It's a curious time of the season as those who've finished the Tour de France in good terms hope to parlay the boost in strength into continued success, while those building for the Vuelta a Espana are looking to fine-tune their fitness building to the Spanish Grand Tour. The five-day Tour de l'Ain, a UCI 2.1-ranked stage race, offers an opportunity for both factions, in addition to providing a proving ground for various Continental teams to mix it up with ProTour and Professional Continental squads.
Defending champion Haimar Zubeldia and his RadioShack team will not contest the 2011 edition, but three previous winners, Cofidis' Rein Taaramae (2009) plus AG2R La Mondiale teammates John Gadret (2007) and Cyril Dessel (2006), will line-up this year in search of another victory.
Several stars of this year's Tour de France will be in attendance, perhaps most notably Pierre Roland (Europcar) - winner of the best young rider classification, victor atop Alpe d'Huez and the invaluable teammate of Thomas Voeckler in the Tour's high mountains. The final two stages are tailor-made for the French climber, provided he's recovered from his efforts in July.
AG2R La Mondiale's 34-year-old Tour debutant Jean-Christophe Peraud, who finished in 10th overall, should be a factor in the event's final two days in the mountains, as well as Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) plus David Moncoutie and Taaramae (Cofidis).
Other riders to consider for top honours include recent Tour Alsace champion Thibault Pinot (FDJ) plus Colombia's Darwin Atapuma (Colombia Es Pasion-Cafe De Colombia) who finished strongly in Spain's Vuelta a Burgos on Sunday.
A sting in the tail
The Tour de l'Ain, taking place in France's Ain department along its eastern border, allows the peloton to ease into competition while building each stage to a fearsome kick in the tail on Sunday's concluding queen stage.
The stage race begins on Tuesday with a 3.7km prologue time trial in Bourg-en-Bresse. Time gaps should be tight on the flat circuit and those with ambitions later in the week will look to limit time losses and deliver an early, morale-boosting performance. There are no clear-cut prologues specialists on the start list, but riders such as Estonian time trial champion Rein Taaramae, Canadian time trial champion Svein Tuft (Spidertech) or 2009 French TT champion Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale) should figure prominently on the opening day.
The flat parcours of stage 1, 139.6km between Meximieux and Saint-Vulbas, will be the best chance for the sprinters to seek stage glory. The route has a pair of category four climbs, with the second ascent appearing more than 80km from the finish. It may be a day for noted fast men such as Jimmy Casper (Saur-Sojasun), Martin Gilbert (Spidertech) or 2009 scratch world champion on the track Morgan Kneisky (Roubaix Lille Metropole).
Stage 2, covering 153.6km between Parc des Oiseaux and Bellignat, will provide the first chance for those on good climbing form to make their presence felt. The parcours features four categorised climbs, with the final category 3 Cote de Cessiat situated 6.3km from the finish. The ever-aggressive Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) may show his hand on this day.
The final two stages feature plenty of strenuous climbing and a pair of uphill finishes. Friday's stage contains four categorised climbs, two 2nd category and two 1st category, culminating with an uphill finish into Lélex.
We may not know the overall champion of the Tour de l'Ain until the finale of stage five on Saturday, featuring a mountaintop finish on the 17km-long hors categorie ascent of the Le Grand Colombier, after the peloton warms up on the 4th category Cote de Premezel and 2nd category Cote de Thezillieu.