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Stage winner Cadel Evans uncorks the bubbly.
With the countdown now well and truly on to the Tour de France, it's time for the first of the traditional warm-up races, the Critérium du Dauphiné – eight days and 1065 kilometres of racing in this 63rd edition.
The Schleck's may be missing, as will Alberto Contador but there will be no shortage of Tour contenders with BMC's Cadel Evans favourite ahead of Sunday's prologue in St Jean de Maurienne. Also lining up will be defending champion Janez Brajkovic, Ivan Basso, Robert Gesink, Alexandre Vinokourov, Bradley Wiggins, Samuel Sanchez, Tony Martin and Juergen van den Broeck.
Evans has finished second overall on three occasions now, from 2007 to 2009 and will be looking to go one better having started his season in fine form with wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie.
"The Dauphiné will be an interesting race for me to see where I stand," the Australian said this week. "I'll go with no big expectations and I'll take it as a test. It will be a test for the riders who haven't done the Giro as well."
Evans has also been working on a new time trial position in recent months so the two days racing against the clock could go either way.
Brajkovic heads a RadioShack team that's on form with newly-crowned US Road Champion Matt Busche also set to race. In 2010, Brajkovic dominated the individual time trial on stage 3 and never looked back, eventually fighting tooth and nail with Contador on the L'Alpe d'Huez three days later to ensure his classy victory.
Much like Evans, the Slovenian played down his hopes for the win, saying a repeat performance this year is not his top priority however given his targets of the Grenoble time trial and the stage 6 climb on the hors catégorie Le Collet d'Allevard, he shouldn't be too far away from the podium with the right results.
A true Tour preview
In Brajkovic's 2010 victory, the 27-year-old said he found the confidence he needed to one day perform at the highest levels in a grand tour. Once again in 2011, the Dauphiné provides a preview to the Tour, this year with the 42.5 kilometre Grenoble time trial on stage 3 covering an identical course to the one which should decide the winner of the yellow jersey in late July.
The Dauphine has plenty of climbs over the eight days and with the Tour celebrating 100 years of racing in the Alps, it's the perfect preparation for the classification favourites.
Sunday's 5.5 kilometre prologue in St Jean de Maurienne will be a mere tasting plate for the rest of the week, with a 900 metre climb from the get-go. Stage 1 from postcard favourite Albertville to St Pierre de Chartreuse isn't too tricky but the 10 kilometre, cat. 2 climb to the finish will start to sort out the race order. Tuesday should be punctuated by a breakaway before a mountain-top finish to the north of Lyon on the Croix Rousse or the "hill that works."
The fast men are scheduled to make their brief appearance in the Dauphiné on stage 4 into Mâcon before resuming normal service for this year with climbs set to complete the next few days of racing.
Stage 5 can be considered as a warm-up for what's ahead, with Saturday a truly nasty 192.5 kilometres between Les Gets and Collet d'Allevard. There are five climbs before the tight hairpins of the Collet d'Allevard, including the rarely-used cat. 1 - the Grand Cucheron.
A bad day could be reprieved with the final 117.5 kilometre stage between Pontcharra and La Toussuire, featuring the toughest climb of the week, the Col de la Croix de Fer with under 40 kilometres to go. The final seven kilometres of the climb will pinch, maxing out at a 13 per cent gradient. The peloton will then move on to the summit finish at the ski resort of La Toussuire, where Floyd Landis had a dismal day in the 2006 Tour de France prior to his 'miraculous' recovery.