MILAN (VN) — The upcoming Volta a Catalunya provides the first clash of the season between defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).
While it’s still months away from the Tour, the race, which starts Monday, will provide a litmus test of just where the top rivals stand in their first significant matchup of the 2014 season.
Contador is flying high after a dramatic victory at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he took two stages to win at the WorldTour level for the first time since the 2012 Vuelta a España.
Contador’s Tirreno victory was a huge boost to his confidence after being humiliated last summer at the hands of Froome and Team Sky.
“It’s a confirmation that data and the sensations I’ve had in training are true,” Contador said at Tirreno. “This gives me more motivation and tranquility to keep working for the future.”
Froome, meanwhile, is coming off a minor back injury that forced him out of Tirreno.
The Sky camp downplayed Froome’s injury, insisting his Tirreno non-start was precautionary, and that he is on track in his run-up to his Tour defense.
Froome came flying out of the gates in February, winning big at the Tour of Oman in his season debut, an impressive performance that confirmed he remained focused during the off-season.
“It has definitely been disappointing to miss out on Tirreno. It was an important race for me. With my back problem, though, we felt it was a better idea to play it safe and look at the bigger picture, which is making sure I’m ready for the Tour de France in July,” Froome said on the team’s website. “We have erred on the side of caution in that respect and we are fortunate that the Volta a Catalunya is just around the corner. I’m training hard for that right now and looking forward to competing again.”
The weeklong race in Spain’s Cataluña region is drawing a top field, with an impressive list of GC contenders lining up.
Other starters include Nairo Quintana (Movistar), defending champion Dan Martin and 2012 Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Richie Porte (Sky), Jakob Fulgsang (Astana), Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), recently crowned Paris-Nice winner Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Dani Navarro (Cofidis).
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who pulled out sick after the first stage at Paris-Nice, will also start, along with teammates Samuel Sánchez and Peter Stetina.
“I may be lacking some race rhythm, but I was able to train well the past 10 days,” van Garderen said in a team release. “My hope is to get stronger throughout the race, earn a top-10 result, and help my teammates if needed. I am also excited to do my first race with Sammy.”
One notable non-starter is Bradley Wiggins (Sky), who decided to skip the Volta and head to an altitude training camp at Teide on Spain’s Tenerife as he prepares for a run at Paris-Roubaix next month.
“We’ve now changed the program in order to ensure that I keep moving forward,” Wiggins said on Sky’s website. “Having spoken to the coaches we’ve decided that I’d benefit a lot more from a couple of weeks of hard training to work on my climbing before coming back for Paris-Roubaix — all with a view to being in good form for the Tour of California, the Dauphine and making the Tour team.”
Now in its 94th edition, the seven-day Cataluña tour is Spain’s oldest stage race, older than the Vuelta a España and the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country).
The race is enjoying a resurgence after it was moved from May to late March, taking the spot held by the now-defunct Setmana Catalana, allowing more quality riders to take part.
The peloton seems to enjoy this hard week of racing with its mix of terrain, including some steep climbs in the Catalan Pyrénées and typically mild weather.
Without any time trials, the GC will be settled in the green hills and mountains of Cataluña, with no less than 25 rated climbs sprinkled throughout the week.
The opening two days favor the sprinters who can get over some steep hills, while Wednesday’s third stage to La Molina and Vallter 2000 on Thursday should settle the GC in back-to-back mountaintop finales. The race heads to Valls on Friday, the hometown of Spanish pro Xavier Tondo, who died in a freak accident in 2011 . The race concludes Sunday in Barcelona’s Montjuic park.