By Andrew Hood
A challenging and explosive course for the 60th Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré should produce plenty of fireworks in what will be the final dress rehearsal for many Tour de France-bound favorites.
Last year’s Tour runner-up, Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), leads an all-star cast for the Sunday start of the eight-day Dauphiné, which will throw plenty at the peloton to assure a wild and unpredictable race.
Spanish climbers Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), fourth and sixth, respectively, in last year’s Tour, will be fine-tuning their form along the challenging route, which tackles such emblematic climbs as the Croix-de-Fer, Joux-Plain and La Toussuire.
“I’ve taken the season with relative tranquility. After the Tour of Catalunya (in mid-May), I’ve intensified my workouts, and now, in the Dauphiné, it will be time to make some conclusions,” Sastre said. “I will be able to know what I have to do or not have to do to arrive at the Tour with the best possible conditions.”
In what’s being hyped as a showdown between Tour contenders, the Dauphiné Libéré could see Astana once again steal the spotlight. Astana has already lived up to its claim that it’s the best stage-race team in the peloton, with wins this year at the Tour of California, Vuelta a Castilla y León, Vuelta al País Vasco, Tour de Romandie and Giro d’Italia.
With Tour officials still insisting that the team will not be allowed to start the 2008 race, Astana brings a loaded squad to the eight-day Dauphiné, led by 2006 champion Levi Leipheimer, third in last year’s Tour, and climbing prodigy Janez Brajkovic.
Leipheimer, who finished 18th overall at the Giro d’Italia, where teammate Alberto Contador was the surprise winner, will be looking to make the most of the opportunity.
The North American contingent has strong representation, with Leipheimer and Chris Horner (Astana), Michael Barry, George Hincapie and Craig Lewis (High Road).
There will be plenty of other challengers for the overall, including Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Yaroslav Popovych (Silence-Lotto), José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Scott), Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank).
Evans, who reported last week that he was suffering from tendinitis following a high-altitude training camp in Spain’s Sierra Nevada, is the only rider from the top five of last year’s Dauphiné starting Sunday.
Defending champ Christophe Moreau, who held off Evans to take the victory, won’t be back because the veteran Frenchman’s Agritubel team was not invited to the race.
Last year’s third-place podium man, Andrey Kashechkin, is facing blood-doping allegations from last fall while Denis Menchov, fourth last year, recently completed the Giro and won’t be racing again until the Tour. Dave Zabriskie, fifth last year, crashed out of the Giro in stage 2 and his Slipstream-Chipotle team wasn’t invited to race.
Contador, meanwhile, was scheduled to race, but decided to skip it following his unexpected Giro victory and is headed back to the beach.
With such a mountainous route, there will be plenty of other Spanish mountain goats looking to strut their stuff in the Alps.
Haimar Zubeldia, coming off sixth at the Volta a Catalunya, and Sánchez lead Euskaltel-Euskadi, which has won two editions of the Dauphiné, with Iban Mayo in 2004 and Iñigo Landaluze in 2005.
“The Dauphiné is a very demanding race and one that you have to spend a lot of forces. The stages are hard and the rivals are with the sharpened teeth for the Tour,” Zubeldia said. “There are two hard stages in the Alps and the time trial is challenging as well. We hope that the experience will serve for something.”
The race also features the first major comeback from injury for David Moncoutie (Cofidis). The French veteran says the team is aiming for a stage victory.
“I’ve always loved the escapes of the Dauphiné, but this year’s route seems very hard. There are climbs like Joux-Plain, Croix-de-Fer and La Toussuire, tough!” he said. “The main goal for us is to win a stage, something we’re not assured of in the Tour. I want to try to follow the best in the mountains and try to win a stage.”
Climbers have plenty to look forward in this edition of the Dauphiné, which typically traces some of the stages that the peloton sees in the Tour in July. This year breaks that trend, but hits such legendary climbs as the Joux-Plain and La Toussuire, featured in the 2006 Tour.
Leading the lean climbers will be Robert Gesink (Rabobank), who won’t race the Tour and instead reload for the Vuelta a España. Others to watch include last year’s best climber, Remy di Gregario (FDJeux), Bernard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and Manuel Beltran (Liquigas).
There will be a good sampling of sprinters, led by André Greipel (High Road), Heinrich Haussler (Gerolsteiner) and Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), but they likely won’t get many chances in this hilly edition.
Head-bangers looking to get into escapes and blow up the race will have plenty of terrain to turn the screws. Watch for the likes of Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott), Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Télécom), Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) and Alexander Kolobnev (CSC).
The Dauphiné opens Sunday with a 5.6km prologue into Avignon, giving the specialists such as Hushovd a chance they won’t see next month in the Tour, which skips the prologue and starts with a road stage.
Stages 1 features a hilltop run to Privas ideal for the puncheurs while the sprinters will have to get over two category 4 climbs if they want a mass gallop in stage 2.
Despite two moderate climbs, the 31km individual time trial in stage 3 should give the specialists a chance to move into the overall lead. Stage 4 is a wild ride, with the Cat. 1 La Salève before the run into Annemasse, which could present breakaway artists with a shot to blow open the race.
The Alps are the main protagonists in the final three stages, with the Joux-Plain the main attraction in stage 5 into Morzine and stage 6 tackling Croix-de-Fer before the decisive summit finish at La Toussuire. Stage 7 features three hard climbs before a fast downhill run into Grenoble.
60th Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré
June 8-15, France
June 8, prologue: Le Pontet to Avignon, 5.6km
June 9, Stage 1: Avignon to Privas, 194km
June 10, Stage 2: Bourg-Saint-Andéol to Vienne, 184km
June 11, Stage 3: Saint-Paul-en-Jarez, 31km (ITT)
June 12, Stage 4: Vienne to Annemasse, 193km
June 13, Stage 5: Ville-la-Grand to Morzine, 125km
June 14, Stage 6: Morzine to La Toussuire, 233km
June 15, Stage 7: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Grenoble, 128km
18 teams of eight riders:
Ag2r-La Mondiale, Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Crédit Agricole, Francaise des Jeux, Astana, Gerolsteiner, Milram, Rabobank, Caisse d’Epargne, Euskaltel, Saunier Duval-Scott, Team CSC, Quick Step, Silence-Lotto, Lampre, Liquigas and High Road