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Catalunya crystal ball: TDF favorites on form

With Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, and Chris Froome all at Volta a Catalunya, we have a clearer picture of how the top Tour riders compare.

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History has a funny way of repeating itself in cycling, and three of the top protagonists at last week’s Volta a Catalunya are hoping that’s the case for 2016.

Movistar’s Nairo Quintana beat back archrivals Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, who all came away content in the wake of what was the season’s first major clash between the best GC riders.

A quick look at history: Like he did in 2015 at Tirreno-Adriatico, Quintana won in his European debut, beating Tinkoff’s Contador on a snowy mountain summit, setting the stage for his assault on the Tour de France podium. Will we see a repeat of second in July, or perhaps he’ll go one step higher?

Quintana sounded like he’s ready to rewrite the ending.

“The principal objective continues to be the Tour,” Quintana said. “And we want to concentrate on that. It was incredible to beat [his principal rivals], especially since they are my direct rivals for my most important goals. This gives me confidence that we’re on a good way.”

Contador was second at the Catalunya tour in 2014, the same year that he hit the Tour in perhaps his best form since 2010. An unfortunate crash meant that Contador never made it to Paris, but he too sounded optimistic about how he’s riding. Back-to-back second places, at Paris-Nice and Catalunya, and third at his season debut at Volta ao Algarve, only bolster his confidence.

“If I had to choose between the sensations I have now, or being able to win with even worse sensations, I would choose the former,” said Contador, who lost by seven seconds. “My preparation over the winter was very good, but it’s a shame that in Paris-Nice, to lose by four seconds, and here [Catalunya], by seven, that I couldn’t finish it off.”

It was no surprise to see Quintana and Contador both flying. Quintana returned to Europe after training at altitude in Colombia, and typically reacts well in his first race back in Europe. And Contador has been looking sharp in three stage races so far this spring, and despite missing the overall, he’s clearly on a very high level.

However, it was surprising to see Sky’s Froome unable to equal attacks from Quintana in stage 4, and Dan Martin (Etixx – Quick-Step) in stage 3. In his first European race since winning the Herald Sun Tour in Australia in late January, Froome was a touch off the top level. He lost 12 seconds in stage 3, and 37 seconds to Quintana in stage 4, settling on eighth at 46 seconds back. How telling those seconds seem depends on how you look at it.

The two-time Tour champion has never won Catalunya in four previous attempts. In his first two tries, 2010 and 2011, he was emerging as a stage racer and finished 71st and 61st, respectively. He returned in 2014, riding to sixth overall despite a back injury. Last year, he fell ill and lost 28 minutes in the first key mountain stage, eventually finishing 71st again.

Froome looks at the Catalunya as a preparation race going into the Tour de Romandie as well as a way to ease into European racing. He typically races for results in every event he starts, so Team Sky had positive spin, saying Froome leaves the race in “much better condition” than this time last year.

“We always try to compare where Froomey was last year to where he is now,” Sky sport director Nicolas Portal said in a team release. “Last year he was not in the best condition. He was ill before Tirreno and then he was a long way down the GC in this race. For him to come back in his first race after two months and be at this level, with all the GC contenders he’s going to race against at the Tour, is very encouraging.”

Others were looking equally sharp in the seven-stage World Tour race. Former winner Martin snuck onto the podium after the final stage thanks to sprints, while BMC Racing’s Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen finished fourth and fifth, respectively, both promising results going into the meat of the season.

“I had a lot of fun racing with Richie and I think we showed how aggressive we can be working together,” van Garderen said in a team release. “I’m happy with my race, and I think it can only get better from here. I now head to altitude camp and I’m looking forward to my next block of races after that.”

Where next? Contador, Quintana, and Martin race the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) in early April. Van Garderen and Porte will link up again at the Tour de Romandie, where they will face off against Froome, a two-time winner in the Swiss race. The final showdown will be the Critérium du Dauphiné in early June, but all the stars won’t align again until the Tour in July.