Chris Froome faces major rivals at Volta a Catalunya

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Chris Froome to go head-to-head with chief rivals at Volta a Catalunya

Alberto Contador, Fabio Aru, Nairo Quintana and Geraint Thomas also on star-studded startlist

Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) will go head-to-head with some of his biggest GC rivals for the first time this season at the Volta a Catalunya.

Froome faces off with last year’s Tour runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Giro d’Italia 2015 champion Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and Astana’s Fabio Aru, who won the Vuelta a Espana in September.

Chris Froome will ride against Alberto Contador for the first time this season at the Volta a Catalunya (pic: Sirotti)

And with in-form Geraint Thomas, fresh from his Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice triumphs, also in Team Sky’s eight-man team, flying straight from Milan-San Remo to the race, it will be a star-studded start list heading for Catalonia.

The 96th edition of the week-long UCI WorldTour race rolls out on Monday (March 21) and includes plenty of opportunities for the big names to test their climbing form.

The climb of La Molina, a staple of the race, returns to close stage three – which boasts four category-one ascents in all, but this year’s Queen Stage will actually be the following day, with the hors categorie  Port d’Aine peaking at 1,975m above sea level to provide a true early season test.

Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome will both start the Volta a Catalunya on the back of victories (pic: Sirotti)

It is one of two HC climbs to feature on the fourth day, with Port de Canto the other, meaning – foul weather permitting, as snow is not uncommon in the region at this time of year – we could be in for an enthralling race.

So often over-shadowed by the Classics season, the star-studded startlist – coupled with the demanding route – should make for a week well worth paying attention too.

Froome and Thomas are the men in form, with the former having raced once this season and won at the Herald Sun Tour.

Thomas’ Paris-Nice victory – coupled with the Volta ao Algarve triumph – provided plenty of evidence that Thomas is more than just a super-domestique for Froome, which should mean Sky are full of confidence.

Richie Porte can consolidate his position at the top of the UCI WorldTour rankings. The Australian rides with Tejay van Garderen and against Chris Froome for the first time since leaving Team Sky (pic: Sirotti)

They won the race last year, of course, but defending champion Richie Porte – who rolls out in dossard number one – will be riding for BMC Racing instead this time out.

He and Tejay van Garderen will race together for the first time since Porte switched teams in the winter, in what could provide an interesting insight into how their partnership will work at the Tour de France.

Porte currently tops the UCI WorldTour ranking, having been on the overall podium at both the Tour Down Under and Paris-Nice.

Volta a Catalunya 2016: TV schedule

Van Garderen, meanwhile, has won a stage apiece in both of the last two editions of the race – including victory atop La Molina last year.

Alberto Contador, like Porte, was also on the podium at Paris-Nice – finishing second, having already come third at the Volta ao Algarve.

Having twice been beaten by Thomas this season, El Pistolero will be keen to wrestle back some of the bragging rights from Team Sky before what could be his final Tour de France in the summer.

Alberto Contador has twice finished Geraint Thomas already this season (pic: Sirotti)

The same applies to Fabio Aru, with the Astana man having finished ninth in the Algarve after coming sixth at the Volta a la Communitat Valenciana, won by Team Sky’s Wout Poels.

The 25-year-old made a slow start to the 2015 season too, however, but finished the year as Giro runner-up and Vuelta champion.

Nairo Quintana’s form is more of an unknown, with the Colombian having not raced since finishing fourth at his national championships.

Prior to that his only race was the Tour de San Luis, where Quintana finished third – sharing the podium with his race-winning brother Dayer, who again joins him in Catalonia.

The list of big names does not finish there either, with two-time former winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Etixx-QuickStep’s winter signing Daniel Martin, who won the race in 2013, both looking to find form ahead of the Ardennes Classics.

Joaquim Rodriguez has won the Volta a Catalunya twice in his career (pic: Katusha/Tim de Waele)

Both have made quiet starts to the season, but with Liege-Bastogne-Liege little more than a month away the time to step it up is now.

All that means the Volta a Catalunya has attracted a fiercely-strong start sheet and the man standing atop the podium in Barcelona on Sunday March 27 will have done so wholly on merit as preparations for the 2016 season’s Grand Tours ramp up.

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