Evans hopes Critérium International is launchpad for 2012 Tour win

The 81st edition of the Critérium International marks Cadel Evans’ return to France for the first time since winning last year’s Tour

Defending champion Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) and Tour de France winner Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) headline a strong field for this weekend’s Critérium International.

A move to Corsica in 2010 and the placement of the decisive mountaintop finish up the Cat. 1 Col de l’Ospedale on the final day tip the balance in favor of GC riders like Evans and Schleck.

The 81st edition of the race will mark Evans’ return to France for the first time since winning last year’s Tour.

“Coming back to France has another significance now, but I still have another Tour to do and Criterium International is another step towards that,” Evans said on the team’s web site. “It’s usually a short, intense stage race. Of course the individual time trial and the hilltop finish will be important for GC.”

So far, Evans has kept a low profile as he builds toward his Tour defense and a shot at the Olympic time trial gold medal later this season.

The three-stage, two-day race is often called the “mini-Tour de France” because it includes a time trial, a mountain stage and a transition stage typically favoring the sprinters.

Race organizers ASO moved the race to the Mediterranean island in 2010, in part as a precursor to bringing the Tour de France to Corsica for the Tour start in 2013.

The race opens Saturday with a double stage that includes a 89.5km morning sector favoring the pack’s sprinters and continues with an afternoon 6.5km time trial.

Sunday’s 179km stage ends atop the steep Col de l’Ospedale climb where Schleck made his winning move last year.

Schleck will be joined by five-time winner Jens Voigt, who admitted that his chances of a record sixth victory are slim on the new parcours since the move from the French Ardennes to Corsica.

“Obviously, it remains one of my favorite races. I like to go back again, even though the route has changed again,” Voigt told earlier this week. “Always the team I am on, we win the Criterium. We didn’t come for the first year on Corsica, (Pierrick) Fedrigo won, but the years before and after, the team I am on, we always win.”

Other big names heading to Corsica include Vuelta a España runner-up Chris Froome, who’s had a rough start to the 2012 season. He pulled out of his season debut at the Volta ao Algarve with a chest cold and then collided with a pedestrian during a training ride earlier this month.

Tour de France sensation Pierre Rolland will headline Europcar while 2010 winner Fédrigo will be back for FDJeux-Big Mat.

Garmin-Barracuda will bring a competitive squad headlined by Dave Zabriskie, Christophe Le Mével and Andrew Talansky.

Team Type 1-Sanofi also joins the fray, with Julien El Fares carrying the team’s best GC chances.

81st Critérium International
Saturday, March 24: Stage 1a: Porto Vecchio, 89.5km
Saturday, March 24: Stage 1b: Porto Vecchio, 6.5km (ITT)
Sunday, March 25: Porto Vecchio to Col de l’Ospedale, 179km