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Based on the results this year and the make-up of the race, it is hard to see anyone beat Froome. He has not only taken over most of Wiggins' race schedule, he now also has his countryman's habit of winning whenever he lines up in a...

Photo: Lloyd Images / Muscat Municipality

CRITERIUM DU DAUPHINE

RACE PROFILE
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NEWS
01.06.2013 @ 12:39 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

For more than three weeks, the headlines have been dominated by the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Rigoberto Uran and Michele Scarponi but it is time to forget all about the key protagonists of the Italian grand tour. The Tour de France looms in the horizon and with Sunday's start of the Criterium du Dauphiné, the preparation for the world's biggest race kicks off in earnest. The Grand Depart will take place on Corsica in less than one month, and it is time to find out who's hot and who's not for the French grand tour when the two biggest Tour favourites, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, go head to head in the Alps in the coming week.

 

While many of the world's best stage race riders have been involved in a hard fight for the maglia rosa on the Italian roads, most of the remaining part of that exclusive category of riders have meticulously prepares for their assault at the world's biggest race, the Tour de France which - believe it or not - starts in less than a month from now. Some have already kicked back into action at races like the Tour of California, the Tour of Norway, the Tour of Belgium and the Bayern Rundfahrt but the start of the Criterium du Dauphiné on Sunday marks the beginning of the string of stage races that offer the Tour contenders plenty of opportunities to fine-tune their condition during the month of June.

 

The Criterium du Dauphiné plays a very unique role among that group of preparation races. Held in the French Alps, it is one of only two races - the smaller Route du Sud held in the Pyrenees being the other - to offer the riders the chance to test out some of the climbs that they will encounter during the month of July. In that sense, the race is the French analogue to the Italian Giro del Trentino and the Spanish Vuelta a Burgos as all three races are formidable tune-up events for the grand tours of their home country. All are held a few weeks prior to the start of the three-week races and are take place in mountainous parts of the countries that host the three grand tours.

 

While the riders are involved in heavy battles on the roads, race organizers take part in a completely different fight. For years, the Criterium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse have both claimed to offer the best preparation for the Tour, and while it is mostly a question of individual preference to find out which one comes out on top, it has been the source for plenty of discussion. The Swiss race is one day longer than its French counterpart and takes place one week closer to the start of the Tour, and riders all have different ideas as to which race forms the part of an ideal build-up. In that sense, the fight is comparable to the one between the Paris-Nice and the Tirreno-Adriatico which both claim to be the perfect preparation for the Milan-Sanremo.

 

In recent years, the French race has, however, appeared to come out triumphant in the duel. For many years, the race was organized by the eponymous local newspaper Dauphiné Libéré under the name of Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré and was the final big French race to be held outside the aegis of Tour de France organizer ASO. However, financial difficulties forced the paper to hand over the complete responsibility to the French giant in 2010 and the change saw the race name being abbreviated.

 

Unsurprisingly, ASO has since tried to achieve some synergy between the Dauphiné and the Tour in a quest to attract more Tour contenders and that project has been a successful one. While the race has always tried to include key sections from the Tour route to give the riders the opportunity to tackle the course at race pace, ASO has taken that idea a step further. In 2011, they included the exact same time trial in Grenoble that would be contested one month later in the Tour, and last year the riders climbed the Grand Colombier climb which was set to make its Tour debut later that season. This year the main attraction is the possibility to climb the Alpe d'Huez and the subsequent Col de Sarenne which will be part of the crucial 18th stage of the Tour.

 

The changes have seen more and more riders include the Criterium du Dauphiné in recent years while at the same time the Tour de Suisse has lost some of its status. The French race can even boast about the fact that since 2009 the Tour winner has finished on their podium one month prior to being celebrated in Paris (2009: Alberto Contador finished 3rd, 2010: Alberto Contador finished 2nd (and was later disqualified from his Tour win), 2011: Cadel Evans finished 2nd, 2012: Bradley Wiggins won). Actually, the last Tour winner not to race the Dauphiné was Lance Armstrong who deviated from his usual schedule containing the Dauphiné by riding (and winning) the Tour de Suisse in 2001 before going on to beat Jan Ullrich in France a month later. The trend seems to continue this year as Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Joaquin Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Pierre Rolland, Tony Martin, Mikel Nieve and Damiano Cunego are just some of many Tour contenders to line up in Champery on Sunday.

