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Dauphine may hint at 2013 Tour contenders, but the real tipoff is the 2012 Vuelta

Having the top four 2012 Vuelta finishers bringing peak form into this year's Tour should make for a spectacular month of July

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Conventional wisdom says that if you want to get inside intel on what’s going to happen in next month’s Tour de France, watch this week’s Critérium du Dauphiné.

The weeklong French race across the Alps has been the traditional proving ground for Tour aspirants for more than half a decade, and it never fails to deliver glimpses inside the peloton.

Sunday’s hilly and explosive opener provided an interesting preview into what the peloton can expect. Team Sky was taking control, with Chris Froome safely tucked in the front, escorted by his new favorite bodyguard, Richie Porte.

Yet the Dauphiné rarely delivers on the “dress rehearsal” hype that’s so often its selling point. The Dauphiné can often be more of a bluffing game, with riders keeping their cards close to their chest and not giving too much away. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), speaking in a pre-Dauphiné press conference, said as much by announcing he won’t be racing to win or force his team to control what’s a highly demanding route.

If you really want to see how the Tour is going to unfold, hit the reply button on last year’s Vuelta a España.

The calendar’s “left-over tour” proved to be quite a nail-biter last year, and set the stage for this year’s Tour.

Just like the Dauphiné, the race was expected to be a showdown between Froome and Contador, who was coming off his backdated, two-year clenbuterol ban.

Froome, however, fell flat after a superb Tour and Olympics run, finishing second overall and winning the silver medal, both behind teammate Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Contador, meanwhile, seemed stuck in third gear and was forced to swing for the fences in a dazzling, late-hour attack in the penultimate mountain stage to snatch away the red leader’s jersey from Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). Nipping at his heels was Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who ended up second to eventual victor Contador, with Rodríguez taking third.

This year’s Tour will be see those four unbridled and at their absolute peaks.

A few other protagonists who were not at last year’s Vuelta, namely the BMC duo of Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen, will certainly be players during the Tour. Others, such as Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Robert Gesink (Blanco), and perhaps Ryder Hesjedal and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), hope to be players. No one has any real idea what to expect from Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard), who’s been battling injury and a comeback since crashing out of last year’s Dauphiné.

With Wiggins out of the picture, the Tour should come down to a four-man race; the same four men who squared off in such spectacular fashion in last year’s Vuelta.

While drawing conclusions from last year’s Vuelta for this year’s Tour might seem a bit of a stretch, there is little doubt that last year’s Vuelta top-four will be even better at this year’s Tour. And as things stand now among the other GC rivals, there doesn’t seem to be anyone ready to take them out.

Recently crowned Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has resisted calls to make a run for a rare Giro-Tour double, and he’s wisely sticking to his plan to race the Vuelta to prepare for the world championships. It would be unlikely that Nibali nor his Astana team would be able to maintain the same dominant level shown during the Giro. And Nibali knows he has a once-in-a-career chance to win the rainbow jersey on home roads, so the Shark of Messina is sticking to his guns and skipping the Tour.

Wiggins’ unexpected flameout over the past few weeks has left a huge void at the Tour. Cycling’s iconoclastic knight turned his back on an all-out yellow jersey defense to take a high-risk, unconventional shot at the pink jersey. That’s admirable stuff, except when it doesn’t work out.

His Giro implosion and subsequent Tour withdrawal is a disaster for him and British cycling. Although it eliminates the potentially messy cohabitation between him and Froome in July, it places even more weight on Froome’s shoulders.

Froome will be under massive pressure to fill the void left by Wiggins. So far, he’s seems up to the task, riding through an impeccable spring, winning every major stage race he’s started except Tirreno-Adriatico, where Nibali knocked him back. He’s racing at the Dauphiné to win, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts to Wiggins’ unexpected departure.

There’s a danger of racing the Dauphiné all-out for the win, something Contador has always been quick to recognize.

So it’s last year’s Vuelta — not this week’s Dauphiné — where you need to look to see who will be winning this year’s Tour.

