Criterium du Dauphine Preview: Froome and Contador go head-to-head in Tour de France prelude

How to follow the Critérium du Dauphiné: Cyclingnews will have live text coverage from start to finish for every stage, as well as rider interviews, race reports, podcasts, video highlights and post-race analysis.

Chris Froome (Team Sky) returns to defend his crown at the Critérium du Dauphiné - June 5-12 - but the British rider will face a stern examination from Tour de France rivals Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Fabio Aru (Astana), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).

The eight-day race favours the climbers with three mountain-top finishes and an individual uphill prologue to kick off the race. The team time trial that featured last year has been removed, while the sprinters have at least two stages to shine before a trio of difficult stages in the mountains.

Froome's last stage-race outing came at the Tour de Romandie in April, in which he won a stage but finished over 21 minutes down on GC. The defending Tour de France champion will be looking for a far more consistent performance.

Contador was the sharper of the two when they clashed at the Volta a Catalunya earlier this season and has won the Vuelta al País Vasco and finished on the podium in Paris-Nice and the Volta ao Algarve to silence any suggestions that he is beginning to slow as he approaches retirement. With Nairo Quintana busily honing his form in Colombia, the Tinkoff leader is Froome's most predicable yet dangerous opponent.

Aru will make his debut in the race and will be keen to impress after his teammate Vincenzo Nibali won the Giro d'Italia and looks set to ride the Tour de France in order to gain form. Aru certainly has a route that suits his characteristics but it will be interesting to measure whether he targets the overall in the Dauphiné or – like Nibali has done in the past – uses particular stages in which to measure his condition.

The home challenge

The home challenge will be led by Bardet and Pinot. The latter has improved his ability against the clock and is a genuine threat for the opening prologue, while Bardet – sixth last year and victor on the stage to Pra-Loup – will be earmarking a similar performance once again.

Pierre Rolland (Cannondale) will take up the charge for Cannondale with Andrew Talansky altering his programme. The Frenchman has taken time to adjust to life on his new team but has previously tasted success in the Dauphiné, winning the King of the Mountains competition in 2008.

Richie Porte (BMC Racing) will lead the line for his new team, while Tejay van Garderen targets the Tour de Suisse. The Australian will be supported by Rohan Dennis and Damiano Caruso in the mountains.

Daniel Martin and Tour of California winner Julian Alaphilippe will lead Etixx QuickStep, and Bauke Mollema and Ryder Hesjedal will team up for Trek Segafredo.

The sprinters

Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel will not be on show but there is still a cluster of high-calibre sprinters on show with John Degenkolb looking to prove his fitness to Giant Alpecin ahead of the Tour de France.

Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) skipped the Giro d'Italia and has enjoyed wins the Dauphine before. Alexander Kristoff and Edvald Boasson Hagen are also set to feature but Peter Sagan is set to miss the race.

The route

Prologue - Les Gets - Les Gets, 3.9km

The eight-day race begins with a lung-busting 3.9-kilometre uphill time trial in Les Gets that will test the limits of the GC contenders. While the distance will not create any significant gaps, it will provide a window into the form of many riders ahead of the Tour de France. The climb itself starts out a reasonably manageable 6 per cent but rapidly ramps up with the entire second half at around 15 per cent. The nine switchbacks offer little in the way of respite for the riders, making it a complete contrast to last year's longer, far flatter opening stage.

Cyclingnews' top tip: Thibaut Pinot (FDJ): A pure climber who has improved immeasurably against the clock this season – not a bad combination for this sort of test.

Stage 1 - Cluses - Saint-Vulbas, 186km

The Dauphiné returns to the capital of the Arve Valley with a stage designed for the sprinters. With Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Sam Bennett (Bora Argon 18), and John Degenkolb (Giant Alpecin) all in the mix, the stage will be controlled by the sprinters' teams, rather than the GC contenders, although a break is likely to form and contest the four fourth-category climbs. The last climb comes almost 50 kilometres before the finish, providing the sprinters with little excuse.

Cyclingnews' top tip: Alexander Kristoff (Katusha): The Norwegian, on paper, is the strongest sprinter in the race, but will face stiff competition from the in-form Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who won two stages last year.