 

While the Criterium du Dauphiné is certainly good preparation which gives a lot of information on the form of some of the most important contenders, it is also important not to be too good too soon. The early calendar date means that the winner of the Dauphiné rarely goes on to win the Tour de France, and besides Wiggins who bucked the trend last year, the only riders to make the double are Louison Bobet (1955), Jacques Anquetil (1963), Eddy Merckx (1971), Luis Ocana (1973), Bernard Thevenet (1975), Bernard Hinault (1979, 1981), Miguel Indurain (1995) and Lance Armstrong (2002 and 2003), the names on that list clearly indicating that it requires something special to make the rare feat.

 

However, the Dauphiné is more than just Tour preparation and as a WorldTour event with important points at stake, it has probably even got more important in recent years. The last few seasons have seen some of the best climbers from the Giro travel directly to France to benefit maximally form their good post-Grand Tour condition. In 2011, Joaquin Rodriguez went on from finishing 4th in the Giro to capture two stage wins and an overall 5th place in the Dauphiné while last year his teammate Daniel Moreno came from a 20th place finish in the Giro to win two stages and finish 13th overall in France. This year, Samuel Sanchez who got better and better as the days went on in the Italian grand tour, will try to do something similar as he lines up as the leader of his Euskaltel team in France.

 

Last year, Bradley Wiggins used a 2nd place in the prologue and a win in the long time trial to get a firm hold on the race lead and formidably assisted by the likes of Michael Rogers, Chris Froome and Richie Porte, he never relinquished the top position in the mountain stages. In a demonstration of power from his Sky team, he went on to win the race ahead of his teammate Michael Rogers while Cadel Evans (4 times second in the event) once again finished on the podium in third. With Chris Froome the designated Tour captain and Bradley Wiggins going for the Giro-Tour double, it has always been the plan for Froome to try to make it three in a row in the French race and Wiggins' knee problems have done nothing to change that initial idea.

 

The course

When the race was still organized by the newspaper Dauphiné Libéré, the build-up of the course followed a fixed format. A short prologue kicked off the event and was followed by two easier stages of which one suited the sprinters while the other took in some more hilly terrain. Wednesday was the day of a long time trial of more than 40km while the race was rounded off by four consecutive stages in the mountains. Often the Thursday and Saturday stages included a mountaintop finish while the Friday and Sunday stages were more suited to breakaways.

 

When ASO took over the event, they started to deviate from that format and this year is no exception. For the first time in years, there will be no prologue and instead the race will kick off in Switzerland with a short 121km stage starting and finishing in Champery. The route takes in some hilly terrain with 4 categorized climbs (two of the first category, one of the second and one of the third) and so it will not be one for the sprinters. A very short descent leads directly to the bottom of the category 1 Col de Morgins (9,2km, 6,6%) whose top is located only 12,5km from the start, thus giving opportunists a perfect springboard for an early attack. The next part of the route is much easier and contains mostly a gradual downhill but then it is time to tackle the category 1 Col du Corbier (7,6km, 7,5%), a short descent, a long gradual ascent and the category two Pas de Morgins (4,5km, 6,7%). From the top only 19,5km remain and the first part is all downhill. With 8km to go, the riders hit the bottom of the category 3 Cote de Champery (6,9km, 3,3%), the official top of that ascent being located with around 1,5km to go. However, the road continues to head slightly upwards all the way to the finish line. The final climb is an easy one and so we will not see any separation of the overall contenders but the climbing along the stage is by far tough enough to rule out most of the fast men. However, it could be a perfect stage for a rider like Edvald Boasson Hagen if he is relieved from his domestique duties in the Sky team while Gianni Meersman, Tony Gallopin, Francesco Gavazzi, Michel Kreder and Simon Gerrans have doubtlessly also marked this one out. However, it is also perfectly suited to GC riders like Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego.

