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The top contenders for this year's Tour de France will head to the Criterium du Dauphiné this week, seeking to fine-tune their form for July and gain the kind of morale a big result in this preparation race can bring.
The Dauphiné will feature the same teams which will compete in the Tour de France and many of their top riders including Tour champion Cadel Evans (BMC), last year's Dauphiné winner Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Europcar's Thomas Voeckler, Vuelta a Espana winner Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and Janez Brajkovic (Astana).
The test will be especially important for Evans, who last year used the Dauphiné not only to gain form but to scout the Grenoble time trial course which was used in both French races. The intimate course knowledge was critical to his Tour victory, but this season the courses do not overlap. The Dauphiné does, however, feature one 53km time trial and the 5.7km prologue which will help measure each contenders prowess against the clock ahead of the more than 100km of individual tests in July.
Evans, who won the Critérium International in March but suffered from a sinus infection last month, will need to measure himself against his main competition, Wiggins, who won both Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie this season.
"Dauphine is always a good race to see where you are at," said BMC's manager John Lelangue to the Herald Sun. "It will be pretty hard with a long time-trial and mountain stages but it's a one-week block of racing and you see a lot of GC contenders for the Tour are taking the same program.
"We will be trying to test ourselves a little bit."
"The Dauphiné is the best place to prepare for the Tour de France and my sole aim is to build my form for July," said Nibali, whose early season successes included stage wins in Tour of Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico and a podium in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"After Liège-Bastogne-Liège," he said. "I took the days off I needed and since then I have only raced in the Tour of California, where I suffered, just as I expected (32nd in GC). But now I have the opportunity to take a step forward. I always start races with the objective to achieve the best possible result, so this is what I'll be aiming for in the Dauphiné."
Teams will be announcing their final rosters in the coming days.