Still, when Basso says he plans to test himself, he almost always delivers. This race suits Ivan Basso very well and I think he will finish close to Top5 overall.

It wouldn’t be fair not to mention last year’s winner, Daniel Martin as well. He hasn’t had a very impressive start of the season, but that wasn’t the case last year either. Still, Martin won the race overall thanks to an impressive solo attack on the big mountain stage. Like a big part of the peloton, Daniel Martin lives in Girona and knows these roads very well. The climbs suits him perfectly and, being a fast rider, he will have the possibility to pick up a few bonus seconds as well. Like many of the mentioned riders, Daniel Martin is aiming at the Giro d’Italia this year. Therefore, this will be an important test for him against his top competitors for the Italian Grand Tour.

For other strong Top10 candidates look to: Wilco Kelderman, Fabio Aru, Chris Horner, Daniel Navarro, Samuel Sanchez, Tejay van Garderen, Warren Barguil, Alexandre Geniez, Luisle Sanchez and the Trek trio Robert Kiserlovski, Haimar Zubeldia and Julian Arredondo. Also, don’t forget about Richie Porte. He seemed very strong in Tirreno-Adriatico before he withdrew after getting sick. If he’s back in the same shape, Team Sky will have two riders with a solid chance of winning this race.

Personally, I very much look forward to seeing what Esteban Chaves can do in this field. The young Colombian - yes, another strong Colombian - is amongst the best climbers of his generation. He had a horrible crash last year, threatening to ruin his career before it really got started. Luckily, he made it back and even managed to get a World Tour contract with GreenEdge. In his first stage race after his crash, Chaves finished fourth overall in Tour de Langkawi after taking fourth place on the big mountain stage of the race. Esteban Chaves is a pure climber. The steeper the climb, the better he is. In this field we shouldn’t put too much pressure on the youngster, especially this soon after his comeback, but don’t be surprised if you see him up front when the road starts to kick up.

Update: Originally, the race organizers didn't have Jakob Fuglsang set to participate. However, the Danish climber is very much in the race. At start of stage 1, Fuglsang told me that he feels good and that he's aiming at the GC. Look out!

Before finishing this preview, let’s take a quick look at the seven stages of Volta a Catalunya 2014.

Stage 1

Volta a Catalunya - Stage 1
This is a very difficult stage to predict the outcome of. Three categorized climbs within the last 70 km will make for a hard finish. There are only 18.5 km to go from the top of the final climb. The run-in is tricky with a couple of dangerous corners and a late breakaway might make it all the way to the line. The most likely scenario, however, is a sprint within a reduced group.

Stage 2

Volta a Catalunya - Stage 2
Only the first two climbs have been categorized for this stage. Still, it doesn’t change that fact that the riders have additionally two climbs to overcome within the last 40 km. The last one has its top just 6 km from the line. It’s not very steep - average gradient of 3.5 % - but the run-in is technical. A skilled descender might be able to keep the peloton at bay with an attack over the top of the climb.

Stage 3

Today we will see which riders are able to win Volta a Catalunya overall. Two category 1 climbs and one HC climb awaits the riders. There aren’t any bonus seconds on the line, so the GC riders will have to take as much time as possible on the final climb. La Molina is 5.3 km long and has an average gradient of 6 %. The steepest part comes with 2 km to go.

Stage 4

Volta a Catalunya - Stage 4
The Queen Stage of the race. The day starts with a 20 km category 1 climb and continues with a category 2 and two category 1 climbs before starting on Vallter 200 (HC climb). The final 12 km have an average gradient of 7.8 %. Again, the steepest part comes with 2 km to go, where the road kicks up with 11 % over 900 meters. Remember, no bonus seconds on the line today.

Stage 5

Volta a Catalunya - Stage 5
This looks like an easy stage and it probably would have been, without that category 2 climb close to the line. The 6.3 km towards the top of Alt de Lilla have an average gradient of 4.8 % and parts of 7 %. There are only 8.9 km to go from the top of the climb. Again the run-in is very tricky with a couple of sharp corners close to the finishing line. A sprint within a reduced group seems like the most likely outcome. However, those who lost time in the previous days will be eager to make up for it today.

Stage 6

Volta a Catalunya - Stage 6
The designated sprint stage of the race. There are a couple of hills in the middle of the stage but it’s nothing that will prevent the teams with sprinters to control the race. There is a left bend close to the line, meaning that only the last 300 meters are straight out. It will be important to be in a good position coming into this bend.

Stage 7

Volta a Catalunya - Stage 7
Volta a Catalunya ends with eight laps on Montjuic in Barcelona. The climb itself is only 2 km long but it has a couple of steep parts near the top. In case the GC is still a matter of seconds, we should see fireworks on the Olympic mountain this Sunday afternoon.

I won't write daily stage previews. For additional information on the stages and my favorites and jokers, follow me on Twitter at @mrconde.

For live coverage of Volta aCatalunya 2014 go to steephill.tv.