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Preview: Contador, Froome to face off at Catalunya

Europe's fourth-oldest ongoing stage race kicks off Monday and features some heavy hitters in the GC field.

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Chris Froome (remember that guy?) makes his European debut Monday at the Volta a Catalunya, one of the few stage races he’s started and never won.

After a long and bruising 2016 campaign, the three-time Tour de France champion is taking an easier approach to 2017, with all eyes on becoming a four-time winner of the maillot jaune in July.

On paper, next week’s edition of the week-long Catalunya tour — including an unusually long, 41km team time trial in stage 2 and a hilly parcours anchored by the nearly straight up, 1,000-meter climb to La Port in stage 5 — is ideal for the Sky captain. A deep start list, featuring many top GC stars and stage hunters, should make for a thrilling race in the region where many pro riders call home.

Long TTT will be decisive

Catalunya is typically a race that comes down to seconds. Without time bonuses or usually without an individual time trial, the race generally devolves into a dogfight that often comes down to one key mountain summit. This year’s race is different, with a long TTT that will certainly have a major impact on the GC. At 41km, the differences will be measured in minutes, not seconds.

Froome has raced Catalunya five times. In 2010 and 2011, he was just finding his feet in the peloton, finishing 71st and 61st, respectively. In 2015 he was again 71st, but he was sixth in 2014 and eighth last year. Can this be the year?

The race usually comes too early for Froome, who ramps up for the Tour de Romandie (which he’s won twice) in May and the Critérium du Dauphiné (which he’s won three times) in June. After not racing since a calm season debut at the Herald Sun Tour in early February, Froome might still be missing some racing miles in his legs, but the parcours is ideal for him, and Froome always races to win.

Who can beat him?

Contador, Valverde ready to battle

Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) is first in line. After a bittersweet second place at Paris-Nice by just two seconds, the “Pistolero” looks to be on great form so far this year. And after finishing second last year by seven seconds and second in 2014 by four seconds — three victories lost by just 13 seconds! — Contador will also be racing to win Catalunya for the first time. Backed by a strong and motivated team that includes Peter Stetina, Bauke Mollema, and Jarlinson Pantano, Contador will be keen to take on Froome and his other rivals.

With defending champion Nairo Quintana soaking up victory from Tirreno-Adriatico, Movistar brings Alejandro Valverde, a winner in 2009. The “Green Bullet” hasn’t raced since winning Ruta del Sol in February and he will be ramping up for the Ardennes classics, so he’ll be in fine form as well. Movistar always rides a good TTT, so Valverde should be able to put himself into good position with the punchy, uphill finale in stage 3 at La Molina ideal for his characteristics.

Other contenders include Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), and Julian Alaphilippe and 2013 winner Daniel Martin, both of Quick-Step Floors. Martin has had the best start of his career so far in 2017. Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) is penciled in to make his season debut, and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) continues his Giro d’Italia preparation.

Did you know?

The Volta a Catalunya is Spain’s oldest stage race, nearly 25 years older than the Vuelta a España. Dating back to 1911, the race is the fourth-oldest ongoing stage race in Europe; only the Tour de France (1903), the Tour of Belgium (1908), and the Giro d’Italia (1909) are older.

Our prediction

The key to victory will be the long TTT in stage 2 and the mountaintop finale in stage 5. Sky is bringing some top hitters, including Wouter Poels and former world time trial champion Vasil Kiryienka, so Froome should have an advantage over many of his rivals following the TTT. If Valverde and Contador can stay close, the ensuing GC battle should be thrilling. So who wins? If Sky knocks it out of the park in the TTT, Froome. If Trek keeps Contador close, the “Pistolero.”

Volta a Catalunya (March 20-26)

Stage 1, March 20: Calella-Calella, 178km
Stage 2, March 21: Banyoles (TTT), 41.3km
Stage 3, March 22: Mataró to La Molina, 188.3km
Stage 4, March 23: Llívia to Igualda, 194.3km
Stage 5, March 24: Valls to Lo Port (Tortosa), 182km
Stage 6, March 25: Tortosa to Reus, 189.7km
Stage 7, March 26: Barcelona to Barcelona, 138.7km

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