 

The 2nd stage takes the riders 191km from Chatel to Oyonnax and the riders are now on French soil. Once again the route is a rolling one but it does not contain the long climbs of stage 1. Instead, it is littered with numerous short, classics-type ascents, thus offering the perfect grounds for attacks. The first 119,5km are rather easy and only contain one small category 4 climb (2,6km, 4,7%) but the going gets tough when the riders start the small category 4 Cote de Mons (1,0km, 5,5%). From then on, it is up and down all the way to the finish with the category 3 Cote de Lancrans (3,1km, 5,2%), the category 2 Cote de Communal (5,6km, 6,3%), the category 4 Cote de Bugnon (1,9km, 6,1%) and the category 2 Col du Sentier (2,7km, 7,6%) all contributing to tiring out the riders' legs. From the top of the latter, only 11,5km of fast descent remain, and this could be a stage for either a successful long-distance breakaway, a blistering attack late in the stage or a sprint from a reduced bunch.

 

The 3rd stage is one of the easiest and takes the riders from Amberieu-en-Bugey to Tarare. The first part is completely flat but the final half contains the two category 3 climbs Col des Echarmeaux (10,6km, 3%) and Col des Sauvages (4,0km, 5,5%). From the top of the last one, only 9,5km of fast descent remain and the stage could be another one for a late attack. However, the final climb is easier than the one in stage 2 and the stage is generally much easier to control and so we are more likely to see some kind of a sprint than on the previous day.

 

The first key stage for the GC riders is the 32,5km stage 4 time trial from Villars-les-Dombes to Parc des Oiseaux. On the one hand, the climbers will be relieved to see that the race against the clock is much shorter than usual in the Dauphiné. On the other hand, they could not have designed a course more to their distaste as the route is non-technical and completely flat. This is one for the pure specialists and based on his performance in time trials this year, it is hard to see any other winner than world champion Tony Martin. For most of the GC contenders, it will be a case of limiting their losses while Chris Froome hopes to take time on all of his rivals except Martin.

 

The climbers get their first opportunity to take back some time already on the next day where it is time for the race's first summit finish. The short 139km stage from Gresy-sur-Aux to Valmorel is for the most part an easy one as the first 126km are only punctuated by three smaller climbs, one in the third and two in the fourth category. However, that all changes when the riders hit the bottom of the HC Montee de Valmorel (12,7km, 7%). The climb is a typical Alpine one and has a rather constant gradient. While the ascent is a far cry from the steep ones seen in Italy during the month of May, it is certainly a day to make some separation between the overall contenders.

 

Friday's 6th stage is maybe the one most likely to end in a sprint. The 143km from La Lechere-les-Bains to Grenoble start out flat before a hilly zone containing the category 4 Cote d'Arvillard (2,2km, 5,3%), the category 1 Col du Barioz (7,1km, 7,3%), the category 2 Col des Ayes (3,8km, 8,1%) and the category 4 Col des Mouilles (2,0km, 6,1%) greets the riders. The climbing is rather tough but from the top of the final ascent, 45km of flat or descending roads remain. It is not a stage for pure sprinters but since those will all skip the hilly race, the few fast men could target this stage as their best opportunity.

 

After a short breather, the GC battle continues in the tough final weekend and Saturday's 7th stage offers a dress rehearsal for the anticipated 18th stage of the Tour de France. After an easy start, the riders will tackle the double climb of the Alpe d'Huez (12km, 8,6%) and the Col de Sarenne ( 3,1km, 6,8%) and the subsequent descent back down to Bourg d'Oisans at the bottom of the famous Alpe. In July, the riders will then climb back up the 21 famous bends but this time they will instead head to the bottom of the category 1  Col du Noyer (11,3km,7,2%), passing the category 1 Col d'Ornon (10,5km, 6,1%) along the way. The roads between the climbs are mostly flat, but the final will be an exciting one. From the top of the Noyer, only 11,5km remain and while the first 7,5 of those are all downhill, the stage finishes with the category 3 Montee de Superdeveloy (4km, 5,7%) after 187,5km of racing.  The Col du Noyer has the potential to do some serious damage as the final three kilometers are all very steep and with no flat roads after the top, it could be a perfect place to put in an attack. The final climb is not overly difficult but could do some damage on some tired legs at the end of a tough stage and it could be a perfect place to increase any advantage secured on the Noyer.

