For almost 40 years, the Volta a Castelló has been fixture in the Spanish amateur calendar. Originally organised by the Club Ciclista Castellon, the race was known as Trofeo Penyagolosa. The theme of the race is traditionally; “mar y montana”, sea and mountains. The 3 days generally include the coastal towns of Benicassim and Castellon de la Plana in the early stages before going inland and climbing towards the mountainous border with the region of Aragon. Most years the queen’s stage climbs up to Vistabella where the race is decided. Over the years, riders such as Oscar Sevilla, Xavi Tondo and even Lance Armstrong have battled up the Vistabella climb.
In 2014 organization of the race was taken over by Jose Cabedo, president of the Club Ciclista Sepelaco. This came with some changes which have taken the race from strength to strength over the last 3 editions. The race became exclusive to riders under the age of 23, was moved later in the season and, this year, a 4th stage was added. Moving the race to early June ensured it didn’t cash with the Copa España and put it just before the national championships. This makes the race the perfect preparation for the nationals and gives an indication of who is on form. Last year for example, a local rider, Oscar Pelegri won a stage of the Volta a Castelló and went on to become Spanish U23 champion the week after.
The 4 stages:
After dinner, the night before the first stage, we gathered in a hotel room to talk tactics. Each rider had their race book open in front of them, the 7 of us listened carefully as the team director went over the race. We had two riders who were climbing well, Biel Pons had recently placed 4th in the Vuelta a Coruña and Erlend Sor finished second in the U23 Copa España overall classification this year. It was made clear that these guys were going to lead the team. We looked over the stage profiles; Stage 1 was up and down all day but with only one classified climb, so unlikely to cause major time gaps. Stages 2 and 4 had some classified climbs but the finishes were flat, they were likely to come to a sprint of a reduced bunch. Stage 3 was the one we were targeting, the finish at the top of Vistabella was where we needed our guys to attempt to take the overall lead. The mood was good in the team, we coming in after a bit of a break from races and some guys had been training at altitude and so were confident of their condition.
Thursday morning, on the start line of stage 1, we had one clear message drummed into us by the director; “the first day of a vuelta is the most dangerous, you can’t win the race but you can lose it, stay near the front and be careful of splits”. Often on the first stage of a Vuelta, GC riders can lose time to a split in the bunch and be left minutes behind. As he made clear, our team director had seen this happen countless times and even benefited from such situations in his career as an amateur. He couldn’t stress the point enough, stay near the front and don’t let any big groups get away from you.
An hour into the first stage a group of 40 or so riders had got away from us. Just the situation we had been told to avoid. Looking ahead at the group, I saw entire teams had got in the front split, they were working well and getting away from us. I could see Caja Rural and Fundacion Contador riders taking turns on the front and not looking back. I looked around to find our whole team had missed the split. It looked to me like no other teams were keen on working because they had riders in the front group.
But just as I was beginning to panic, the Dutch Lotto Jumbo U23 team came up on the righthand side. These are a well drilled bunch of lads, they moved up together and began taking turns on the front. After about half an hour the Lotto guys brought it all back together. Me and my teammates exchanged looks. We had got away with one there. We were so lucky such a strong team had also missed the move. After that little scare we rode at the front and didn’t let anything go for the rest of the stage.
The last 10km of the first stage went through some narrow streets then up two short steep climbs. I managed to get over the first one with the front group but I was caught behind a crash on the descent between the two climbs. I came in with a second group, 39 seconds down.
After the race the team regrouped by the team car, I grabbed a can of coke and rode we back to the hotel. We had managed to get 3 guys in the front group of 26 riders, Biel Pons had got off the front in the last few kilometers with two other guys and ended up 2nd on the stage. Pleased with the result, we played down our little mishap in the early part of the stage. We agreed we’d had it under control all along, we all knew the Lotto guys would bring it back. In fact, the consensus among the riders was that we had played it perfectly…
As usual, we had a meeting before the second stage to talk about how we were going to ride. We were in for a hard stage with 3 classified climbs. It was the sort of stage I’d have liked to target. Similar a race earlier this season in Urretxu, where I had managed 4th, the climbs would reduce the field leaving a sprint of a bunch of a manageable size. First priority, however, was the team: with the GC still tight we had to ensure no one got away before the climbs. The French team, La Pomme Marseille, had not only won the stage but also had 5 other riders in the front group so they were the team to watch. I sat in the bunch, only going with moves that included a Marseille rider. I managed to get through the first half of the stage fairly fresh. Unfortunately for me, a group of 5 including a Marseille guy got clear around 15km before the first category climb. I found my teammates and we began taking it in turns to bring back the group before the climb.
When we hit the 1st category climb of Remolcador, having spent most of my energy pulling on the front, I went out of the back of the bunch. A group of 26 riders got over the climbs and contested the sprint in Montanejos, our two leaders, Erlend and Biel were safely in there.
On Saturday afternoon, the much anticipated, Vistabella stage was underway. Now 10 minutes down on GC, I knew I needed to change my mentality. I had been working for the team but I was in danger of getting through the race without really doing anything for myself. I decided to go for the breakaway. I knew if I could get up the road the team would appreciate not having to chase and I’d at least get my name on the race radio. After an agonising first 20 minutes of going with various attacks, I found myself in a group of 12 going clear.
Halfway through the stage, having been in the break for almost an hour, I dropped back to speak to the director in the team car. We had almost 6 minutes on the bunch and we were starting to believe in our chances for the stage. My instructions were to keep coming through and doing my turns but not so spend any energy unnecessarily before the climbs.
