Monday, the Tour of Catalonia (Volta a Catalunya) starts, a seven days WorldTour stage race in the northeast of Spain. During this race, there will be not much time to recover since the course is riddled with climbs.

In the first stage, there are six official climbs on the route towards Calella where Bart De Clercq got third two years ago after a long breakaway. Tuesday a team time trial of 41.3 kilometers is on the agenda. Like the previous three years, there is a finish in La Molina, a ski resort, which is on for Wednesday. During that stage not one metre is flat. The road climbs steadily for miles before the riders summit the Alt de Toses after which they have to climb the Molina twice. The first half of the fourth stage goes downhill and it ends with a difficult finale. Fifteen kilometers before the finish the riders reach the top of the Turó del Puig (second category) followed by a descent until the finish in Igualada. Friday they finish uphill at Lo Port. To reach the finish the riders have to climb 8.4 kilometers with an average gradient of 9% with peaks up to 20%! Saturday the peloton is heading for Reus. Before they begin to descend towards this city, they have to conquer the Alt de la Musara, a climb of 11.6 kilometers with an average gradient of 5%. The Volta a Catalunya ends on Sunday in the capital Barcelona. The last part of this stage consists of eight local laps of 6.6 kilometers including the Montjuïc. This climb is two kilometers long and has an average gradient of 5.7%. From the top there is still four kilometers to cover towards the finish.

One of the eight Lotto Soudal riders who will be lining up for the start, is Thomas De Gendt. Last year, he won the fourth stage with finish at Port Ainé, which has no finish in this year’s edition. André Greipel is also participating. The German champion wants to finalize his preparation for the Tour of Flanders. Louis Vervaeke, who ended up as twentieth last year, 2’22’’ behind the winner Nairo Quitana, is also part of the selection. The Spanish GC rider Rafael Valls will also compete in his home country. Two years ago he claimed the eighth place in the general classification at 43 seconds of the winner Richie Porte.

Rafael Valls: “After the Abu Dhabi Tour end of February I took a week of rest, also to get used to Spanish time again. Then I trained a lot in the mountains to prepare for the Volta a Catalunya. It will be without any doubt a tough week. The race suits me well and for a race in my home country, I am always extra motivated. The Volta a Catalunya is one of the toughest stage races of one week because of its strong start list, its tough course and the intensity of racing.”

“The past few weeks I paid the necessary attention to the time trial because on Tuesday a team time trial of over 40 kilometers is scheduled in Catalonia. Then the first significant time differences in the classification will be made. I expect that we can set a good time with the team so I will not lose much time in the classification. This discipline certainly does not scare me. Wednesday we finish at La Molina, where I got tenth in 2015. It will be a difficult stage with a lot of altitude metres, but the climb to La Molina is not very steep. The time difference between the GC riders will be limited to seconds and not minutes. Friday it will be different during the stage to Lo Port. I have never done that climb but I have seen it on video. Together with the time trial, it will be the most important appointment for the GC.”

“The final stage in and around Barcelona is not to be underestimated with the sequence of climbs of the Montjuïc. It keeps on going up and down. The stage can still have an influence on the final GC. It is also a stage that always brings spectacle due to the many attacks. In 2015 I finished as ninth in that stage. It is a course that suits me and where I might try something, either to win the stage or to take back time in the GC. The best GC riders of the world are participating next week such as Bardet, Contador and Froome. I am certainly going to fight for a place in the top ten and for a stage win.”

Line-up Lotto Soudal : Sander Armée, Sean De Bie, Bart De Clercq, Thomas De Gendt, André Greipel, Rafael Valls, Jelle Vanendert and Louis Vervaeke.

Sports directors: Mario Aerts and Bart Leysen.

Stages

Stage 1 Monday 20 March: Calella – Calella (178.9 km)

Stage 2 Tuesday 21 March: Banyoles – Banyoles (41.3 km) (TTT)

Stage 3 Wednesday 22 March: Mataró – La Molina (188.3 km)

Stage 4 Thursday 23 March: Llívia – Igualada (194.3 km)

Stage 5 Friday 24 March: Valls – Lo Port (Tortosa) (182 km)

Stage 6 Saturday 25 March: Tortosa – Reus (189.7 km)

Stage 7 Sunday 26 March: Barcelona – Barcelona (138.7 km)