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Preview: Sky looks to continue Dauphine dominance

The week-long Tour de France tuneup starts Sunday with a prologue and ends with three days in the French Alps.

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Perhaps in no time since 2011 has the peloton arrived at the Critérium du Dauphiné with such a sense of unknown of the peloton’s pecking order.

Beginning with Bradley Wiggins’ rise in 2011 to Chris Froome’s emergence in 2013, the week-long Dauphiné has served as a proving ground for Sky’s new dominance, with the franchise delivering four Dauphiné victories and three Tour de France crowns in an exceptional five-year run.

This year, however, sees a different Froome. He hasn’t been the consistent winning force at the top of the hierarchy as the peloton has become accustomed to seeing. Part of that is by plan — Froome is targeting both the Tour and the Olympics, so he’s been on a scheduled slow boil — and it’s also due to some sickness (at Volta a Catalunya) and bad luck (a mechanical at the base of the key climb at the Tour de Romandie). Froome won the Herald Sun Tour and a stage at Romandie, but he will have something to prove this week if he doesn’t want to give his principal rivals reason to dream come July.

And the battle is set against an interesting, unconventional course across the French Alps, with an intense climbing prologue, two major mountaintop finales, and a mix of other terrain for sprinters and stage-hunters. Expect fireworks over what are mostly shorter, climb-packed stages that will keep everyone on their toes.

Tour favorites prefer Dauphiné

Though Dauphiné success doesn’t always guarantee the yellow jersey, three of the past four Dauphiné winners have stepped on the top step at the Champs-Élysées, so there is sure to be a real dogfight for bragging rights among the top, Tour-bound favorites.

Froome will have plenty of challengers, including the always-dangerous Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), and Fabio Aru (Astana), the latter who is racing in the Dauphiné for the first time.

The race occasionally delivers a spoiler, like Andrew Talansky’s final-stage coup against Contador in 2014, but the winner’s trophy typically goes to a big-name rider hitting form ahead of the Tour.

Of the pre-race favorites, Contador has had the best spring results, winning the Tour of the Basque Country and finishing on the podium at Algarve, Paris-Nice, and Catalunya. Bypassing the Giro d’Italia this year, Contador is going all-in for the Tour and will be keen to send a message this week that he is still a force to reckon with.

It’s also interesting to note that despite a high-profile deal between Velon and the Tour de Suisse, which the teams’ group promised to bring their top stars to Switzerland as part of a profit-sharing deal, most of the top, Tour-bound favorites are lining up this weekend in France. Some of that could be political, but it also reconfirms that the Dauphiné is the preferred road to the Tour. Ending a week earlier than the Tour de Suisse and held over tougher terrain, riders coming out of the Dauphiné have more time to recover, as well as top off their form going into the Tour.

Sky country

Team Sky has owned the Dauphiné the past half-decade, winning four of the past five editions. Who was the disruptor? Cannondale’s Talansky, who took a dramatic coup against Contador in 2014. Bradley Wiggins won in 2011 and 2012, winning the Tour de France in 2012. Chris Froome won in 2013 and 2015, both years that he went on to win the Tour. If Froome wins again, his confidence will be sky high (no pun intended) going into the Tour.

Three more to watch

Porte will be leading BMC Racing, while his teammate Tejay van Garderen (second overall last year by just 10 seconds behind Froome) is heading to the Tour de Suisse. Even though BMC insists it will be racing the Tour with both Porte and van Garderen on equal footing, Porte will want to have a big ride at the Dauphiné to solidify his leadership role in July.

The Dauphiné will be the first real test for Pierre Rolland, who’s so far been relatively discreet since moving to Cannondale this season. The team is hoping he will surprise many in July, but a strong Dauphiné will go a long way toward confirming that hunch.

Aru (Astana) will race the Dauphiné for the first time, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the big, longer climbs of the French Alps. He will be racing his first Tour next month, so he’ll be under pressure to show something to prove he’s up to the task.

Nothing predictable in the course

The 68th edition of the Dauphiné will present a challenge in every stage during the eight days of racing over 1,147 kilometers and an unconventional course design. The race opens with a bang on a short, but brutal 4km climbing time trial at 8 percent. A mechanical or mishap could prove fatal, and will provide a glimpse at who has form.

Sprinters such as John Degenkolb (Giant – Alpecin) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) will have chances in stages 1 and 4, while stage 2 ends with an uphill kicker. Stage 3 sees a second-category climb in the closing 40km that will disrupt the sprinters.

Three hard days across the Alps will decide the winner. Stage 5 ends atop a second-category climb at Vaujany, eliminating the weak. The five-climb stage 6, hitting the Madeleine with a first-category summit at Meribel, should set the podium. Sunday’s six-climb finale, with two first-category climbs and a third-category summit finale, could prove hard to control.

Weather could change

It appears as if summer has arrived to France. Despite some recent unsettled weather, forecasters are calling for mostly sunny skies and warm temperatures for the first part of the week. Things can change quickly, especially high in the Alps, and there could be cooler, wetter weather on tap next weekend.

68th Critérium du Dauphiné (June 5-12)

Sunday, June 5: Prologue, Les Gets, 3.9 km (ITT)
Monday, June 6: Stage 1, Cluses to Saint-Vulbas, 186 km
Tuesday, June 7: Stage 2, Crêches-sur-Saône to Chalmazel-Jeansagnière, 167.5km
Wednesday, June 8: Stage 3, Boën-sur-Lignon to Tournon-sur-Rhône, 182km
Thursday, June 9: Stage 4, Tain-l’Hermitage to Belley, 176km
Friday, June 10: Stage 5, La Ravine to Vaujany, 140km
Saturday, June 11: Stage 6, La Rochelle to Méribel, 141km
Sunday, June 12: Stage 7, Le-Pont-de-Claix to Superdévoluy, 151km