In the break, each rider had his own interest. Along with most of the other riders, I was in there to give my team an excuse not to chase behind, the team needed me to keep working and not disrupt the pace of the break. I wasn’t expected to contest the stage win. There were other more opportunistic riders in the break, such as Cafe Baque’s Txomin Juaristi and Marseille’s Sofiane Merignat. Merignat had been told by his team not to work with the break, he sat on for almost 3 hours and barely came through once. His team were confident in the their strength and so were prepared to gamble the fate of the breakaway, keeping their rider fresh for the finish. Like Meirgnat, Txomin was going for the stage win but Txomin was playing it very differently. Txomin has been up there in most races he has rode this year, even taking a solo win in Durana. He had come to the race with GC ambitions but had missed the split the day before and so had lost a lot of time. He knew he needed to get the most out of the break to ensure he had the biggest gap on the bunch before trying to go for the stage win on the last climb. He made a point of doing long hard turns and shouted at anyone who missed a turn.
The Fundacion Euskadi had managed to get 3 riders in the break. This put them in a good position tactically, they opted to tell two riders to work hard while the strongest of the trio, Diego Lopez sat on the back with the Marseille rider not doing any work. With two teammates working hard no one complained about Lopez getting a free ride.
We had worked well all day but, with 3 minutes on the bunch still, when we hit the penultimate climb of Benifagos, the breakaway exploded. One after the other the Fundacion Euskadi riders attacked, using their numbers. Only Txomin and Meirnat could follow the moves. I rode the climb at my own pace and kept the front guys in sight. As we neared the top I had the front group of Txomin, Meirnat and Lopez in sight.
As I could feel myself getting nearer to the trio I was taken by surprise when Alvaro Caudros of Caja Rural flew past me. Cuadros had got away from the peloton at the start of the climb and came past me a green blur. Within seconds he was with the front 3 who jumped on his wheel and left me behind.
Having won Valenciaga this year I knew Caudros was a danger on GC, so I rode the remaining kilometer of the climb easy, ate all the food I had left on me and tried to recover. On the descent I joined up with my teammates on the front of the bunch and spent what little energy I had left on the front helping them reduce the gap to Caudros.
Our efforts were in vain as Caudros stormed to victory on Vistabella, taking what would have been an epic win away from Txomin Juaristi in the process. Cuadros rode himself into the yellow jersey with an advantage of 37 seconds on the general classification.
We had Erlend and Biel 4th and 5th on GC 40 and 41 seconds from Cuadros respectively. As we looked at the final stage we knew it would be near impossible to take the overall win. The 10km climb of Desierto Las Palmas was the only major climb of the day and would come a whole 14km from the finish – too far for Biel or Erlend to hang on should they manage to get clear on the climb. We predicted a result like day 2, were a bunch of 40 or so riders would contest a sprint.
Before the stage we had our habitual team meet. None of us were feeling particularly optimistic about the day and riders were quiet. Our team director had clearly read the situation and took us all by surprise. He was more animated than I had seen him all week. “Today we are going to give it everything” he said, “leave it all out on the road”. He made it clear we were to wage war on Cuadros and his Caja Rural team. He pointed out how hilly the first half of the stage was and how hard it would be to control. We planned to race aggressively and force Caja Rural to ride on the front all day. We needed to leave Cuadros without a team on Desierto Las Palmas for Erlend and Biel to attack him repeatedly and try and get away over the top.
One of our riders had fallen ill after the second stage and gone home, leaving us with 6 riders. Biel and Erlend were going to save their energy for the final climb along with another strong climber of ours, Victor, who would be used to set a hard pace for the first few kilometers of the climb. This left 3 of us to get in the early breaks in the first half of the race.
One of my teammates got in the first move, along with some Fundacion Contador and Marseille riders, leaving Caja Rural to pull on the front from the first 10km. As Caja Rural controlled the break, I sat behind and waited for my opportunity. With 70km to go, Caja Rural caught the break and I went with the next move. With 6 other guys I came through and pulled hard on the front. We soon got a gap of a minute and a half and I wondered whether Caja Rural had stopped chasing.
Every few kilometers we would get a time gap from the front race motorbike. “1min 30 secs … 1:40… 1:10 … 1:30”. Our gap was steady and fluctuating by around 30 seconds: we were being controlled by Caja Rural. I knew the best we could hope for was to get to the bottom of the climb with a gap on the bunch, we were being kept on such a short leash.
Nevertheless, I kept doing my turns and made sure the other lads did their fair share. Although a stage win was off the cards, I knew by being out front Caja Rural would have to continue to chase, giving us more chance for isolating Cuadros on the final climb.
Through the town of Benicassim I looked back to see the bunch bearing down on us, we made it to the foot of the climb. As planned, Victor was on the front reducing the group. When they caught me I did a turn on the front but couldn’t manage more than a minute or so at the pace the bunch were going.
As I made my way to the finish with a grupetto, I caught up with a teammate. Mikel Faus, and I agreed we had done a pretty good job of giving Cuadros and Caja Rural a run for their money. He had held onto the group longer than me and so have been able get a look at the front split. He told me the last he had seen Caudros was own his own in a group of 20 or 30.
At the finish I learned that the attacks from Erlend and Biel had reduced the group to only 8 riders but, unfortunately for us, Cuadros had hung on and got to the finish with his lead intact. In our team debrief, we were congratulated on our race. We had turned a straightforward stage with a routine 50 up sprint into absolute chaos – just what the director wanted. The team owner had also been at the race and was happy with what he had seen. So although we didn’t get the result we were after we ended the week on a good note.
This weekend we’ve got two races in the Basque Country planned so keep an eye out for my next post.
Stage 1 video:
Stage 2 video:
Stage 3 video:
Stage 4 video:
Stage 4 + GC