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Dauphiné preview

The Critérium du Dauphiné starts this Sunday. Officially it has been known as “Le Critérium du Dauphiné” but most people called it the Dauphiné Libéré, this being the name of the regional newspaper that organised and sponsored the race. But this has changed, Tour de France organisers ASO have bought the race. Le Dauphine Libéré is now merely one of many sponsors.

In many ways it is a mini Tour de France, featuring a prologue, a couple of sprint stages, summit finishes and a time trial too. All in one week. It’s one of my favourite races, it is smaller and friendlier than the Tour de France and yet uses equally epic roads. Plus it often coincides with the arrival of the first heatwave in France.

Here’s a quick preview:

Prologue: it’s not flat, the 6km route around Evian, the town famous for bottled water, includes 110m of vertical gain. Hardly a mountain time trial but this is not a course for chunky riders.

Stage 1: Hilly. This year’s vintage doesn’t have much for the sprinters. Even the first climb of the day is recorded in Mornex but the road goes uphill for 15km after that. Few teams will want to let a group go away but the final hill could let some fireworks happen.

Stage 2: Hillier. Two second category climbs means the race should liven up. If it’s not hard enough for a real GC selection, it should thin the bunch out a lot.

Stage 3: a 50km time trial. It’s got a decent hill towards the beginning but from then on this will be a big gear power ride to the finish line. Expect the big names to throw everything they’ve got into this, it is a key test before the Tour de France. The length here is notable, it is a very long effort and the time gaps could be substantial.

Stage 4: The first summit finish. The rest of the stage is through rolling terrain before the final climb to the finish which is a beautiful climb through pristine forest. This has “Contador” written all over it but I suspect he might be content to mark a steady tempo rather than force the pace.

Stage 5: A short stage with the climb over Chamrousse. This is not easy but the long finish afterwards should see a neutralised battle between the GC guys, unless a rider is particularly hungry or the weather is foul.

Stage 6: A big day out. After two smaller climbs, there’s the feed station and then the Glandon and Alpe d’Huez are on the menu. There’s no escaping the final climb, this should be the final test for the overall.

Stage 7: Ouch! Riders might be expecting an easy procession on the last day but the race will lap the circuit used by the World Championships in 1980, including the Côte de Domancy which is 2.5km of over 9%. Hardly Zoncolan-esque but they will do this five times and it will hurt.

Who Will Win?
It’s hard to say. For starters the official start sheet has yet to be confirmed. One thing is certain, Alejandro Valverde won’t be there to defend his title.

It’s traditionally been a stage race where climbers could have their say but this year’s edition features a 50km time trial which should prove fatal to any mountain goats.

Some names should be in the top-10 but increasingly riders don’t want to push themselves too hard in mid-June, knowing they need to be on form for the final week of the Tour de France. So there’s a tendency to avoid flooring the accelerator, to ride in a measured way, using the climbs as structured training rather than aiming for the win. And bad weather too might see lesser riders given the chance to escape whilst the top names worry about keeping warm.

The Favourites
Normally Alberto Contador would be the nailed-on, number one chance of victory. Able to climb and time trial, he is the world’s best stage race. But he didn’t force things last year and 2010 could see a repeat, he avoid taking risks since his goal is the Tour de France and the Dauphiné is nice but he has little to prove.

Vincenzo Nibali is supposed to be starting. Will he just use the week to spin his legs and prepare for July, or will he use his form in a major test to land the big win that’s due?

Another big name is Denis Menchov. After a bizarre abandon in the Tour of Belgium, he might be lacking racing miles but he should find the long TT and the summit finishes to his advantage. Again it’s hard to gauge whether he wants the win, set against the risk of peaking too early.

Other big names are Christophe Moreau and Luis Leon Sanchez, they will both have a point to prove, although Moreau is getting on and Sanchez might struggle on the climbs. Watch for another Sanchez, Samuel Sanchez as he could come up with the goods here.

The Outsiders
Tom Danielson always promises something but almost never delivers. Still, he was strong in the Vuelta and will want to convince his team to give him a spot in the Tour de France. Fellow American Chris Horner might also want to convince his RadioShack team too.

Jean-Christophe Peraud’s progression will be something to track and Omega-Lotto team mates Jurgen Roelandts and Jurgen Van Den Broeck are worth watching. Fellow Frenchman Christophe Le Mevel is making strong progress and Jerome Coppel is a talent riding in his home region. Finally watch out for Rein Taaramae, we’ll see if he can channel his big talents into something more sensible.

  • Dolphin-Friendly: Dauphin means dolphin. How come a land-locked region of France is associated with a dolphin? In the 12th century, the local ruler Count Guigues IV of Albon bore a dolphin on his coat of arms, no doubt to signify his well-travelled status. It was a separate region that saw its ruler forced to sell up because of big debts and in 1349 a union with France was created.