 

No one will be able to celebrate final victory until the final day of racing as ASO has decided to include another summit finish at the end. The 155,5km stage 8 starts in Sisteron and finishes in Risoul and the first part is rather easy with only a category 3 climb to break the monotony. However, the category 1 Col de Vars (10,4km, 6,9%) will then take the riders up to 2100m of altitude before a long descent leads to the bottom of the final category 1 climb up to Risoul (13,9km, 6,7%). The ascent was last used in 2010 when Nicolas Vogondy took a surprise victory by escaping from the group of favourites on its slopes and it will provide a fitting end to one week of mountainous racing. The climb is not overly steep but gets tougher in the second part, and the penultimate km has an average gradient of 9%. Both the stage win and the final win will be up for grabs as the Tour de France contenders climb their final mountain at race pace before July's big battle.

 

The weather

It has been a case of finger-crossing all year to avoid the bad weather that has hampered racing all year and almost blew the final week of Giro racing in the Dolomites to pieces. At the same time, riders in Norway, Bayern and Belgium rode in torrential rain and it seems that all of Europe has decided to delay both spring and summer.

 

Usually, it is not a risky affair to organize bike races in the Alps in June but this year nothing is guaranteed. At the time of writing, the riders can look forward to another wet and cold start to the race in Champery as temperatures of only 5 degrees Celcius and plenty of rain are expected. However, the weather should improve already the next day and at the moment the riders can expect to race in sunny, warm conditions most of the time. However, it is still early days and much can change before we reach the tough days at altitude in the final weekend of racing.

 

The favourites

The Tour de France has been billed as a duel between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador and ASO are overjoyed to be able to present a dress rehearsal in the French Alps in the coming week. Contador has traditionally used the French race as his final build-up while Froome's status as designated Sky leader for the Tour also includes the possibility to lead the team at the Dauphiné.

 

Based on the results this year and the make-up of the race, it is, however, hard to see anyone beat Froome. He has not only taken over most of Bradley Wiggins' race schedule this season, he now also has his countryman's habit of winning whenever he lines up in a stage race. He won his first ever stage race in February in the Tour of Oman and was perfectly positioned to do the same in Tirreno-Adriatico after winning the queen stage on top of the Prato di Tivo climb. However, a cold and rainy day on the undulating roads to Porto Sant'Elpidio saw not only the captain but also his Sky team crack under the pressure and he had to settle for an unusually low 2nd place. He made up for that mistake by beating teammate Richie Porte in the Criterium International, and after a short break and a warm-up in Liege-Bastogne-Liege he took a dominant win in the Tour de Romandie.

 

Since then he has taken a short rest and continued the meticulous preparation for the Tour that has made Sky famous. Despite his long absence from competition, it will be very unusual for him not to start the Dauphiné in red-hot condition. Furthermore, he has an extra incentive to perform well. Originally, a defeat in the Dauphiné had probably not been a disaster, but with the aftermaths of the Froome-Wiggins discussion still fresh in mind, it is very important to Froome to prove to everybody around him that he is the right man to back in the world's biggest race by doing exactly what Wiggins did 12 months ago.

 

As usually he is backed by a formidable team with Richie Porte, Vasil Kiryienka, David Lopez and Edvald Boasson Hagen all ready to tap along at the steady, murderous tempo that discourages any attacks in the mountains. Furthermore, the route suits him down to the ground with the long time trial likely to hand him an early advantage over all but a few select rivals and the nature of the Alpine climbs are just perfect for the kind of racing that suits Sky and Froome.

