With climbing at the forefront of both races, the Volta Catalunya and Vuelta Pais Vasco always attract a crop of Grand Tour GC contenders. This year didn’t disappoint with everybody who’s anybody – and not named Nibali – stretching their legs in Spain. Whilst the likes of Paris-Nice may always be bigger races, Spain’s duo are located closer to the Grand Tour season and packed full of spiky climbs, often laughably under-categorized by the organizers. Those heading to the Giro may find Pais-Vasco the last major stage race they choose to ride with the turnaround from April’s Tour of Romandie a little on the short side.
Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador all headed to last month’s Volta Catalunya in what looked to be a showdown of the highest quality. All three showed varying levels of form with Quintana landing the GC after dealing damage on the Queen stage to Port Ainé. Contador reversed matters in the Basque country, pulling away from the Colombian on Stage 5 and toppling Sky’s Sergio Henao in the final time trial.
Froome didn’t race Pais-Vasco and following his mediocre eighth place in Catalunya he will know he is not currently at the same level as his Spanish-speaking rivals. Sky’s Tour-centric leader should not be panicking, however, losing less than a minute to his livelier rivals over the seven days racing despite never looking his best. He’s got no worries regarding the strength of his team with Wout Poels and Geraint Thomas claiming GC wins this season, Henao second last weekend and Kwiatkowski a winner on the cobbles.
Until Contador’s blistering time trial on the final stage of Pais-Vasco, Quintana had the most to feel cheerful about across the two races. After being distanced by five seconds to Contador on the La Molina stage, Quintana made a race-winning move the following day. Though many tried to escape in the closing stages, the Movistar captain did so with greater aplomb – riding himself 15 seconds clear as others began to falter. Whilst Contador is being made to work hard to gain an advantage these days, Quintana does so with an ease that’s reminiscent of, well, the younger version of his decorated Spanish rival. He’s been my Tour de France favourite since the end of last season and I’m happy to stick with him as the summer approaches.
Contador cannot be written off and it’s been less than 12 months since he roared up the Mortirolo making light work of Astana’s best efforts to pull away. With the announcement that this season would be his last came an unjust change in the way we view the current Giro champion. Suddenly Contador was old. Without a Tour win since 2009, Contador suddenly found himself in the last chance saloon with regards to claiming (or re-claiming) a third win in France. Everybody began to remember the way he seized the mantle from Armstrong, saw off the threat of the Schlecks and danced his way to Grand Tour domination. People then began to look back at how he was a distant top five finisher in the races of 2011 and 2013, and became an afterthought behind Froome/Quintana last time around. This incomplete summary of Contador’s career forgets all he has done in the last few years; two Vuelta wins, the Giro, Pais-Vasco, Tirreno. If the outspoken Oleg Tinkoff still has faith than as sensible fans we should not rule Contador out. A shining reminder of his quality came last Saturday as he dominated the time-trial in the Basque country. Quintana stayed impressively close but Contador took a minute out of anybody who finished fifth or lower, on a course just 16km long.
Finishing a not-quite-disastrous 14th in Catalunya, Fabio Aru was the lowest placed of the expected Tour de France contenders. He started, but didn’t finish, Pais-Vasco and generally looked a shadow of the rider who masterfully seized on Tom Dumoulin’s struggles in the closing days of the Vuelta. His 2015 was dotted with moments of real class but it’s difficult to put an argument forward that Aru can land a second Grand Tour in July. It would be magnificent if he can overturn the deficits he suffered in Catalunya but he is unlikely to go toe-to-toe with Quintana and Froome once they let rip. As a fan of the Sardinian I would love to be proved wrong but realistic Tour de France ambitions could be best saved for another year. He will, at least, have the element of surprise on his side and his performances so far this season are consistent with his unspectacular opening races of the last two campaigns.
BMC’s super-duo of Richie Porte and Tejay Van Garderen both rode in Catalunya before skipping the World Tour’s trip to Pais-Vasco. Finishing fourth and fifth, the team has plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Porte has looked good all season and has started to resemble the team leader he never was at Sky. It was tough to separate the two in Pais-Vasco with Van Garderen responding well to Porte’s strong start to the season. We watch with intrigue as to how the teammates/rivals will co-exist over the Grand Tour season.
After a dominant and confident performance at the Criterium International, Thibaut Pinot looked good again in Pais-Vasco. He was amongst the strongest climbers on the key Stage 5 before confirming his improved time-trialling when sixth on the final day. There’s been lots of positives for the Frenchman so far this season but none provide an answer as to whether he can really trouble the big names in July.
Lastly, we saw the return of Giro hopeful Mikel Landa in Pais-Vasco. After a mediocre showing at Coppi e Bartali, everything turned rosy for the local boy when claiming a comfortable stage win on day 2. It was the perfect way to re-announce his climbing prowess and he made light work of a spirited Wilco Kelderman challenge. Two days later he struggled and was fortunate to only lose eight seconds despite being dropped relatively early. This performance was compiled by a distant 15th place the following day and a time-trial over two minutes off the standard set by Contador. There’s plenty of mitigations surrounding Landa’s performance but with the Giro one month away it will take more than marginal gains to get his time-trialling up to scratch.