Chris Froome starts his biggest challenge prior to the Tour de France itself on Monday in the Tour of Catalonia, a seven-day race with a star-studded line-up featuring almost all the top stage racers currently in action and two major stages in the Pyrenees.
Neither Froome nor Team Sky has ever won the 103-year-old Tour of Catalonia, or La Volta as it is called in Catalan, in Spain second only in prestige to the Vuelta a España, the country’s Grand Tour, itself. And the 28-year-old Briton will not have it easy to rectify that in 2014.
After today’s hilly stage round the coastal town of Calella, La Volta features two mountain-top finishes in the Pyrenees on Wednesday and Thursday, La Molina and the 12km ascent to Vallter 2000 ski station, and has no individual time trial – one of Froome’s greatest strengths. That means time differences between the favourites will be smaller and the race much more difficult to control.
Froome’s form is something of an unknown, too. Since winning the Tour of Oman, his first race of 2014, in the middle of last month in spectacular style, the Sky rider has not been in action. He pulled out of his next scheduled event, the Tirreno-Adriatico – similar in difficulty and prestige to La Volta – with a bad back.
His absence from the Italian race left Sky looking undermanned, as his Australian team-mate and replacement leader Richie Porte quit with illness, while the other big name on the British team, Sir Bradley Wiggins, is still honing his race condition.
Those quick to fill the power vacuum left by Froome included Alberto Contador, formerly the world’s No 1 stage racer. In Tirreno, double Tour winner Contador delivered a devastating double whammy of mountain attacks that netted the Spaniard his first major victory since the Tour of Spain in 2012.
Beating the Tinkoff-Saxo leader will be one major obstacle Froome must overcome in Catalonia should he wish to contend for victory.
But there will be numerous other challengers in La Volta’s peloton. Colombian Nairo Quintana, the rider who ran Froome the closest in last year’s Tour de France, is also taking part. So too is Spain’s top all-rounder Joaquim Rodriguez, third in the 2013 Tour and racing on home soil in Catalonia.
The defending champion Dan Martin of Ireland – who won the Pyrenean stage of last year’s Tour, where Sky all but fell apart – is also present, along with the 2013 Tour of Spain winner Chris Horner and Froome’s former Sky team-mate and 2013 Giro d’Italia runner-up Rigobert Uran. A host of up-and-coming stage race specialists, such as Carlos Betancur of Colombia, the American Tejay Van Garderen and France’s young but hugely talented Warren Barguil, can all provide additional formidable opposition to Froome and Sky.
With so many top names, La Volta has a line-up that in 2014 will be second only to the Tour de France itself: all of which raises the pressure on Froome to produce a top ride to ensure his unwritten status as the world’s No 1 stage racer remains intact.