 

If anyone had a hope of defeating Froome by dropping him in the mountains, they will find little consolation in this year's racing. While he was undoubtedly the strongest climber in last year's Tour, he has been almost impossible to defeat in mountaintop finishes this year. On the Green Mountain in Oman, he was only beaten by Rodriguez who had been allowed to go up the road as he was already out of the battle for the overall win, in Tirreno he won on the Prato di Tivo, in the Criterium International he rode away from everybody on the Col de l'Ospedale, and in the Tour de Romandy only Simon Spilak could stay in his wheel when he put down the hammer on the Col de la Croix. He is not only a formidable time triallist who finished second in both races against the clock in last year's Tour, he is also only rivalled by Vincenzo Nibali in the battle for the title as the best and most consistent climber of the year.

 

It is a testament to the strength of the Sky team that his biggest rival could very well be the man that is expected to deliver the key support in the mountains. Richie Porte has had his breakthrough as a stage racer this year, winning the Paris-Nice before going on to finish second in both the Criterium International and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. A hard spring campaign finally caught up with the strong Australian and he was not at his best in the Ardennes classics or when he finished 8th at the Tour de Romandie despite supporting Froome.

 

Since then he has had a rest and built up steadily for the Tour. He is unlikely to match Froome in the mountains but the make-up of the course could put Porte into a favourable position before they hit the highest summits. The first three stages are unlikely to produce any real differences between the GC contenders and the first real separation will be seen at the end of the stage 4 time trial. While Froome is most likely to beat Porte in the race against the clock, the reverse outcome is not impossible. If Porte beats his captain, he will start the mountain stages as the best Sky rider and if he is strong enough to respond to the attacks from his competitors, Froome could find himself in another position where he is not allowed to attack a race-leading teammate.

 

That scenario happened in the Criterium International where Froome rode away from Porte despite the Australian's position as race leader. However, it is not certain that this will happen again and Froome could choose to give his lieutenant an important victory in the build-up to the Tour. On the other hand, his desire to prove his status as team leader could make him eager to take the win himself.

 

If Froome allows Porte the freedom to contest the win, the Australian is another one perfectly suited to the course. Like Froome, he is one of the best time triallists in the peloton and he has improved dramatically as a climber during the last two years. The Alpine climbs are perfect for him and he could also benefit from the torturous tempo that his Sky teammates can set throughout a day of racing in the mountains.

 

We are somewhat reluctant to make Alberto Contador one of the race favourites for two reasons. First of all he has always used the Dauphiné purely as a build-up race and has never targeted the win, thus avoiding to go on the offensive in the mountains. In 2009, he finished 3rd after almost working as a domestique for compatriot Alejandro Valverde and in 2010 he finished 2nd behind Janez Brajkovic. On that occasion, he entered the race with one objective: to win on Alpe d'Huez which he had yet to conquer. He did that ahead of Brajkovic and was then happy to settle for second behind the young Slovenian.

 

The second reason for our reluctance is the huge difference between Contador's level pre- and post-suspension. While he was by far the best stage racer in the world before he served his ban, he has been considerably below that level ever since returning to competition, failing to reach all of his early-season targets. The first indications were already given in last year's Vuelta where he was unable to ride away from Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez in the "real" mountains and only used a gutsy and unexpected attack on an intermediate stage to clinch the overall win.

 

Some might have thought that the Spanish grand tour would make up for the lost racing and see him return to his former self but that has not been the case at all. In the Tour of Oman and the Tirreno-Adriatico, he tried to put in his trademark attacks in the mountains only to get reeled in moments later and he had to settle for 2nd and 3rd in those races. In the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he appeared to have realized that he had to play it a little more conservatively than in the past but he only managed to finish 5th. Finally, the Ardennes classics did not at all provide any cause for optimism.

 

Since then he has prepared for the Tour and now returns to competition. Earlier in his career he was a formidable time triallist - he even beat Fabian Cancellara in the mostly flat race against the clock in the 2009 Tour de France - but after his comeback he has also been far from his former level in the individual discipline. He will without any doubt be beaten by Froome in the 32,5km time trial in the Dauphiné, and if one keeps in mind that he has been beaten by Froome in the mountains all year long and is most likely to take a conservative, non-aggressive approach, it is hard to see him make up the lost time later in the race.