Froome was clearly off his best at last year’s Vuelta, though he seemed somewhat surprised he couldn’t trade punches with the Spanish mountain goats at their national tour. Though he would never publicly admit it, it appeared as though Froome fully expected to steamroll through last year’s Vuelta.

Despite staying close through the first half of the Vuelta, he was in for a shock, and it was quickly obvious that Froome was not going to win. He eventually finished more than 10 minutes off the winning pace.

Froome, however, has a lot of built-up angst from the past two Vueltas and last year’s Tour that will only fuel his ambition going into July.

Contador, too, expected to barnstorm though last year’s Vuelta, but also discovered he didn’t have the same legs. His long-running battle over his clenbuterol case in the 2010 Tour, which ended with a forced, half-season stop last year as part of a backdated two-year ban, saw him enter the Vuelta under-raced and a touch off his top form.

In fact, Contador doesn’t seem to be packing the same lethal punch as he did before his ban. He is not at his same level in either time trials or climbing. Last year, he ran into a stubborn Rodríguez, who called his bluff on the steep Vuelta finales and then countered to pick up time bonuses. Had it not been for Rodríguez’s collapse on the road to Fuente Dé on stage 17, Contador would have never won the Vuelta.

So far this spring, Contador has been very good, but not great, winning only once with a stage at the Tour de San Luís in Argentina. He’s clearly gambling everything on peaking at the Tour, but that might not be a sucker’s bet — last year’s Vuelta confirmed yet again that there is no competitor as fierce and determined as Contador.

Contador will take huge confidence out of last year’s Vuelta that will pay dividends in his coming battle against Froome. It is Froome who still has to prove he can win a grand tour. With his dramatic Vuelta victory, Contador reconfirmed he is the best grand-tour rider of his generation. And he did it in spectacular manner in the final week of the race, proving he is one of the few riders in the peloton who have the (for lack of a better word) cojones to take risks on the road.

Too, Contador will have his strongest team ever at Saxo-Tinkoff, ready to take on the challenge of facing down the formidable Team Sky.

Rodríguez, meanwhile, believes he has his best shot ever of reaching the Tour podium this year. Despite falling short of victory, his down-to-the-wire challenges in both the Giro and Vuelta gave him the confidence boost he needed to know he has what it takes to win a grand tour.

The Katusha captain is licking his chops at this year’s Tour mountainous route, which looks eerily similar to last year’s Vuelta course in many ways. And he’s dramatically improved his time-trialing skills, something that kept him in the game in last year’s Vuelta. And he admits his third place in last year’s Vuelta has been burning inside him all winter.

And finally there’s Valverde, who should not be counted out as an outright candidate for the maillot jaune.

Though he was flat in his own comeback last year from a two-year ban for links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal, riding to a disappointing 20th in the Tour in what was his worst-ever grand tour finish, Valverde was sharp in last year’s Vuelta despite taking the late-hour decision to race.

If it wasn’t for a controversial crash while wearing the leader’s jersey in the first week, when he hit the deck just as Team Sky and others were cranking up the speed in heavy crosswinds, the Vuelta might have turned out very differently last year.

At 33, Valverde is older, wiser, and more determined than ever, and has put everything on what will likely be his best and last shot of reaching the Tour podium. Like Rodríguez, he’s improved dramatically in time trialing. And like Contador, he’s capable of blowing up the race with unpredictable attacks that could throw a wrench in Team Sky’s race-snuffing tempo.

Like Contador, Valverde will also have his best team ever around him, with the likes of Rui Costa and Colombian sensation Nairo Quintana. Movistar will be one of the favorites to win the team time trial, which would put Valverde in the driver’s seat going into the Spanish-friendly Pyrénées.

Everyone seems to be ordaining Froome as the top favorite for the Tour. But in a mountainous course, with a series of unpredictable finales, brutal mountain stages, and two short, technical time trials, just about anything could happen.

Looking back at last year’s Vuelta, when all four squared off in less-than-stellar form, spectacular things did happen. Having all four of last year’s Vuelta finishers roaring into the Tour in peak form should make for a spectacular month of July. The Dauphiné is just a training race.