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Catalunya to offer gut check for GC favorites

With all eyes on Milano-Sanremo this weekend, the Volta a Catalunya kicks into gear Monday with a start list that’s the envy of any stage race on the calendar — don’t let “La Primavera” distract you from this big week of racing.

Nearly every major GC contender will line up, including two-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, who both make their European debuts in the week-long, WorldTour race, March 21-27. They’ll be joined by Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen of BMC, Astana’s Fabio Aru, and Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez, along with a long list of others. The only top names missing are Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali, both racing Sanremo.

“He will focus to win the race,” Sky sport director Nicolas Portal said of Froome. “He’s been training well in South Africa, and this is his first race since Australia, so he is motivated.”

Fit and healthy, Froome will aim for Catalunya victory, as it is one of the few European stage races he hasn’t won in four starts. Quintana will also be making his European debut, and will hope to make a similar splash as he did last year when he beat Contador in the snowy summit of Terminillo to win Tirreno-Adriatico.

Contador will join the Brit and the Colombian, hot off an impressive final shootout with Sky’s Geraint Thomas at Paris-Nice. Aru is also on the list, still looking for his first win in 2016. Former winners Dan Martin (Etixx – Quick-Step) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) will line up, perhaps not five-star favorites, but still riders with big ambitions ahead of the Ardennes classics.

WorldTour number 1 Porte and van Garderen will race together for the first time in 2016. Van Garderen won a mountain stage in the past two editions, while Porte is defending Catalunya champion, so it will be interesting to watch the dynamics between the two as a preview of the Tour de France.

“It’s a race that suits Richie and I well, and we’re going in with a strong team,” van Garderen said in a team release. “I didn’t get the opportunity to really test myself on the climbs at Tirreno-Adriatico with the cancellation of the queen stage, so it will be good to do so in Catalunya.”

For dozens of pros that live in nearby Girona, the Catalunya tour is their “home race.” Among them are many on Cannondale, including Andrew Talansky, as well as Trek – Segafredo’s Peter Stetina, Kiel Reijnen, and Ryder Hesjedal, as well as Robert Gesink (LottoNL – Jumbo).

In short, Catalunya should see an exciting battle of GC riders heading to both the Tour and Giro d’Italia, with a solid mix of top riders nearing top form going into the Ardennes classics.

The route: A mix of everything

Sprinters, climbers, and attackers will have plenty of chances throughout the week-long menu. Organizers have done away with an individual time trial or prologue, meaning the GC could come down to time bonuses.

Stage 1 around Calella is one for the sprinters, while stage 2 to Olot features a slightly uphill kick that also typically brings in the group together.

The GC is often decided in the Catalan Pyrénées, and things get steep in stage 3 on the traditional climb to La Molina. At 12km with an average grade of 4.3 percent, the looping climb typically sees a small group coming in for a reduced-bunch sprint. Stage 4 to Port Ainé offers a longer climb, at 18km, and steeper, with ramps up to 11 percent and an average grade of 6.6 percent. The group should fracture.

Stage 5 features a second-category climb in the closing 30km that could spit out some of the heavier sprinters, while stage 6 is a rolling profile ideal for a mass gallop. The traditional finale is a circuit course over the Montjuic climb in central Barcelona, which sometimes sees the balance of the GC change based on time bonuses at the line.

Did you know?

Since moving to March from May, the race has gained traction among GC contenders looking for a solid week to prepare for larger, more important goals coming in the season. First held in 1911, it is the fourth-oldest stage race in Europe, and the oldest in Spain.

Weather: Spring-like, not winter-like

Forecasters are calling for mostly sunny, spring-like weather. In contrast to some years that have seen horrible, winter-like weather, the peloton should enjoy mostly sunny skies, and little chance of showers.

Our pick: An outsider

With everyone expecting a big clash between Quintana and Froome, an outsider could well ride away with the flowers. Without a time trial, the race typically comes down to time bonuses. Unless Froome or Quintana can drop the hammer and dispatch everyone, riders like Rodríguez or Martin, both in sharp form ahead of the Ardennes, could nip the five-star favorites.