Stage 2 - Crêches-sur-Saône - Chalmazel-Jeansagnière, 167.5km

The first uphill road stage finish of the race should provide another shake up in the overall standings with a third category climb up to Chalmazel-Jeansagnière. The preceding 155km are rolling throughout with the Col de Durbize coming inside the opening 15km, and the Col de la Croix Nicelle after 52km. However, it's the final slog to up Chalmazel-Jeansagnière and the all-important Côte de Saint-Georges-en-Couzan that comes just before that should set the race alight. Teams such as Sky and Tinkoff will have to measure their approaches in order to control the field but with so many fresh legs, the attacks will be constant. If this stage came later in the race it would be ideal for a break but with the race so tightly contested, there's little chance in the peloton being so relaxed.

Cyclingnews' top tip: Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge): A breakaway could be a threat but if not – or if in there – the Australian has the characteristics to be aggressive on the long, gentle ascent to the line, along with the requisite punch to finish it off.

Stage 3 - Boën-sur-Lignon - Tournon-sur-Rhône, 182km

The first half of the stage is a flat affair as the race heads due south. However, the second half of the stage consists of three catergorised climbs. The last ascent – the Côte de Sécheras – is second category, 2.8km in length and with pitches averaging 8 per cent. The majority of the sprinters will be distanced and could struggle to regain contact but a rider such as Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) should be targeting the win. He can climb when required and is in form. Surviving the 13.9 per cent section on the climb will be crucial to his chances.

Cyclingnews' top tip: Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data): The Norwegian is well capable of making the selection on the late climb and then being the fastest finisher left.

Stage 4 - Tain-l'Hermitage - Belley, 176km

177 kilometers and then a sprint. With two small climbs spaced out and a mainly flat profile the stage is destined to be contested by the sprinters. The only concern is the uphill drag to the line that lasts almost a kilometre.

Cyclingnews' top tip: John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin): Degenkolb has an advantage over other sprinters when the road rises slightly and we should see if the German, after racing the Tour of California last month, can return to his former powers following his training crash and finger injury.

Stage 5 - La Ravoire - Vaujany, 140km

Seven categorised climbs, six of which come in the opening 80 kilometres before a final uphill ascent to Vaujany. If the previous five days of racing had not created a pecking order in the race for the yellow jersey then this stage should at least eliminate a few contenders.

The climbing comes thick and fast and a break should be formed fairly early with so many relatively easy King of the Mountains points up for grabs. The final climb, however, is where the GC contenders will surge forward.

At 6.4km in length the climb to Vaujany isn't particularly long but it's the break in gradient that will test many of the riders. The toughest sections come just after the start, and right at the summit but before the riders reach the final they must alternate between pitches of 5 and 12 per cent. If riders time their efforts incorrectly they'll quickly be found out. There's enough there to have the pure climbers and the all-rounders eyeing an opportunity.

Cyclingnews' top tip: Dan Martin/Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep): The final climb has ramps of over 12 per cent – similar platforms to ones where both of this aggressive pair have shone this season.

Stage 6 - La Rochette - Méribel, 141km

The previous day will have provided an indication as to who would not feature at the top of the GC but stage 6 is clearly where the race can be won with the Col de Champ-Laurent, Col du Grand Cucheron, Col de la Madeleine, Montée des Frasses and the final first category ascent to Meribel all sandwiched into 141 kilometres of racing. The final climb, 12.3 kilometres in length suits a Team Sky tactic of control and containment, with a steady 6-8 per cent for the majority of the ascent.

There's a sting in the tail just before the line with a section just over 10 per cent but the majority of the damage will have already been inflicted.

Cyclingnews' top tip: Chris Froome (Team Sky): The decisive stage for GC. Froome's form this season hasn't been as easy to read as Contador's so this would seem to be a key Tour de France indicator for the reigning champion of both races.

Stage 7 - Le-Pont-de-Claix - Superdévoluy, 151km

There was a similar stage in 2013 that saw Samuel Sánchez – then at Euskaltel-Euskadi – win and Chris Froome maintain his overall lead in the race. The start and finishes are the only similarities to that stage this time around with the meat of the profile taking in different climbs. The Col du Noyer does remain, acting as the penultimate ascent towards the final climb of the race. 

Cyclingnews' top tip: Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale): Much will depend on how the GC stands going into the final day but the Frenchman – as he proved at the Dauphiné last year – is a rider capable of replicating the Sánchez blueprint. 

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