 

The only thing that can really change that script is his desire to get a confidence boost prior to the Tour. His lack of results could prompt him to ride a little more aggressively than he usually does in the Dauphine and if he has found back some of his former strength, he is one of the very select few with any chance to challenge Froome on a course like Dauphiné's.

 

Based on his previous performances in the Dauphiné, it appears to be a long shot to mention Tony Martin among the race favourites but a number of factors could all fall into the hand of the powerful German. First of all, the world time trial champion appears to be stronger than ever. He had a fantastic 2011 season, winning almost every time trial in dominant fashion and proving his climbing legs by winning the Paris-Nice. His 2012 season was, however, terrible and despite a repeat win at the world championships and a silver medal at the Olympics he never hit the blistering condition that saw him crush the opposition just one year earlier.

 

This season he has been back to his best and has only been defeated in a time trial once when he - unexpectedly - could not beat Froome in the mountain prologue at the Tour de Romandie. Whenever he has lined up in a "real" time trial, he has been unbeatable. As the three first stages are not hard enough to trouble the German, it appears to be a sure bet that he will ride himself into yellow at the end of the flat time trial perfectly suited to his immense power.

 

Last week he proved his superiority when he beat his nearest competitor Tom Dumoulin in a strong field by no less than 40 seconds on a short 15km course at the Tour of Belgium - despite being one of only a select few to ride the entire stage in horrendous weather conditions. In a short, flat 18,6km time trial in the Tour de Romandie, he beat Froome by 34 seconds, and the flat time trial in the Dauphiné should be comparable to that one. As it is also almost twice as long, he could take out as much as 1 minute on the Sky leader.

 

His main task will then to be defend his lead in the mountains and it is by far the most likely that he will lose too much to keep his overall lead. However, he climbed really well in the Tour of Belgium and if he is at his best at the climbs, a win in a one-week stage race like the Dauphiné is certainly within his reach. Furthermore, he could choose not to hold anything back as he will most likely not target the GC in this year's Tour, instead preferring to focus his attention on the time trials and a stint in the leader's jersey. This could allow him to dig a little deeper in the coming week, thus providing him with a realistic chance of emerging as the race winner.

 

Another rider who can dig deep without having to think on the Tour GC, is Samuel Sanchez. He targeted the Giro this year and will skip the Tour while keeping his focus on the world championships in Florence. He had a hugely disappointing Giro, completing a grand tour outside the top 10 for the first time since 2005, and is in France to make amends. He rode himself into some solid form during the Giro and was one of the strongest climbers in the final week of racing and if he can keep that condition for another week, he will be a very dangerous man.

 

He is a solid time triallist but the flat course will see him lose some time to the likes of Froome. He will have to get that back in the mountains and while it will be a difficult task, he has now accumulated the racing that will set him up for a strong performance. In 2011 Joaquin Rodriguez came from the Giro to win two stages and last year his teammate Daniel Moreno repeated that performance. Samuel Sanchez could be the third Spaniard in a row to celebrate a similar feat.

 

Alejandro Valverde is back in the race he won twice in a row in 2008 and 2009 after having skipped the race ever since due to suspension and racing the Tour de Suisse last year. Having struggled a little bit with longer distances in the early part of his comeback, his Tour participation saw him grow in strength and in the Vuelta he was maybe even stronger than ever. This year he has had limited racing to stay fresh for the Tour de France but whenever he has been at the start line, he has been one of the best.

 

He won the Vuelta a Andalucia in February and was on his way to notching up the Volta a Catalunya when a crash forced him to abandon. His Ardennes campaign was a successful one as he finished 2nd in Amstel, 7th in Fleche and 3rd in Liege and a 9th place in the time trial-dominated Tour de Romandie was a solid outcome. It will be hard for him to take a third win in the race as he will lose plenty of time in the completely flat time trial. Prior to his suspension he did some solid races against the clock, especially on hilly courses, but he does not appear to have recovered his time trialling ability yet. He will face a huge task of clawing back time on Froome in the mountains but he should be in the mix and could bag a couple of stage wins in the process. The 1st and 7th stages are tailor-made to his characteristics and he should also be in the mix in the two summit finishes on the 5th and 8th stages, meaning that he will regret the lack of time bonuses in the race.

