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Tour de France favorites hone final edge in Criterium du Dauphine, Tour de Suisse

Both races will provide an important litmus test on where everyone stands going toward the Tour, now less than three weeks away

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Nearly all the major Tour de France favorites will be firing at full cylinders this weekend in an important test ahead of next month’s Grande Boucle.

In the French Alps, the Critérium du Dauphiné hits its crescendo, with Chris Froome (Sky) sitting comfortably in the yellow jersey going into two decisive mountain stages, including Saturday’s climb up L’Alpe d’Huez and the Risoul summit Sunday.

In Switzerland, the 77th Tour de Suisse clicks into gear with an 8.1km individual time trial Saturday followed by a mountain stage ending atop the Cat. 1 summit at Crans Montana on Sunday.

Both races will provide an important litmus test on where everyone stands going toward the Tour, now less than three weeks away.

Swiss tour for the climbers

The Swiss tour boasts a solid field, with defending champion Rui Costa (Movistar) headlining the peloton for the nine-day race tailored toward the climbers.

Tejay van Garderen (BMC), hot off winning the Amgen Tour of California, will be among the top favorites for overall victory. Talking to VeloNews this week, van Garderen said he’s using the Swiss tour to hone his form for the Tour.

“I would say right now I am at 95 percent,” he said. “I definitely have more confidence having won a race. I am definitely feeling stronger. I also feel like I have stepped it up in every race I have done this year compared to last year.”

Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard), still desperately chasing form ahead of the Tour, will be looking for one good ride before July.

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) will be racing for the first time since abandoning the Giro d’Italia with a chest cold, while others line up with podium aspirations, such as Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Thomas Lovkvist for the “home team” IAM Cycling.

Other marquee names include Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), who confirmed Friday he will not race the Tour this year. A winner in 2009, this year’s course is far too mountainous for Cancellara to have hope of winning the overall.

World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) will clash with Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and other sprinters, such as John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano), Michael Albasini and Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), and Movistar’s JJ Rojas and two-time Giro stage winner Giovanni Visconti.

Gilbert is still looking for his first win in the rainbow jersey, but should have a few shots at a stage win in the hilly Swiss tour terrain. With two time trials and two climbing stages, there are at least four other opportunities for stage hunters and/or sprinters.

“It’s clear we go for the win with the GC with Tejay. I will help him, if I can go for a stage win on a certain day, I will try,” Gilbert said Friday. “I need it. It’s time for a win. The form is good. I think it’s time for a nice win.”

The nine-day route is book-ended by time trials. The opener is a flat, out-and-back in Quito in Ticino while the closing-day time trial is a 26.8km, challenging route, with a steep climb in the second half of the course. Those two stages will likely tip the winner.

Heavy snow over the hors-categorie Nufenenpass early in Sunday’s second stage has forced organizers to re-route the course around the climb, but the Cat. 1 summit finale at Crans Montana remains on the menu.

The third stage sees a short but steep first category climb 23km to go that should see a reduced bunch sprint making it to the line.

Stages 4, 5 and 6 feature short, punchy climbs that will provide the stage-hunters and sprinters a chance to grab the flowers. The hilly terrain is ideal for a matchup between Sagan and Gilbert, who last squared off in the spring classics, with Sagan nipping Gilbert to win Brabantse Pijl.

Stage 7 tackles the beyond-category steeps at Albulapass before a fast, treacherous descent to the line. Stage 8 features a first-category climb early that will likely trigger breakaways in what’s an otherwise level approach to the line, only interrupted by a small, third-category in the closing half hour of racing.

If the GC isn’t decided, the final-day time trial, which climbs more than 800 vertical meters in the final 11km, will settle the order on the podium.

Final weekend at Dauphiné

On the other side of the Alps, the Dauphiné winds down with two dramatic stages that should serve as a coronation for Froome.

Team Sky continues its stranglehold on the GC, with Froome leading teammate Richie Porte by 54 seconds, two clicks ahead of Dennis Rohan (Garmin-Sharp).

Saturday’s seventh stage traces portions of the route that will be featured next month in the Tour, with the 21 lacets of l’Alpe d’Huez and the Cat. 2 Col de Sarenne early in the stage.

Rather than loop back around and ride up the Alpe again, as they will in the Tour, the Dauphiné instead hits the Cat. 1 Col d’Ornon just past the midway mark before the Cat. 1 Col du Noyer with 11km to go. A short, third-category finale at Superdévoluy could see a breakaway stay clear.

Sunday’s 155.5km finale features two climbs early before the Cat. 1 final push up the Risoul ski area.

Even though Froome and Porte seem to have a lock on the top two spots, the final podium place and the stage are still up for grabs.

Froome seems to be on cruise control after taking important gains in Wednesday’s time trial and pulling the double Thursday, winning the stage to Valmorel and taking the leader’s jersey.

“I’ve got a good advantage at the moment, especially keeping in mind that the next guy behind me is Richie Porte,” Froome said Friday on the team’s web page. “We’re in a pretty good position but we’ve got two really hard days coming up. We’re going to be tested, I’m sure, and we’re just looking to get through the next two days without losing any time to any of the major contenders.”

This weekend is sure to see action from the Spanish armada, with Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) all hoping to salvage something from what’s been a disappointing race.

After riding to his worst time trial of his career Wednesday, Contador came up short against Froome in Thursday’s summit finale to take second. For Contador, it’s all about being ready for July.

“My condition is improving every day, and that’s the most important,” said Contador, who’s also been suffering from allergies. “The true objective is the Tour, and regardless of the results here, the idea is put me in form for the Tour. If you can win a stage, that helps the confidence, but the most important thing is to keep working.”

Valverde, too, promises to be a protagonist this weekend. After a disappointing time trial Wednesday, he was on the attack Thursday, but admittedly went too early, allowing Froome and Contador to swarm him.

“We’ll try to be protagonists again in the final two stages,” he said. “The preparation for the Tour is going well, and that helps me stay calm. It’s obvious that Froome is a higher level, above all in the time trial. In the mountains, things are more equal.”