By Jeff Jones and Jean-Francois Quenet
Starting in Annecy on Sunday with a flat 4 km prologue, the 58th Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré will feature a feast of climbing, and is considered the ideal race for the Tour de France contenders to hone their form. After eight challenging stages, it finishes on June 11 - just under three weeks before the start of 'La Grande Boucle'.
The prologue will be suited to a powerful short distance specialist, and Rabobank's Thomas Dekker, who hasn't raced since Liege-Bastogne-Liege, is said to be targeting it along with the race's second time trial on Wednesday. Also of interest are Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) and George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) - the latter in his first race since his crash in Paris-Roubaix. His team director Johan Bruyneel said before the start, "I've got no idea about his form right now."
One rider who will be missing from the start list is Brad McGee (Française des Jeux), who is skipping the Dauphiné in favour of the Tour de Suisse. He has recovered from his back problems that forced him out of the Giro d'Italia, but his form isn't quite up to scratch to start in Annecy.
The next two stages on Monday (Annecy-Bourgoin-Jallieu, 207 km) and Tuesday (Bourgoin-Jallieu-Saint-Galmier, 203 km) should be favourable to the sprinters - not that there are many competing in the Dauphiné, as usual. Even Tuesday's stage, with its four category four climbs, could produce a selection of GC riders and prevent a mass finish. But in the case of a sprint, look out for Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Danilo Napolitano (Lampre-Fondital) and Peter Wrolich (Gerolsteiner).
Stage 3 on Wednesday is a 43 km time trial starting and finishing in Bourg-de-Péage. This is a tough, up and down stage, and will be a good yardstick for riders such as Floyd Landis (Phonak), Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), Dave Zabriskie (CSC), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana-Wurth), Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery), Denis Menchov and Thomas Dekker (Rabobank), and Marco Pinotti (Saunier Duval).
But the time trial is only the start of the difficulties. Stage 4 starts in Tain-l’Hermitage and finishes 186 km later on top of the mighty Mont Ventoux, the 1909m 'Giant of Provence'. The following stage from Sisteron to Briançon isn't much easier, as it features the even mightier Col d'Izoard (2360), with just a descent to the finish.
And wait, there's more! Stage 6 is almost the same as the Tour de France's 16th stage, starting in Briançon, ascending the mightiest of all, the col du Galibier (2556m, via the tunnel), then down into St-Jean-de-Maurienne, up the Col du Glandon/Croix de Fer (2067m), then over the Col du Mollard (1638m), before descending into the valley and tackling the final climb up to La Toussuire (1700m) after a total of 169 km. It's the first time that the Dauphiné has had a stage finish in La Toussuire.
The final stage from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Grenoble is somewhat easier, with the cat. 3 Col du Barrioz the main difficulty, but there are nearly 60 km to go to the finish after that climb.
The battle for GC will be interesting, as no-one has announced the Dauphiné as a goal for this year, but someone will have to win it. Thanks to the ProTour, nearly all the big Tour names are here: Landis, Leipheimer, Valverde, Vinokourov, Hincapie, Popovych, Mancebo, Moreau, Menchov and Mayo. But who has the right form in June?