 

Joaquin Rodriguez has deviated from his usual schedule and will line up in the Tour de France in an attempt to wear the only grand tour leader's jersey and finish on the only grand tour podium missing on his palmares. He will use the Dauphiné as preparation and like Valverde he should be in the mix in most of the stages. However, he will suffer from a huge time loss in the time trial and while he has certainly improved immensely in recent years - a fact which has been overlooked by many - he simply lacks the power to match a rider like Froome on a specialist's course like the one on stage 4. That will make him an unlikely winner of the race but it would be a surprise not to see him being a key protagonist.

 

Earlier in his career he suffered on longer climbs like the ones found in the Dauphiné but in recent years he has overcome those problems. He is now a "real" climber and with his aggressive nature, the time trial and stage 6 are probably the only stages he cannot possibly win. He has had a solid season so far despite racing far less than usual and a crash in the Amstel Gold Race prevented him from showcasing his real strength in the Ardennes. He has not had many opportunities to race in the mountains so far this year, and while he is unlikely to really target the general classification in the Dauphiné, he will certainly pick out some stages to get a confidence boost prior to the Tour de France.

 

Jurgen Van Den Broeck is another one using the Dauphiné to build up for the Tour. While it is doubtful whether the likes of Valverde and Rodriguez will really target a win so close to the Tour start, Van Den Broeck is of a different nature. The Belgian always races to win and this year he has even publicly stated his intentions to chase WorldTour points whenever he has a chance as his Lotto-Belisol team came close to missing out on a ProTeam license last autumn. He has a formidable record in the Alpine race, having finished 4th, 4th and 5th in the last three editions, and nothing suggests that he should be going any slower this year.

 

He has not had the best season until now. In the Volta a Catalunya he missed a split on a descent in stage 1 and was forced to risk everything in the mountains, eventually finishing 9th. He crashed out of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but finally had some success in his most recent race, the Tour de Romandie. His 11th place in the final completely flat time trial moved him into 7th and - more importantly - gave another testament to the great strides he has made in the discipline which has usually been his weakness. Stage 4 on Wednesday will serve as another crucial test and if he will once again get confirmation of his improvements, his aggressive and consistent racing in the mountains could set him up for a high overall finish. For once, he will even enjoy some solid support in the mountains with Jelle Vanendert, Tim Wellens and Bart De Clercq all ready to give it their all for their captain.

 

Finally, young Andrew Talansky deserves a mention. The American prepares for his Tour debut and while he will most likely ride in support of Ryder Hesjedal in July, the Dauphiné could be his opportunity to chase a personal result. Ever since his 2nd place in last year's Tour de Romandie - where he was only very narrowly denied the win by Wiggins - he has improved consistently. He finished a strong 7th in last year's Vuelta and started off the season in red-hot form, taking a stage and finishing 2nd in the Paris-Nice. His next target was the Tour de Romandie where he fell ill after having finished 2nd behind Froome in the prologue and had to settle for a disappointing 16th place.

 

He is a formidable time triallist and even though he had doubtlessly preferred a hillier course, the stage 4 race against the clock should provide him with somewhat of a buffer on most of his rivals before the peloton heads into the mountains. He is unlikely to follow the best when the going gets really tough but he should defend himself well, thus setting himself up for a great confidence boost just one month prior to his Tour de France debut.

 

***** Chris Froome

**** Richie Porte, Alberto Contador

*** Tony Martin, Samuel Sanchez, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquin Rodriguez

** Andrew Talansky, Michael Rogers, Michal Kwiatkowski, Rein Taaramae, Lieuwe Westra, Jakob Fuglsang, Pierre Rolland, Haimar Zubeldia, Laurens Ten Dam

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