In one of the more prominent clashes of the leading professionals in stage race cycling for 2014, Joaquim Rodriquez regained the Volta a Catalunya title which he previously won in 2010 and in doing so defeated Alberto Contador and reigning Tour de France champion Chris Froome over the seven day event. It was by no means a decisive victory by the Spaniard but it conveyed a clear signal that he will be a force to be reckoned over the coming months.
The race which is arguably the second most important stage race in the country behind Vuelta a Espana had been earmarked as the race for which Chris Froome would test his overall fitness after a winter training programme hampered by a niggling back injury. His attempts at winning this race were not helped by the withdrawal due to his illness of his Team Sky partner Richie Porte, yet despite his sixth placed finish he expressed content with his general condition.
Two mountain stages around the hills of Catalonia proved to be the decisive moments during the event with Rodriguez demonstrating his climbing form by outsmarting both Contador and Nairo Quintana to claim stage three to La Molina by five seconds and secure the race lead by the same margin. It was more a case of Rodriguez showing greater speed at the finish rather than mountain strength but it was a race lead which he never appeared likely to relinquish.
In colder conditions than expected on the following day, American Tejay van Garderan escaped from a group of riders at the mountain finish of stage four to claim the win by the narrowest of margins from Romain Bardet with all the main protagonists just a few seconds behind.
Thereafter, there was no change in the overall classification at the head of the race for the remaining three days, but the two stages in the mountains were perhaps the clearest indication that there is not a great deal of difference in current fitness among the riders expected to contest the Grand Tours in the days ahead.
Rodriguez has always been a consistent rider during these three week stage races but has never been able to land of the three major tours but his victory in Catalonia is a reminder that a podium place is always within his capabilities. For Contador and Froome, another season of rivalry appears certain as both look to tune their conditioning for the gruelling races ahead. Although they were both beaten in Catalonia, the minor separating margins were insignificant as they used these races as a stepping stone towards greater prizes.
Team tactics combined with illness and injury will play a part in determining the outcome of several stage races during the forthcoming months but it does appear likely that some fascinating battles may ensue among the leading riders.
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