LEON, Spain (VN) — While all eyes will be on Milano-Sanremo this weekend, the 93rd Volta a Catalunya rolls out Monday with a star-studded field that includes Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and the season debut of Giro d’Italia champ Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp).
The weeklong Catalunya race, the oldest stage race in Spain, will be Wiggins’ first major challenge of the 2013 season.
He raced at the Mallorca Challenge and the Tour of Oman without pushing the pedals too hard. After training at Tenerife, Wiggins and the ever-ambitious Team Sky will hit Catalunya with an eye on overall victory as Wiggins prepares to take on the Giro.
Hesjedal will make his season debut for Garmin-Sharp, also focused on the Giro in May.
The seven-stage Volta will provide an interesting preview of what’s in store on the roads of Italy during the Giro.
“After Catalunya, it will be full gas to the Giro,” Hesjedal told VeloNews in a phone interview. “I would be more than happy if I could get back to the same level as last year’s Giro. We’re doing everything right and I am staying focused.”
Also lining up are Spanish GC contenders Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
Both are targeting the Tour this season, so their form might be a touch behind Wiggins’, but they can always be counted on to ride well on home roads.
Valverde will ride with Nairo Quintana while Rodríguez will receive the official WorldTour prize from UCI president Pat McQuaid, whose organization tried unsuccessfully to kick Katusha out of the WorldTour league for 2013.
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard), hot off sixth at Tirreno-Adriatico, will also be riding for the podium ahead of next month’s Vuelta al País Vasco, which he won in 2010.
Tom Peterson will stretch his legs in his new role at Argos-Shimano, where he will be enjoying more of a leadership role on the Dutch team.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida), “winner” of the 2011 edition after Alberto Contador was disqualified as part of his clenbuterol case, Robert Gesink (Blanco) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) also fill out the quality field.
Return of ‘Garmin 3’
Catalunya also marks the return to racing of Christian Vande Velde, Tom Danielson and Dave Zabriskie for Garmin-Sharp.
All three served six-month bans after admitting doping practices earlier in their respective careers. The ban was part of a deal worked out with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for collaboration of the investigation into doping practices at U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel.
None has raced since the bans ended earlier this month.
Of the 11 former U.S. Postal Service riders to have provided evidence to USADA, Danielson, Vande Velde, Zabriskie, and Levi Leipheimer are the only active riders. Leipheimer was fired by Omega Pharma-Quick Step in wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal last fall and has since not joined another team.
Mountainous route, unsettled weather
Organizations have served up a challenging, mountainous parcours, with no less than 26 rated climbs during the week. Sprinters will be hard-pressed to have chances to win, most likely only two or perhaps three stages during the week.
After starting north of Barcelona and circling around Girona, home to dozens of pros, the third stage hits the race’s high point at 2,200 meters at the Vallter ski area, with the final kilometer at 11 percent.
Stage four the following day will be even more challenging, with two major climbs in the closing kilometers, including the 24km Cantó climb and the finish-line climb to Port Ainé of 19km with ramps as steep as 12 percent.
From there, the route dips south toward Lleida and finishes in Barcelona on the traditional finishing circuit up Montjuic.
Weather is always a concern in the Catalan Pyrénées. Last year saw the “queen stage” wiped out with hurricane-like weather undermining the peloton, causing more than 40 riders to abandon, including Wiggins, Andy Schleck (not racing this year) and others.
Forecasters are calling for unsettled weather all week, with mild temperatures and a chance of rain in the lower elevations. Wednesday’s and Thursday’s climbing stages could see rain, wind and a chance of snow. Organizers have their fingers crossed that Mother Nature will be cooperative.
93rd Volta a Catalunya, March 18-24
Stage 1, March 18: Calella-Calella, 159.3km
Stage 2, March 19: Girona-Banyoles, 160.7km
Stage 3, March 20: Vidreres to Vallter 2000-Setcases, 180.1km
Stage 4, March 21: Llanars to Port Ainé, 217.5km
Stage 5, March 22: Rialp to Llerida, 156.5km
Stage 6, March 23: Almacelles to Valls, 178.7km
Stage 7, March 24: Vendrell to Barcelona, 122.2km