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Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank)
With less than a month to go until the start of the Tour de France, the Critérium du Dauphiné once again assumes its role as a form guide and final test ahead of the sport’s grandest showdown.
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Chris Froome (Team Sky), and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) line up at the head of the queue for overall honours but with Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) in the mix, it is far more than just a three-man race. The possible inclusion of Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) is still up in the air and could yet prove pivotal for both the outcome of the Dauphiné and Sky’s much-publicized leadership battle for the Tour de France.
Covering a total distance of 1,117 kilometres over eight days, the Critérium du Dauphiné rolls out from Champéry on Sunday with an undulating 121km stage. The curtain raiser of the race has typically been a prologue in years past, but organisers ASO have decided to begin the race in Switzerland - a first for the Dauphiné – and test the peloton with a stage that includes the first category climb of the Cote de Morgins and the Col du Corbier, both within the opening 80km of racing. Any hope of the sprinters regaining contact will be dashed by the Pas de Morgins and then a third category climb of the Cote de Champery inside the final five kilometres.
If the opening stage is one for the first GC skirmishes and opportunists, then the following stage from Chatel to Oyonnax is much of the same with five caterogized climbs within the final 70km before over 10km of descending to the finish.
Stage three, 167km from Ambérieu-en-Bugey to Tarare, is ideal for a break to slip clear. By now a general pecking order will have been established with time gaps healthy enough for the leading team to allow escapees their chance.
A clearer GC battle will emerge after stage four's individual time trial from Villars-les-Dombes to Parc des Oiseaux. Pancake-flat, the 32.5km course will see Froome and Contador go head-to-head against the clock and both riders will be looking to set down important markers ahead of the Tour. Throw Wiggins into the equation, Talansky, Richie Porte (Sky), Rodriguez and the unpredictable Thomas De Gendt and this could a prequel to the two 30-plus kilometre test at this year's Tour. Stage honours though, should go to Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
The mountains proper arrive the following day with the short but potentially brutal 139km stage from Grésy-sur-Aix to Valmorel. The three proceeding climbs before the Montée de Valmorel shouldn’t pose too much trouble but the final 12.7 km climb averages 7 per cent. It’s a climb suited to Sky, with the gradient rarely varying apart from one 8 per cent pitch on the lower slopes, but with the climbers having lost ground in the individual time trial, a number of riders will be looking to launch late attacks and claw back what time they can.
Stage 6 from La Léchère to Grenoble is realistically the only opportunity for the sprinters with Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky), and Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) two of the biggest favourites.
Stage 7 is a abbreviated dress rehersal for this year’s Tour de France with the peloton covering Alpe d’Huez/Col de Sarenne, the tricky descent of the Le Freney d’Oisans and the Col du Noyer before the new summit finish to Superdévoluy. With Alpe d’Huez coming within the first 50km of racing it’s unlikely to have much bearing on the GC battle but the slopes of the Noyer and Superdévoluy look ideal for the likes of Rodriguez to pounce.
Any hope of a relatively relaxing day in the saddle for the final stage will be dashed by the Col de Vars and the summit finish to Montée de Risoul where Nicolas Vogondy won a stage in 2010.