June signals a peculiar battle in cycling. With the Tour de France looming in July, races look to position themselves as the ideal preparation event, in the hope of attracting the sport’s star names.
This year the Critérium du Dauphiné went all out in its bid to be seen as a microcosm of the Tour with a team time trial, a trip up the Lacets de Monvernier, and a stage from Digne-les-Bains to Pra Loup that is a carbon copy of stage 17 of the Tour.
On the face of it, the Dauphiné, as is often the case, was the big winner this year, attracting a stellar line-up that includes the winners of the past two editions of the Tour, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Chris Froome (Team Sky). The other two members of what is increasingly seen as a 'big four', Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) – the past two winners of the Giro d'Italia – are heading for the four-day Route du Sud instead.
It leaves the Tour de Suisse looking slightly light on the ground in terms of those hoping for a strong general classification showing at the Tour. Even its most loyal customer, three-time winner Rui Costa, has jumped ship and headed for the Dauphiné.
Nevertheless, there are some key figures to watch out for, not to mention an abundance of sprinting talent. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and his compliment of henchmen, including Steve Morabito, will be there as the Frenchman looks to build on his seminal third place at last year's Tour. World road race champion Michal Kwiatkowsi (Etixx-QuickStep), who has enjoyed spells in the Tour's white jersey for best young rider in the past two editions, will be hoping for a strong showing, as will Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), who won two stages in July last year.
Team Sky will hope Geraint Thomas can ride to a top 10 on general classification while seeing what Sergio Henao can do on the pure mountain stages. Other riders that should be battling it out for overall honours are Lotto-Soudal's Jurgen Van den Broeck, IAM Cycling's Sébastien Reichenbach and, providing he's made a full recovery from his horrific Giro crash, Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R-La Mondiale)
There is hardly a dearth in quality when it comes to the fast men, with Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) all in attendance.
Cavendish has 13 wins already this season, bettered only by Kristoff on 17, while Degenkolb has enjoyed breakthrough wins at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. Peter Sagan, three-time winner of the green points jersey at the Tour, will give them all a run for their money having snapped into form at the Tour of California following a slow start to the season.
There are three or four opportunities for a bunch kick in this year's race, but the sprinters' teams won't have an easy ride as most stages are littered with short climbs.
The race begins on Saturday with an opening weekend in Risch-Rotkreuz near Lucerne and, after a 5.1km prologue, wastes no time in heading for the hills. The opening road stage is a 174.5km circuit made up of two loops that will have the riders tackling the second-category Allenwinden twice before two ascents of the first-cat Michaelskreuz in the second half of the route.
The third stage was orginially meant to start in Brunnen, but had to be moved to Qunito owing to landslides. Either way, it's still going up the Gotthard Pass early on before a long descent and then two short, punchy climbs within the final 15km.
There are hills and short categorised climbs on stage four but the sprinters' teams will be confident of ensuring a bunch kick, especially given the scarcity of flat elsewhere on the route. The stage passes the Schwarzenbach Castle, owned by Saxo Bank's owners, three times, which may or may not affect Peter Sagan's incentive for victory.
Stage 5 is the queen stage, and the longest stage in the race for 20 years, covering 237.3km from Unterterzen/Flumserberg to the Rettenbach Glacier in Solden. After a trip through Liechtenstein en route to Austria, the final 15km up to the glacier have a continuous gradient of 12 to 14 per cent. Big time gaps can be expected here on what is likely to be the one day that truly shapes the general classification.
Stages six and seven don't have as much punishment in store and it will be up to some particularly daring breakaway merchants to deny the fast men an opportunity to extend their tallies for the season.
The race then moves to Bern for the last two stages. Stage 8 consists of four laps of a 38.4km circuit course, with one cat-three climb per lap, the last one cresting just shy of the finishing line.
Finishing it all off is an individual time trial which, at 38.4km in length, is sure to provide a final shake-up in the general classification.
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