The seven-stage race packs the fireworks of the classics, the high-altitude finishes of a grand tour, and a start list that would make the Tour de France blush. From Sepp Kuss and his GC challenge to Chris Froome’s never-ending quest for form, Spain’s oldest stage race starting Monday is an ideal midweek “tapa” between action-packed weekends.
Andrew: It’s Sepp time!
The future is now for Sepp Kuss.
This week’s Volta route is Kuss’s big chance to have a clean shot to test his mettle at the GC. Primož Roglič won’t be here, and management is giving the climbing Coloradan a runway to see what he can do in a weeklong stage race. On a climber-friendly course with one time trial, the route is ideal for Kuss to test himself against the all-rounders, and he knows the climbs well from living in nearby Girona.
Jumbo-Visma also brings George Bennett, Steven Kruijswijk and Chris Harper, fourth at the UAE Tour, so it’s no guarantee Kuss is going to be the only protected rider. It will be interesting to watch to see if management call back Kuss, like it’s happened so many times, to help another teammate or if he make his own race. The stage 3 summit finale to Vallter 2000 should settle the team hierarchy for the rest of the race.
Now in his fourth WorldTour season, Kuss has emerged as one of the most lethal climbing domestiques in the bunch. The question isn’t only if Kuss has the ability to pursue the GC, it’s also whether or not he wants to. A relative late-comer to racing, Kuss seems content to be learning the ropes on one of the world’s best teams.
Will he be a prince in waiting, or a gun for hire? This week could prove pivotal in which direction he takes over the next few years.
Jim: It’s time for Chris Froome to start showing form
If the 35-year-old wants to be clutching a yellow jersey in Paris in almost exactly four months from now, he needs to start scoring some results, fast. And Catalunya gives him that opportunity.
Training miles are great, and he’s gotten a ton of those through his winter in California and his tippy-tappy ride at the UAE Tour last month. But it’s the surges and reactions of hard racing that win jerseys and secure legend. Just this week, Froome admitted he’s still got some way to go before hitting grand tour form and that the elbows and accelerations of the bunch made for a shock to the system in the Emirates. Meanwhile, Tadej Pogačar is looking as irrepressible as ever and Primož Roglič looked rock solid until more disaster befell him at Paris-Nice.
The Chris Froome clock is ticking, and if the form doesn’t come soon, it will take a miracle rather than relentless optimism for him to secure a historic fifth yellow jersey.
Andrew: All-star cast for climber’s paradise
Last year’s Volta was one of the COVID victims, but officials are optimistic the race will go off this week without a hitch. The seven-stage offering includes a time trial and sees a few opportunities for sprinters in stages 1 and 7, but they’ll have to get over some altitude first. Nearly every day is packed with climbs.
The Volta’s start list will be the envy of any race organizer.
Joining the likes of Kuss and Froome are Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), João Almeida and James Knox (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Richard Carapaz, Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte and Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers), and Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves (Team BikeExchange).
The hits keep coming with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), Brandon McNulty (UAE Emirates), back from crashing out of Paris-Nice, and Alejandro Valverde, Marc Soler and Enric Mas for a stacked Movistar, still looking for its first win in 2021. Rally Cycling brings a very competitive squad and will be hunting for a stage victory and a strong placing in one of its first major goals for its European campaign.
This year’s route favors the fleet of sleek climbers showing up en masse, half of whom live either in Girona, Spain, or in nearby Andorra. The stage 2 time trial will be an important test for Froome. Stage 3’s summit finish at Vallter 2000 will set the GC tone. In 2019, Adam Yates blasted to victory en route to second overall, while Tejay van Garderen won there in 2014.
The next day’s shorter but more explosive mountaintop finish at Port Ainé should prove decisive in the overall. Quintana cemented his lead after finishing behind the attacking Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), who is another starter, to claim the overall in 2016.
With every race counting more than every, expect the peloton’s “bigs” to uncork with wild abandon.
Jim: Marc Hirschi clicks back into race-mode
Remember Marc Hirschi? That guy that blazed a trail through the Tour de France, world championships and Ardennes classics last summer?
He’s back. The 22-year-old pulls on a UAE-Team Emirates jersey for the first time on Monday after a high-profile, high-surprise move from Team Sunweb. Hirschi emerged as one of the few riders capable of out-Alaphilippe-ing Julian Alaphilippe in 2020, and is another in the current wave of new kids on the block a la Wout van Aert and new teammate Tadej Pogačar.
The young Swiss has an ambitious calendar for 2021, spanning from a return to his favored hunting ground of the Ardennes classics before playing domestique de luxe for Pogačar at the Tour de France. After that, he turns his attention to the Olympic Games road race and a course that plays perfectly into his skillset.
Can Hirschi repeat the breakout feats of 2020? Volta a Catalunya offers him the terrain he thrives upon and he’ll be looking for a hot start to his season given Amstel Gold Race is just four weeks away.
Expect some more madcap descending and attacking panache next week – and it will be in a UAE Emirates jersey rather than the rainbow bands of Alaphilippe.