Leigh Howard Sprints to Second in Calella

Mon 24 Mar 2014

ORICA-GreenEDGE’s Leigh Howard sprinted to second off a strong lead out from teammate Brett Lancaster on the opening stage of Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. Luka Mezgec (Giant-Shimano) edged out Howard to the line in Calella to win stage one and pull on the race leader’s jersey. Nearly the entire star-studded field of 176 riders contested the sprint finish with only 13 riders splitting off from the main bunch.

The testing stage with a hilly finale began with a pair of escapees as Romain Lemarchand (Cofidis) and Boris Vallee (Lotto Belisol) jumped up the road. The duo built up a maximum advantage just over eight minutes before Giant-Shimano, Cannondale and Team Sky collaborated to chase.

Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) broke away from the bunch on the first-category Alt de Montseny. The Spaniard bridged across to the leaders before the final ascent, but his time up the road was short-lived. The peloton overtook the breakaway inside the final 20 kilometres.

A number of attacks kept the peloton attentive on the category two climb that topped out 17 kilometres from the finish. The accelerations continued on the sweeping descent along the coast until the sprint trains picked up enough speed to lend a semblance of control to the finale.  

Sport Director Neil Stephens reviews the day in the Q&A below.

Q: What was our plan of attack today?

 We weren’t quite sure how Brett and Clarkey [Simon Clarke] were going to pull up after a very hard and cold Milan-Sanremo yesterday, so our plan today was pretty loose until we could see how they were going. The basic idea was to get through the day with minimum damage.

There were a couple of categorised climbs at the finish. We thought we had a good chance of getting over them with Leigh. If he made it over the climbs in the bunch, we were prepared to support him in the finish.

Q: Were you surprised that such a large group came to the line together?

No – I wasn’t surprised. This is a very similar stage to two years ago when Michael Albasini was in a small bunch off the front and a somewhat reduced bunch behind – but not greatly reduced. When we got to the business end of the race with only the small breakaway up front, I knew it would be a substantial bunch finish.

Q: What’s your take on the sprint?

There was a tailwind coming into the finish. Brett did a perfect lead-out given the conditions. Leigh stepped off Brett’s wheel and had a lot of momentum when he opened his sprint. Mezgec started to sprint a bit later, and he was able to use his speed to come around Leigh before the line.

We knew Luka was the guy to beat. When Brett dropped back to pick up bottles, he said that Giant had a Slovenian rider who would be real quick in the finish today. We identified him as a clear favourite and one to watch.

Q: How did they day go for everyone else? In our race preview, we talked about how it was the first WorldTour race for Chaves, Howson and Yates. How did they fare?

Well – that actually wasn’t quite correct. Chaves raced Tirreno two years ago as well as one of the Ardennes. It’s his first WorldTour race with a WorldTour team, but it’s not completely new to this. It’s the first WorldTour race for both Adam and Damien.

All three stepped up and performed as expected. None of them had any trouble with their roles. This should be a good week for all three guys.

Q: Despite the close second – were you happy with what you saw and heard today?

We can never be completely content if we’re close but don’t win, but everyone did their duty diligently today. We rolled the dice in the sprint and came up with second place. We aspire to do one better in the next couple days.