With its first edition held all the way back in 1911, Volta a Catalunya is among the very oldest races in cycling, and is firmly established as one of the most important and respected one-week stage races in the WorldTour.
With three mountain top finishes in total and tough hills aplenty in each of the other four stages, the 2023 edition has little if nothing to offer the bunch sprinters. The opening stage, starting and finishing in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, might just be their best chance, and a sprint finish was indeed the outcome when an almost identical route was used for last year’s opener, but a series of hills (including the category three Alto de Romanya 25km from the finish) will complicate matters.
Unusually for a stage race, two of the most important GC stages occur as early as stage two and three. First up is a summit finish Vallter 2000, a now familiar, punishingly long 15km climb with an unsparingly steep average gradient of nearly 7%. Adam Yates won here both in 2021 and 2019, and on both occasions the climb proved to be selective, with significant gaps between the favourites.
Then on stage three the riders finish atop La Molina, another climb that’s featured in many recent editions of the race. It’s similar in length to Vallter 2000 (12km) but with a much less demanding average gradient of 4.4%, although that number undersells the climb a little as it takes into account a brief downhill section near the top. The gaps haven’t been quite as big in past editions as Valter 2000, but has proven to be decisive in terms of the GC race with López and Valverde each winning here prior to taking the overall classification in recent years.
La Molina is climbed again at the start of stage four, but is followed by a long downhill and undulating terrain that will give the sprinters a possibility to compete for the victory. Then comes Mirador del Portell, probably the hardest and certainly the steepest of the three summit finishes, averaging a brutal 8.8% for its 8.4km duration. It’s a much rarer climb than the others, but was visited in 2017, when Valverde defeated Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.
Should the GC still be tight at the top, there is still scope for some changes in the final two stages. Though there are only two classified climbs during the undulating stage six, the proximity to the finish of the category two Alt de la Creu d’Aragall (35km) and Alt de Fontpineda (15km) make them potential launchpads for GC contenders as well a puncheur looking for a stage win. And finally, the familiar climactic circuit stage in Barcelona features several ascents of the Alt del Castell de Montjuïc (2.7km at 4.7%) that will sap away at the riders’ legs and potentially ignite some late drama.
This year’s line-up is an excitingly strong one, with a mixture of stars who have begun the season on fire with high-profile wins already, and those who are only now making their first appearance in a major race.
Following his dominant performance to win three back-to-back stages and the overall classification, Primož Roglič goes into the race as a hot favourite. This was supposed to be his first appearance of the season before his surprise early return at Tirreno-Adriatico, and his victory there shows he’s already firing at something like his best form.
Roglič would surely be the overwhelming favourite were it not for the presence of another in-form superstar: Remco Evenepoel. Like the Slovenian, Evenepoel won his first WorldTour stage race appearance of the season at the UAE Tour, where he defended the overall lead from stage three to win comfortably by almost one minute.
This will be the first time the pair have faced off since the Vuelta a España last year, where they had looked set to fight it out for overall victory in the final week before Roglič crashed out. The two are also targeting the Giro d’Italia, with many of their pencilled team-mates for that race also riding in Catalonia (Wilco Kelderman, Tobias Foss and Koen Bouwman for Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma, Jan Hirt, Fausto Masnada and Matteo Cattaneo for Soudal - Quick-Step’s Evenepoel), making this a fascinating dry run for the main event in May.
Another huge name taking part will be the man who won the Giro d’Italia in 2021, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), although his lead-up to the race has been very different. Following what was a severely interrupted 2022 due to his life-threatening crash in that year’s off-season, this is to be his first appearance in Europe of this season following a delay due to a knee problem that forced him to abandon the Vuelta a San Juan in January; it may therefore be up to Geraint Thomas (another man who’s targeting the Giro this year) to lead Ineos Grenadiers.
Their former teammate Richard Carapaz is set to make his WorldTour debut for new team EF Education-EasyPost, and will be part of a very strong line-up of South Americans that also features Rigoberto Urán and Esteban Chaves.
Along with Carapaz, Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates), Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), Romain Bardet (DSM) and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) will be among the riders grateful for the lack of a time trial. This should even the playing field somewhat, and complicates matters for specialists Roglič and Evenepoel. Yates in particular will be a threat, having placed first, second and fourth overall here in past editions, and with a strong team featuring João Almeida and Jay Vine riding alongside him.
As for riders searching for stage wins, Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Bryan Coquard (Cofidis) and Corbin Strong (Israel-Premier Tech) are the fast finishers to look out for if there are to be any group finishes, while puncheurs like Ethan Haytor (Ineos Grenadiers), Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) and the Israel-Premier Tech duo of Michael Woods and Dylan Teuns will enjoy the hilly parcours. And veteran breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt will surely try to add to his career tally of five stage wins at this race.
The climber-friendly parcours will prevent Roglič and Evenepoel from dominating quite as much as they would have done were there a time trial for them to take control of the race for overall victory, but they are still the men to beat.
Given his astonishing record of having won nine of the last eleven non-GrandTour WorldTour stage races he’s featured in since April 2018, and the form he showed at Tirreno-Adriatico, we’re backing Primož Roglič to once again triumph, and add one of the few major stage races not yet already on his palmares.