The Critérium International, formerly known as the three-day Classics stage race, has a whole different feel this year as race organisers ASO have decided to take the race to the island of Corsica for a possible pre-Tour de France 2013 dress-rehearsal.
Further spice is added as Tour favourites Alberto Contador (Astana) and Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) will come face-to-face for the first time since last year’s Tour de France, where a feud between the two then teammates escalated.
This weekend the 79th edition of the famed two-day, three-stage race will get under way in and around the town of Porto-Vecchio, in the South of Corsica. What's more, its opening 175.5-kilometre stage - traditionally a flat stage - will include two hard climbs and a summit finish on the Col de l'Ospedale, with a 15-kilometre ascent at 7 per cent gradient. This could provide a match between Contador and Armstrong, but also other participating Tour contenders like Cadel Evans (BMC) and Contador's teammate Alexander Vinokourov.
The race will return to relative normality on Sunday as the peloton will complete a 75-kilometre circuit race in the morning and a 7.7-kilometre race against the clock in the afternoon. Both stages will start and finish in Porto-Vecchio.
The addition of significant mountains to the course will open the overall victory to climbers able to defend a lead from the opening stage. Tall German Voigt, a five-time winner of the event, will not attend this year as his climbing abilities clearly won't be sufficient to defend his title - instead, he won a stage at the Volta a Catalunya on Thursday.
Initially not planned to race the French event, Contador changed his schedule in order to drop the number of racing days and make use of his current strong form.
Radio Shack team manager Johan Bruyneel expects the Spaniard to do better in the race than Armstrong. "I think that Contador has the upper hand at the moment. We'll see how it goes. Lance does not have super form but he is now on track," he said.
The Spaniard, coming out of Paris-Nice which he won on the Col de Mende, is the overall race favourite. "Critérium International is a race that perfectly suits my characteristics," he said.
Other stellar climbers will certainly be also in the mix on the Col de l'Ospedale this Saturday, like Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), former polkadot jersey winner Mauricio Soler (Caisse d'Epargne) and Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia), winner of the Ruta del Sol a few weeks ago. The French, not to be under-estimated, will also be well-represented with the three 2009 Tour de France stage winners Brice Feillu (Vacansoleil), Pierrick Fédrigo and Thomas Voeckler (both Bouygues).
An in-form David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) will also be motivated to do well after he showed glimpses for form in Paris-Nice.
This new venue for the Critérium International, which took place in the Ardennes region of France for nine years, further spurs rumours that ASO will include Corsica in its list of possible race locations. The company is currently evaluating the island's bid to host the start of the 2013 Tour de France.