The 62nd edition of the Critérium du Dauphiné once again will serve as a critical warm-up event for July's Tour de France, providing a challenging eight-day, 1,080km stage race in southeastern France's Dauphiné region from June 6 to 13.
No longer is the race known as the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, as the Le Dauphiné Libéré newspaper which has traditionally organised the event has ceded organisational control to Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), organiser of the Tour de France.
The change in management has not had an effect on the event's challenging parcours however, highlighted this year by the penultimate stage's summit finish on the iconic L'Alpe d'Huez climb, absent from this year's Tour but making its Critérium du Dauphiné debut.
Throw in a lengthy time trial, several more days in the Alps, plus a finale to honour the 30-year anniversary of Bernard Hinault's world championship in Sallanches and you've got an intriguing test for this year's Tour contenders.
All eyes will be on heavy favourite Alberto Contador (Astana), the defending Tour de France champion, to win his first-ever Critérium du Dauphiné. The 27-year-old Spaniard, who finished the event in third place last year, is the highest placed finisher from 2009 to return.
Two-time defending champion Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) has recently been banned from competition for two years while runner-up Cadel Evans and his BMC Racing Team will not be taking part in the event.
Contador is returning to competition after taking more than a month off since his last race, Liège - Bastogne - Liège, the final leg of a brilliant Spring campaign in which the Spaniard once again put his stage racing prowess on display.
Contador opened his season with a victory in Portugal's Volta ao Algarve, followed by a victory at Paris-Nice, a 14th place finish at Critérium International and then a win on home soil at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon.
Contador has just wrapped up his four-day reconnaissance of the Tour de France's critical Pyrenean stages and said he enters the Dauphiné "without pressure, as a tune-up, because the preparation is perfect."
A fellow Spaniard, Sammy Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, also has Tour de France aspirations and should be a contender for victory at the Dauphiné. Like Contador, he's returning to racing after taking more than a month out of competition, and has had a similar spring schedule with strong showings at Volta ao Algarve (fifth), Paris-Nice (fourth), Critérium International (fourth) and Vuelta al Pais Vasco (seventh, with one stage win and the points classification).
The last time a race finished on L'Alpe d'Huez was at the 2008 Tour de France, the stage in which Carlos Sastre won and took the race lead. Sanchez finished second on the stage and will perhaps try to emulate his countryman's performance when the Dauphiné finishes there for stage seven.
Other than Alberto Contador, Denis Menchov is the only Grand Tour winner in the Dauphiné peloton, with one Giro d'Italia title (2009) and a pair of victories in the Vuelta a Espana (2005, 2007). For the previous two years Menchov has ridden the Giro d'Italia, taken time off to recover, and then raced the Tour de France. This year, however, the 32-year-old Russian is reverting to the Critérium du Dauphiné as his pre-Tour preparation, a formula he's used on six occasions in 2001-2003 and 2005-2007.
Menchov has finished in the top seven on four occasions at the Dauphiné, with his best finish of fourth in 2007. Intriguingly, he's won two Dauphiné stages, both summit finishes on Mont Ventoux. While Mont Ventoux is not on the parcours this year, another mythical Tour climb, L'Alpe d'Huez, makes its debut appearance. Perhaps the Russian can add another hors catégorie mountain victory to his palmares while he tests his form prior to the Tour.
While Menchov showed good form at the Tour de Romandie, where following the disqualification of winner Alejandro Valverde his overall finish bumps up one position to second place, he had an forgettable outing at the Tour of Belgium in which he abandoned early in the opening stage due to bronchitis. His team is confident he'll bounce back, and we'll soon see what level of form Menchov has for the Dauphiné.
RadioShack brings a strong line-up with Janez Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Haimar Zubeldia all possible threats. Other riders to watch include Francaise Des Jeux's Rémy Di Gregorio and Christophe Le Mevel, Sylvester Szmyd (Liquigas-Doimo), winner on Mont Ventoux at last year's Dauphiné, Team HTC-Columbia's Kanstantsin Siutsou, Tejay Van Garderen and Peter Velits, Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and Garmin-Transitions' David Millar and Peter Stetina.
Bring on L'Alpe d'Huez
The Critérium du Dauphiné kicks off on Sunday, June 6 with a 6km prologue in Evian-les-Bains on the shores of Lake Geneva. There's a category 4 climb prior to the midpoint, but the gentle rise shouldn't inhibit chrono-men such as David Millar from vying for the first leader's jersey.
Stage one, 191km from Evian-les-Bains to Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, and stage two, 177km from Annonay to Bourg-Saint-Andéol are the only stages which offer opportunities for the sprinters such as Daniele Bennati (Liquigas-Doimo), Paul Martens (Rabobank), Roger Kluge (Milram) and Juan José Haedo (Saxo Bank). Each are sufficiently hilly that the fast men may find themselves shut out for the entire Dauphiné, however.
Stage one has four categorised climbs, with the final climb, the category 3 Côte de Miribel-les-Echelles, coming only six kilometres from the finish. The second stage also has four categorised climbs (one cat. 4, one, cat. 3 and a pair of cat. 2 ascents).
Despite the climbing being more substantial than the opening road stage, the final climb, the category 2 Col du Benas, is crested 53km from the finish. If the sprinters are unable to make it to the finish at the head of affairs, someone like Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) may find them to his liking.
Stage three is the first test for the overall contenders: a 49km time trial from Monteux to Sorgues. Riders face the 1.9km, category 3 Côte de La Roque-sur-Pernes at 15km into the stage, then climb for a several more kilometres before descending for the predominantly flat final 24km.
Look for strong performances from former time trial world champion Bert Grabsch (Team HTC-Columbia), David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) plus overall contenders such as Contador and Menchov.
Stage four, covering 210km from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Risoul, provides the peloton with its first taste of the mountains. The stage gradually gains in elevation for the entire day, culminating with the only classified climb, the 12.4km, category 1 climb to the finish in Risoul.
At 143.5km, stage five is the shortest road stage of the Dauphiné, but its route from Serre-Chevalier to Grenoble packs a punch with a pair of climbs: the 15.5km Col du Lautaret, a category 2 climb to start the stage and the 17.5km hors catégorie Chamrousse, whose summit arrives 31.5km from the finish.
The final 31.5km to the finish are downhill, so a daredevil descender can find themselves back in the mix if they happen to lose some time on the ascent.
Stage six is the queen stage, covering 151.5km from Crolles to the L'Alpe d'Huez summit finish. Prior to reaching the famed 21-turn ascent to conclude the day, there's still ample climbing on tap: the category 3 Côte des Fontaines at 13km, the category 2 Col du Grand Cucheron at 49km, and the hors catégorie Col du Glandon at 99km. The Critérium du Dauphiné's general classification will likely be decided on this day.
The race concludes on Sunday, June 13 with a 148km stage from Allevard-les-Bains to Sallanches, the location of Bernard Hinault's only world road championship in 1980. The stage finishes with an 11km circuit in Sallanches to be covered five times, with a leg-stinging climb of the 9.2 percent Côte de Domancy each lap.
Bernard Hinault negotiated that climb 20 times on the world championship circuit in 1980, resulting in a solo win for 'the Badger' and only a handful of finishers in his wake. Perhaps a similarly motivated Frenchman will put a smile on Hinault's face with a commanding performance to close out this year's Dauphiné.