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French stars gear up for Corsican showdown

An impressive collection of cycling’s top stars are locked in for WorldTour racing in Catalunya and Flanders over the next few days, but Corsica will host several big names this weekend as well.

The two-day, three-stage Critérium International gets underway Saturday morning, with five WorldTour squads and eight Pro Continental teams set to attend — and the race has been known to draw the occasional equine visitor as well.

The list of past winners includes legends like Hinault, Indurain, Kelly, and Fignon, and Chris Froome won the race en route to his first Tour de France title in 2013.

Although the Critérium International has called Corsica home since 2010, the event does not have a strong historic connection to any one particular region in France. In fact, the race has moved around France for decades, with one edition in Algeria in 1960. But the recent Corsican partnership seems to have been a successful one, offering the pros an early-season tune-up race on scenic island roads.

Something for everyone

Critérium International manages to pack all the stage racing fundamentals into one weekend, with opportunities for sprinters, time trialists, and climbers to land results.

A mostly flat 90.5km stage in and around Porto Vecchio kicks off the race Saturday morning. It’s likely to come down to a sprint, but the final kilometer does angle uphill slightly, so the GC riders will be on their toes as bonus seconds are on offer at the line.

A seven-kilometer individual time trial immediately follows the Saturday opener. The TT also starts and finishes in Porto Vecchio, and without much in the way of climbs, it’s one for the specialists, though the riders will have to navigate a few technical corners.

The race concludes Sunday with a mountainous stage 3. The peloton will again set out from Porto Vecchio, but after taking on several climbs, the riders will finish the day atop the Col de l’Ospedale, 14.1km at 6.2 percent.

The riders to watch

Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) is the two-time defending champion and he’ll be gunning for a hat trick. The Frenchman turns 39 in May, but with his balanced skillset and knack for success in this race, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see him turn back the clock in pursuit of the three-peat.

Peraud’s compatriot Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) should give him a run for his money. The 25-year-old was runner-up last year in his first ever Critérium International appearance, and he has improved against the clock dramatically over the last two seasons. Motivation does not appear to be in question: he said this week that he entered the race to claim his “first scalp” of the year. Up-and-comer Sebastian Reichenbach makes for a fine lieutenant.

Jerome Coppel of IAM Cycling may not spring to mind right off the bat as a rider to contest a GC battle with Tour de France podium finishers Péraud and Pinot, but the bronze medalist in the worlds ITT last year is a threat on this parcours. He could build up a nice early lead in the time trial, and it wouldn’t be all that shocking to see him hold his own on the summit finish of stage 3.

Pierre Rolland (yet another Frenchman) looks like the most obvious team leader for Cannondale, though don’t count out Lawson Craddock. He’s put in some nice time trialing performances over the course of his young career.

Direct – Energie’s Tommy Voeckler, the Stötling duo of Linus Gerdemann and Rasmus Guldhammer, and Patrick Konrad of Bora – Argon 18 are others who could get involved in the GC battle.

Meanwhile, watch out for Sam Bennett (Bora – Argon 18), Matthew Goss (One Pro Cycling), and Ramunas Navardauskas (Cannondale) in the opening stage, and keep an eye on Matthias Brändle (IAM Cycling) and Marcin Bialoblocki (One Pro Cycling) in the time trial.

Who will win?

An in-form Thibaut Pinot should be the best rider here. Now that he’s developed into a decent time trialist, it’s hard to bet against him. Péraud has the experience but he hasn’t shown the same level of form yet this year, while Coppel would probably prefer a TT four times as long and Rolland no TT at all.

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