With the Volta a Catalunya starting today, a race renowned for its brutally mountainous parcours, it’s time to pause to reflect on the type of racing that the Spanish Peaks may engender.
Unlike at Paris-Nice, where Geraint Thomas led the battle for Team Sky, the beleaguered British team have rolled out the big gun – Chris Froome – for Catalunya. Likewise, other teams have rolled out the explosives, with Trek putting Contador into action, FdJ rolling out Mr Naughty (Bardet), and Valverde appearing for Movistar. And, naturally, all these teams have opened up their armoury of mountain domestiques to help their leaders take early scalps in one of the first big GC ding-dongs of the year.
So, does this fill you with excitement and anticipation for epic mountain battles? Will the majestic climbs form the natural amphitheatres of cycling, the cauldrons of emotion and attacking that they seem to have become associated with? Images of Andy Schleck’s massive 60km break over the Hautes Alps in 2011 ring around your brain, pumping adrenaline through the system.
Or do you merely envisage the mountain trains, long strings of teams lined out one by one, setting hard tempos up the hills, neutralising attacks from any smaller, less well equipped outfits? Typically the most exciting thing to be seen here is when the poor footsoldier who has been setting the pace for the last 30 minutes suddenly cracks and pulls off, depleted of glycogen and broken of mind, to come to a near standstill, square pedalling over to the far verge, calling for the team car to give him cake and coke, and quick.
A quick thought back to recent memorable moments of week long or grand tours seem to bring about images of the flatlands or the crazed descents from a mountain. Consider, for example, the brutal crosswind racing of Paris-Nice last week, or similarly (albeit a while ago) the fantastic stage in the Tour in 2013 where the bunch was shattered by the formation of echelons, with lucky Cav being in the right place at the right time to eventually profit? And of course, the best parts of the Tour in 2016 were Froome’s ‘frog on a skateboard’ descent off the Peyresourde to take victory in Luchon, or the magnificent few kms of Froome, Thomas, Sagan and Bodnar in a four man, two team break towards the finish line in Montpellier.
The only really striking incidents of merit resulting from lumpy terrain, and the wily attacking mountain goats that we come to associate with them, come from Contador’s great fight in the final stage of Paris-Nice this year, or the Sky implosion forced by Quintana, Contador and Brambilla in the 15th Stage of last year’s Vuelta.
So, with the lumps and bumps of Catalunya looming large, what can we expect to see? Lines of domestiques grinding down the opposition, following a wattage prescribed by the man in the car a few hundred meters behind? Or the romantic escape artist, riding on nerve, verve and tenacity? Let’s see. I know what I’d prefer… but not sure I’ll get it.