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Tour de France

Tour de France in sight this weekend at Dauphiné

Dialing in their form for the Tour de France has been on the minds of all the potential contenders riding this week’s Critérium du Dauphiné.

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Three tough days in the Alps offer Tour contenders last climbing test before July

2011 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, stage 3: Wiggins
Wiggins holds a 1:11 margin after a strong TT.

Dialing in their form for the Tour de France has been on the minds of all the potential contenders riding this week’s Critérium du Dauphiné. Not only their physical form — which was tested by Wednesday’s individual time trial at Grenoble and will be challenged by this weekend’s three difficult stages in the Alps — but also the psychological preparedness for both them and their teams.

On Thursday, on a Tour-type transitional stage to Mâcon, race leader Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates were impressive defending the yellow jersey (and nearly clinching a stage win for Edvald Boasson Hagen). The Sky boys look on target to enter July with the strength and unity that’ll be needed to win the Tour’s crucial team time trial on the second day.

But can they help give Wiggins the confidence he needs to rediscover the climbing form that earned him fourth overall at the 2009 Tour? That question will start to be answered in the Dauphiné this weekend — but first, let’s do an analysis of Wednesday’s time trial where Wiggins just lost to HTC-Highroad’s Tony Martin but dominated the other likely Tour contenders.

Tour rehearsal time trial

As everyone is aware, they will be tackling this identical 42.5km TT course on July 23, the day before the 2011 Tour finishes. It will likely be a decisive stage in determining who stands on the podium in Paris the next day, so getting a first-hand look at the course at race speeds this week proved invaluable.

2011 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, stage 3: Evans
Cadel Evans (BMC), finished sixth in the time trial.

The universal opinion was that it’s a much tougher TT than it looks, either on paper or after a ride around the hilly circuit in a car. Besides its solid distance and more than 1,600 feet (500 meters) of climbing, the circuit features a variety of roads (both wide and narrow) and some tricky descents.

It’s a course that’s much more favorable to the climbers than last year’s final Tour TT at Bordeaux, which was flatter, longer and influenced by prevailing winds. So observers in Grenoble on Wednesday were anxious to see how men like Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, Jani Brajkovic of Team RadioShack, Robert Gesink of Rabobank and Jurgen Van den Broeck of Omega Pharma-Lotto would perform vis-à-vis Martin and Wiggins.

The stage can be broken down into three separate sections: 1.From the start in Grenoble to Vizille, a mainly straight 15km featuring a steady climb and a fast descent (where the wind favored early starters Martin, Boasson Hagen and Dave Zabriskie of Garmin-Cervélo); 2. a 12.5km return to the north from Vizille to St. Martin d’Uriage with a long climb that’s steep in the middle part; and 3. the final 15km, opening with a technical, hair-pinned descent that was wet for the later starters and closing on straight flat streets back into Grenoble.

This is how the top men and Tour contenders fared on the three very different legs of the 42.5km time trial course:

Section 1: Martin, 19:25 (46.315 kph); Zabriskie, 19:42; Wiggins, 19:46; Boasson Hagen, 20:00; Evans, 20:26; Brajkovic, 20:26; Gesink, 20:44; Van den Broeck, 20:55.

Martin really won the stage in this opening section that was most favorable to a power time-trial specialist like him (or world TT champion Fabian Cancellara, who’ll be riding the upcoming Tour of Switzerland). Evans lost the TT in this opening third of the stage partly because, as he said, “I was distracted before the start by some equipment problems.”

Section 2: Wiggins, 19:43 (38.038 kph); Martin, 20:04; Brajkovic, 20:15; Boasson Hagen, 20:19; Zabriskie, 20:22; Evans, 20:23; Van den Broeck, 21:02; Gesink, 21:17.

Wiggins was at his best on this climbing section, which augers well for his defense of the jersey this weekend. The lean Brit took back all the 21 seconds he conceded to Martin in the first 15km, and took a huge 40 seconds out of Evans, while defending Dauphiné champ Brajkovic showed his strength by going eight seconds faster than Evans on this Uriage climb.

Section 3: Boasson Hagen, 15:52 (56.722 kph); Evans, 15:59; Martin, 15:59; Brajkovic, 16:03; Wiggins, 16:09; Van den Broeck, 16:10; Gesink, 16:15; Zabriskie, 16:21.

The advantage of descending the tricky roads to Grenoble on dry roads was demonstrated by the ultra-versatile Boasson Hagen, who aced the last 15km at 56.722 kph, which proved seven seconds faster than second-best Evans. The Australian’s downhill skills seem to get better with every race seeing bearing he mind he had slippery corners to negotiate on the first part of the descent — which is where Wiggins admitted he lost the stage by being over-cautious.

However, as Evans pointed out, the conditions are sure to be different on July 23, when temperatures will be much higher and all of the Tour contenders will have had three solid weeks of racing in their legs, the last three days of which will have been climbing through the Alps. That’s a reverse of this week’s racing, which ends with three alpine stages, all with mountaintop finishes — at Les Gets, Collet d’Allevard and La Toussuire.

Three mountaintop finishes

Friday’s stage 5 to Les Gets is the week’s longest at 207.5km and features three Cat. 2 climbs, at Corlier (45.5km), Mont des Princes (109km) and up to the finish. This final climb is 10.7km long, and has an average grade of just 4.8 percent, but it opens with a tough 4km, with a grade that steepens to 10 percent on a smooth road snaking across an open hillside before the road flatten outs to begin climbing through a deep gorge on narrower roads. The final 1.7km section averages 4 percent into the alpine village of Les Gets.

Saturday sees the Dauphiné’s most rugged stage, which features seven categorized climbs (three Cat. 4s, a Cat. 3, a Cat. 2, a Cat. 1 and an hors-cat finish). The two toughest climbs come at the end. First is the little-used eastern side of the Cat. 1 Col du Grand Cucheron, which has a fairly gentle 6km run-up to a steep 10km finale on narrow, switchback roads that feature a few double-digit gradients. After some 20km of mainly downhill, the course starts climbing again before the ultimate 11.2km-long, hors-cat ascent from Allevard-les-Bains to the finish at Collet d’Allevard. This tough mountain road has a dozen Alpe d’Huez-like hairpin turns with an average of 8.4 percent, but with some kilometers as steep as 11 and 12 percent long with a wall-like final kilometer to the line.

If the race isn’t decided by that point, the climbers have one more summit finish to fight for the final yellow jersey. Stage 7 is not long, only 117.5km, but it has more than 40km of climbing in its second half. First up is the interminable hors-cat slopes of the Col du Glandon — with a 2km extension to the Croix-de-Fer summit at 6,781 feet (2,067 meters), the highest point of the week; and then, after 20km of mostly descending roads, comes the familiar Cat. 1 climb to La Toussuire (14.4km at 5.9 percent, with some 10-percent pitches), where Floyd Landis famously bonked and lost the Tour yellow jersey to Oscar Pereiro in 2006.

No doubt, this final day of the Dauphiné will also produce some dramatic racing; but we’ll have to wait and see whether climbers like Gesink and Van de Broeck are fighting for a stage win, contesting the overall victory with GC leaders Wiggins, Evans and Brajkovic — or merely use this weekend as final (but very tough!) preparation for the Tour de France.