Fit-again Chris Froome (Team Sky) renews his rivalry with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) in Catalonia next week, in what could be the duo’s last battle until the summer’s Tour de France.
While much of the cycling world’s attention is on the start of the Classics, a star-studded list of contenders will race at the Volta a Catalunya, which rolls out on Monday (March 23).
Though defending champion and home favourite Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) misses out through illness, for the likes of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Daniel Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) it marks the final part of their preparations for April’s Ardennes Classics.
For Froome and Contador, meanwhile, it is likely to be a final chance to score some moral victories before they take to the Tour de France’s Utrecht start line to kick-start the battle for the yellow jersey.
Contador’s preparations for, and participation at, the Giro d’Italia means El Pistolero’s race programme splits from one of his main rivals for the Tour after this race, so how much can we take from the week-long WorldTour race?
A balanced parcours means there will be plenty of opportunity for late attacks, for example the category-one Alt dels Angels which peaks just six kilometres from the end of stage three.
The summit finish of La Molina, on stage four, is where Contador and Froome are likely to truly do battle however – particularly with Vallter 2000 removed from the route this time out.
Stage five concludes just five kilometres from the summit of the Alt de Lilla, meanwhile, and Contador will no doubt be keen to showcase his superior descending – and prove any lasting scars from his high-speed, race-ending Tour crash last year have been banished.
Froome, meanwhile, will want to show the illness which cost him a place at Tirreno-Adriatico does not have any longer-lasting consequences.
In this same race last year, the Team Sky man was off the pace of his rivals on the race’s major climbs, as Rodriguez claimed overall victory by a just four seconds ahead of Contador – Froome finishing another 13 seconds back in sixth.
Froome has raced just once so far this season, as a result of missing Tirreno-Adriatico for the second season running, but he has already beaten Contador at the Ruta del Sol.
Contador drew first blood on the Alto de Hazallanas, timing an attack to perfection with Froome too far back in the bunch to react.
Froome avenged his defeat in perfect style on the Alto de Allanadas, however, to claim overall victory and strike the first blow.
Since then, Contador went on to claim fifth at Tirreno-Adriatico, unable to match Nairo Quintana’s acceleration on the snow-bound ascent of the Terminillo despite a number of earlier attacks.
While performance in the early-season week-long races does not always have a bearing on performance at the Tour – just look at Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) last year – both will know the other one hates losing.
They have the greatest respect for each other outside of the peloton, but Contador will be smarting from his defeat at the Ruta del Sol and will no doubt want to prove a point – and his pre-Giro form – on La Molina.
Their battle at the Tour will carry the caveat of Contador arriving on the back of his Giro d’Italia pink jersey bid – but despite admitting it will be a tough ask to challenge for both, he would not have lined the double up if he was not hugely confident of winning in Italy and France.
When the going gets tough in the French mountains, however, it will be the earlier races like these where Froome and Contador will look to draw their strength.
It is 1-1 as far as the big summit finishes go in 2015, so La Molina will be the decider in that respect before hostilities resume in the Pyrenees and Alps.
Alpe d’Huez is a challenge unlike anything offered in Andalucia or Catalonia, but when the final blows are exchanged in the summer’s battle for the maillot jaune, a lot can be said for earlier mental gains.
Both men will also boast strong support teams for the race, with Team Sky having already confirmed Froome will race Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte for the first time this season.
The Australian, currently ranked number one in the world after a stellar start to the season, will be supporting Froome while honing his own Giro d’Italia preparations.
Former Tinkoff-Saxo man Nicolas Roche, whose efforts in Paris-Nice set up Porte’s win on the Croix de Chaubouret, is also in the eight-man line-up alongside Tirreno-Adriatico stage winner Wout Poels.
David Lopez, Xabier Zandio, Vasil Kiryienka and Leopold Konig complete a squad which takes some beating as far as strength, form and experience is concerned.
Tinkoff-Saxo push it close, however, with Ivan Basso – himself having shown good form as he put in huge shifts driving the bunch for Contador and Peter Sagan at Tirreno-Adriatico – among them.
Former Team Sky man Michael Rogers, Tour de France King of the Mountains winner Rafal Majka and Robert Kiserlovski – tenth in this race last year, the same position he finished the Giro d’Italia – are also included.
Contador’s leading domestiques Jesus Hernandez and Sergio Paulinho add further strength, as does Danish champion Michael Valgren.
The smart money would be on several of those riders being in the respective squads come the Tour de France too.
Best of the rest
The battle for supremacy in Catalonia is not confined purely to Froome and Contador, however, though their own duel could well steal the headlines.
Defending champion Rodriguez misses out but Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), last year’s world number one Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-QuickStep) are all on the startlist.
Fabio Aru (Astana) and Daniel Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) will also be looking to prove their form, while Romain Bardet, Carlos Betancur and Domenico Pozzovivo could all lead Ag2r-La Mondiale’s strong line-up.
The punchy route, and stages with late climbs, could open the GC to a number of riders but if Froome and Contador bring the same intensity they brought to last year’s Vuelta a Espana and the Ruta del Sol this time out, it is hard to look beyond those two.