Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Volta a Catalunya: Port-Ainé - Queen Stage

 
If today's summit finish in the Volta a Catalunya looked tough, it's because it was - but if riders think the pain ended at the top of the Vallter then they are mistaken because tomorrow brings us the Queen stage and another brute of a summit finish picture above on Port-Aine and this time the mountain comes after 4 other categorised climbs. If time gaps between the favourites were small today, it could be a very different story tomorrow...

At 217 kilometres long, tomorrows stage is not for the faint-hearted as the route packs a double punch with both distance and climbing miles. From 27 kilometres onwards the stage is dominated by ascents and descents all the way to the finish. Riders first tackle the category 3 Coll de Merolla followed by the category 1 Alt del Pedraforca, the category 2 Alt de la Josa del Cadi and another long stretch up uncategorised up-hill tarmac. The bunch will already be well strung out and yet the climbing just keeps coming in the form of the huge Port de Canto before riders reach the final climb of the day, the 18.9km long Port-Aine. 'Hard' probably doesn't describe well enough a day in the saddle like this.
 
Port-Aine rises for a total of 18.9km and at first glance the average gradient is less than that of yesterdays Vallter at just 6.5% but take into consideration that tomorrows climb will be almost 8km longer and it becomes apparent that this really is a beast of a climb. Like today there are steeper sections too, some rising to 12% and plenty tipping 10-11%. The second to last kilometre averages 9% before flattening out slightly to around 5.4% into the final kilometre. Look out for major attacks from around 4.5kms out where the gradient rises to just over 10% giving those with a real kick a chance to put the hammer down in an effort to gap those who have managed to hang on to this point - an ideal candidate here would be Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), not only is he well suited to these gradients and finishes but he also calls these roads home - indeed he lives in Andorra and trains here too whilst he is also Catalan by birth, he will want to perform here for his home fans, his family and for himself.

profile Port Ainé
 
The race finishes close to the picturesque village of Rialp, another mountain town dominated by its 13th century castle ruins and historic churches. It's not as tourist friendly as Camprodon but is still a mecca for Skiers and walkers who stay here throughout the year. The biggest crowd drawer appears to be the stunning Noguera Pallaresa river which passes through the region, it's strong current and rapids bring canoeists from far and wide.
 
The Noguera Pallaresa rive is a beauty spot
We are at the point in the race where some riders are so far back on the GC that they may be allowed to escape in a break-away and as ever an up and down stage like this makes perfect terrain for such a move. Some of those who still have time to claw back or indeed gain on the favourites may consider making a move on the penultimate climb as the bigger names try to keep watch over each other and control the pace. The descent would also make a good attacking point but it's a long way to ride solo - especially up the final 19km climb - to the finish.
 
The Sky train is present and will of course look to control the pace throughout the stage and especially on the final climb, though Bradley Wiggins has looked more aggressive and less reliant on team help so far, putting in several attacks on today's summit finish, the Vallter 2000. He looks strong, an indication maybe that Skys 'race less, train more' strategy is paying dividend and if this was still a straight-up race between himself an Ryder Hesjedal then it would probably be game over as the Canadian finds himself well over two minute back in the overall classification, with Garmin team-mate Dan Martin looking in a far better position, just 30 seconds back on new race leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Today's stage winner, also of Movistar, Nairo Quintana is looking in great form and also not so far back in the GC, if he still has the legs tomorrow he would certainly be one to watch for the stage win again. Domenico Pozzovivo is still lurking and Thibaut Pinot finished in the front group today. Pozzovivo especially is well suited to tomorrows stage, he likes mountain-heavy stages where he can use his petite size to his full advantage and Pinot has proven himself in stages like this during last years Tour de France.
 
The race is shaping up nicely as suspected and there is still plenty of room for manoeuvre in the overall classification, tomorrows stage may be the queen stage and a gruelling one at that, but it still isn't the last chance for somebody to launch an attack on the General Classification, there are hard days left to come...

 

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