Dauphiné preview: Tour de France hopefuls look to prove form on similar route

Next week's Dauphiné will be a proving ground for many Tour hopefuls with a shorter but similar course

Hopeful Tour de France warriors will sharpen their swords one final time in the Critérium du Dauphiné next week. The French stage race, June 3 to June 10, is the perfect preparation and proving ground with its prologue, long time trial and high mountain stages.

Most of the Tour favorites will be racing, including last year’s Dauphiné winner Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Defending Tour champion Cadel Evans (BMC), and Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan). One notable exception is Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), who will race the Tour de Suisse instead.

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The course

Next to the Tour, this is one of France’s most prestigious events, along with Paris-Nice. Its road book reads like a who’s who of professional cycling: from Wiggins to Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond to Bernard Hinault, and Eddy Merckx to Jacques Anquetil.

This year, the race kicks off with a 5.7km TT in Grenoble. The prologue will award the first leader’s jersey and, as with the remainder of the race, make a nod towards the Tour de France. Only one month later, the Tour kicks off with a 6.4km TT in Liège, Belgium.

The route meanders through the Isère, the Drôme and the Ardèche departments before another time trial and then the high mountain stages. But the early stages could still prove tricky. Stage one should be a sprint, but features the Côte de la Sizeranne with nine kilometers left to race. Stage two kicks up to 1400m with the Mont Gerbier de Jonc and ends with a Cat. 4 climb to Saint-Félicien.

There’s respite – and another chance for the sprinters – in stage 3 to La Clayette. The rest, though, is a legitimate Tour de France test. The 53.5km TT to Bourg-en-Bresse mimics the ninth leg in this year’s Tour to Besançon, but 12km longer. Success here could bode well in July – German Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) won last year’s Dauphiné TT and went on to win the Tour’s long TT.

Stages five through seven climb through the Ain, the Savoie and the Haute Savoie departments. Stage six finishes in Morzine at 970 meters, but makes its way up six categorized climbs along the way, including the Col de la Colombière – which will feature in the Tour for the first time this year – and the Col de Joux-Plane. The Joux-Plane leaves 12km of downhill to race. The run to Châtel promises to be explosive because of its distance – the shortest road day in the race – and it’s the last leg.

Critérium du Dauphiné, 1052km
Prologue: June 3, Grenoble ITT, 5.7km
Stage 1: June 4, Seyssins – Saint-Vallier, 187km
Stage 2: June 5, Lamastre – Saint-Félicien, 160km
Stage 3: June 6, Givors – La Clayette, 167km
Stage 4: June 7, Villié-Morgon – Bourg-en-Bresse ITT, 53km
Stage 5: June 8, Saint-Trivier-sur-Moignans – Rumilly, 186.5km
Stage 6: June 9, Saint-Alban-Leysse – Morzine, 166.5km
Stage 7: June 10, Morzine – Châtel, 126km

The favorites

Several riders are in with a shot to win the race and make their marks ahead of the Tour.

Bradley Wiggins (Sky): He is white-hot. Having won Paris-Nice and Tour de Romandie, he seems to have truly found his road legs this season. He and his support team just came back from a high-altitude camp in Tenerife, which worked wonders for teammate Michael Rogers, who won the Bayern-Rundfahrt.

Cadel Evans (BMC): The Tour champ has said he’s aiming to hit his peak through the summer and in the late-season for the Worlds. The Dauphiné is a good starting point. His hard work training in the Sierra Nevada should pay off.

Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale): The Italian won the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race this year and then backed off for the Tour. A strong result here will put him on track for the Tour. As with the Tour, however, he may suffer in the long time trial.

Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Barracuda): Second to Wiggins in Romandie says a lot. The young American is aiming for a good result here to confirm his place on the Tour team.

Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol): The Belgian has been somewhat anonymous – fourth in Algarve, third in Catalunya and 12th in the País Vasco – but is training hard for his main goal: the Tour. Besides riding at altitude in Sierra Nevada, he’s previewed some of the key mountain days of the Tour. If he’s on target, the results will show here.

Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): He suffered a setback when he crashed in training, but he almost immediately bounced back. Last week, he won the Tour of Belgium to show he’s ready.

Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan): The younger Schleck has laid low in these last months and hasn’t given a clear signal he’s on target for the Tour. The Critérium du Dauphiné will be the final test to see if he’s made up ground.

Others to consider:
Tejay van Garderen (BMC)
Juan José Cobo (Movistar)
Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol)
Denis Menchov (Katusha)
Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis)

North Americans
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Barracuda)
David Zabriskie (Garmin-Barracuda)
George Hincapie (BMC)
Tejay Van Garderen (BMC)
Danny Pate (Sky)