Chris Froome, returning from illness, may have gone to Volta a Catalunya as team leader but it was team-mate Richie Porte who underlined his fantastic start to the season with another World Tour win. The first Girona climbs confirmed Froome was just riding for fitness and when Porte was given the chance to lead he showed strong legs once again. A stage eluded him, but he put himself in the right moves and came out on top- a total contrast to his performance at last year’s Tour. Triple stage winner Alejandro Valverde ultimately lost out for one bad stage but ended up just six seconds behind the Tasmanian. Elsewhere, the classics riders hit the cobbles of E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem.
In the past the rolling hills of Catalunya have seen a large group of riders finish together and the tougher tier of sprinters fight it out. Stages 1 and 2 were expected to once again be for the sprinters but neither turned out as planned. The first stage saw three escapees successful with a completely mistimed peloton chase allowing Maciej Paterski, Bart de Clerq and Pierre Rolland to ride themselves to near three minute advantage. Paterski, riding for Polish continental team CCC, outfoxed his companions in the sprint and took the lead. The next day there was a bunch sprint, but a tough day in the saddle proved too testing for the usual sprinters and it was Valverde who took the win.
Stage 3 had five categorized climbs and Paterski fell away from the head of the field. Valverde crashed on the final climb at the worst possible time with attacks just beginning. While I’m sure he would see things differently, the moves were going to happen anyway and were not a reaction to his fall. The main group split on the descent and the leaders on the road were Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Domenico Pozzovivo, Fabio Aru and Alberto Contador. They were joined mid-way down the climb by Cannondale-Garmin’s Andrew Talansky and Dan Martin. The group rode at pace to pull away from all others but one man, Pozzovivo, played the role of passenger and saved his legs for the finish. The risk paid off and the Italian surged away late on for a three second win. Rolland moved up to top spot in the general classification, finishing 20th on the day.
The lead changed again a day later on the mountain stage finishing on La Molina. The field was whittled down in the opening 150km and even before the final climb race leader Rolland had been dropped. On the final climb Tejay Van Garderen’s attack went unfollowed and he was first man over the line. Behind him Contador had made a move but Porte was dragged to his side by Vasil Kiryienka before showing what he himself had left, attacking and gaining five seconds. Porte moved up to second overall but it was the forgotten man of Stage 1’s break- Bart de Clerq- who had survived the best and now took his day as leader. The Belgian had just 24 hours on top as he conceded over two minutes to Porte, and stage winner Valverde, the next day. The Spaniard jumped away from his rivals late on as he edged his way back into contention. He benefitted from another ten second stage bonus which ensured Porte would stay alert in the final two days.
Breakaways animated Stage 6 with Sergei Chernectkii winning from Julian Alaphillipe and many others staying ahead of the main bunch. Valverde was at it again on the final day as he reminded us of just how good of a sprinter he is, beating Bryan Coquard on the line. He moved up to second behind Porte, with Pozzovivo back in third.
The classics season has been continuing with riders gearing up for this weekend’s Tour of Flanders. First up was E3 Harelbeke, the tough and cobbled route using many of the same Flanders roads. The race came down to three escapees and a group of elite chasers. In front were Geraint Thomas, Zdenek Stybar and reigning champion Peter Sagan. An early crash had sent a handful of riders for hospital checks and the biggest name out was Fabian Cancellara- the seven time Monument winner is now ruled out for the rest of the spring. Harelbeke looked to be heading to a similar conclusion as 2014, where Sagan sprinted home from a lead group, but this time around the Slovakian champion was asked questions by Thomas over 5km out and had no response to his acceleration. Stybar, too, was unable to catch the Welshman’s wheel but held on for second half a minute back. Sagan had no such legs and was swallowed up by the chase group, finishing a wayward 30th. Thomas looked strong and continues to give Sky a brilliant classics option, his attack was well timed and his pursuit strength showed in the final kilometres.
He was involved again two days later at Gent-Wevelgem riding himself into another lead break. His companions on the Sunday were Niki Terpstra and Katusha’s Luca Paolini. The trio had opened a gap to Belgians Stijn Vandenbergh, Jens Debusschere and Sep Vanmarcke in the closing stages of the race. This time Thomas was the one left chasing when Paolini jumped away to take a brilliant win- his first since 2013. The race had incredibly tough conditions with a barrage of wind and rain unrelenting for most of the 240km. Just 39 riders finished the race with the other 200 starters calling it a day along the route.