Clash of the Titans: Froome, Contador, Nibali square off at Dauphine

The top favorites for the Tour de France will square off for the first time all season at the Dauphiné across the French Alps

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Cycling’s three aces — Chris Froome (Sky), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) — line up for the Critérium du Dauphiné this weekend in what should be a telling preview of what awaits in July.

The threesome will face off for the first time all season in the same race, and with the July 5 Tour start in Leeds less than one month away, all eyes will be on the yellow jersey favorites.

The eight-day Dauphiné (June 8-15) will provide the best look at the Tour favorites, but the fight for overall victory in the French race up and over the French Alps is anything but ordinary.

Race owner ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) has tweaked the Dauphiné format, and rather than mimicking some of the key routes to be featured in the upcoming Tour, it has delivered a demanding, original course that should see a riveting clash of the titans.

Sky will be the five-star favorite, with defending Tour champion Froome back to defend his Dauphiné title (Sky has won three in a row, counting Bradley Wiggins’ wins in 2011-2012), and to remind everyone who is the new alpha male of the peloton.

Nipping at his heels will be a resurgent Contador, who’s won or finished second in four stage-race starts this season, and Nibali, who needs a strong ride to reconfirm his Tour credentials after an uneven, winless spring.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Contador has never won the Dauphiné, and last year he fell flat against Froome’s dominance, highlighted by a poor time trial performance that triggered red flags over his Tour form.

It’s been Contador, not Froome or Nibali, who’s been on a tear so far this season, with big wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), the two hardest, and most demanding week-long stage races in the spring.

All three coincided at high-altitude training camps recently at Tenerife — prompting Froome to publicly comment about a lack of out-of-competition doping controls — and it would be interesting to know how much they were monitoring each other’s progress.

The real-life demands of the Dauphiné will provide the first glimpse at where everyone stands in the highly anticipated approach to the Tour. If someone is off their game in mid-June, it’s almost impossible to catch up in time for the Tour, as Contador revealed last year.

“We are seeing Alberto back at his real level,” said Tinkoff manager Bjarne Riis. “He was a little off last year, but he’s been working hard all year, and we can see he has his confidence back again. It should be a very interesting Tour.”

Following some hiccups this spring, including a back injury and some illnesses that had some wondering about Froome’s condition, Froome fought back to take an impressive victory at the Tour de Romandie in May.

Of the three, Nibali will have the most pressure to perform. The Italian has been marred by some early-season setbacks, which he countered with aggressive, but largely ineffective tactics at such races as Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Nice. Winless all season, Nibali will want to prove to everyone he will be legitimate Tour candidate this July.

“It’s been a spring when we haven’t seen the true Vincenzo, that is true,” said Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli. “There are no changes in the program. Vincenzo goes with the same ambition of winning the Tour.”

It’s rare for the Dauphiné champion to win the Tour — over the past 10 years, only Wiggins (2012) and Froome (2013) have won both races in the same year.

Everyone knows it’s July that counts, but the Dauphiné has always served as a proving ground and a gut-check for the Tour favorites. Nearly every Tour winner races the Dauphiné, so everyone will be watching each other’s signs of weakness and/or show the others their own form.

There is a solid field lining up for the Dauphiné, with nearly every other major Tour favorite lining up as well (see below), but the troika of Froome, Contador, and Nibali stands above everyone else.

What happens at the Dauphiné next week will be a strong indicator of what will happen on the roads of France a month later.

‘Dress rehearsal’ for Van Garderen, Talansky

Behind the awesome threesome, there are plenty of other riders who will be battling for the yellow jersey in July. The only major absences are Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who is racing the Route du Sud instead, and 2012 Tour winner and two-time Dauphiné champion Wiggins, who will line up at the Tour de Suisse, and who said Thursday that he likely will not ride in the Tour de France.

Among others lining up include Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Dani Moreno and Simon Spilak (Katusha), Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Beñat Intxausti (Movistar), Richie Porte (Sky), and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), both fresh off the Giro. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), hobbled by injuries earlier in the season, promises to be a protagonist.

“I haven’t been firing on all cylinders so far this year. I’m not 100 percent relaxed ahead of the Dauphiné, but I haven’t got any reason to expect the worst either,” Voeckler said. “With such a strong field, I don’t think I’ll be in the mix for the overall win, but I do expect to be a protagonist, like last year.”

Other big names include the two top American GC hopes for July, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp).

Talansky has had a steady, but subdued 2014 season so far, with no wins or podiums, but solid rides with a seventh at Volta a Catalunya and an 11th at the Tour de Romandie. Back for his second Tour, Talansky will be betting everything on improving his 10th place of last year. Watch for him to show his colors next week.

Van Garderen, meanwhile, is building on his breakout 2013 season, when he won both the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.

He’s built on that momentum, riding to second to Froome at the Tour of Oman and third at Catalunya, including a stage win ahead of Contador and Froome in the Spanish Pyrénées.

Van Garderen was forced out of Romandie after a crash in the prologue, and hasn’t seen hard racing since the Tour of the Basque Country in early April. Fifth in the 2012 Tour, van Garderen returned to train in Colorado before previewing some of the key Tour stages ahead of the Dauphiné start Sunday.

“I am not going to go to the Dauphiné with expectations to just win it easily or anything like that, especially considering the competition. But we want to treat it as a dress rehearsal for the Tour de France,” Van Garderen said in a team release. “So I will definitely be going for as high a GC position as possible, try to test my limits a little bit, and test out the team, making sure we are all working well together.”

For Omega Pharma, the Dauphiné will be a race to both test its Tour de France preparations and to hunt for stage wins.

“This is an important race to build up our road to the Tour,” Omega Pharma sport and development manager Rolf Aldag said in a press release. “For Michal Kwiatkowski, this is a good test to see where he stands. We will give him the freedom to prepare for the Tour after a great first part of the season. The Tour is his biggest goal for the summer, so we will see what he can do without any pressure for the GC at this race. We also looked at the parcours of the race and it fits riders like Jan Bakelants, Gianni Meersman and Zdenek Stybar. … We have a competitive team and are ready to go for results day-by-day.”

Challenging route

Similar to what ASO was trying with Paris-Nice, which saw an experimental course without time trials or major mountaintop finales, this year’s Dauphiné course throws the script out the window.

In the past, the Dauphiné would typically include a short prologue, two or three days for the sprinters, one long individual time trial that mirrored what the peloton would be seeing in the Tour, and then two very hard, demanding climbing stages across the Haute Alpes.

This year’s route eschews a long time trial, opting for an opening-day 10-kilometer race against the clock instead, and delivers a mix of challenging, perhaps explosive transition stages full of traps. It should make for some interesting, if not nerve-racking racing, especially for anyone gunning for the GC.

The time trial will take the riders through the narrow streets of Lyon, the bustling city along the Rhone. The parcours features a small, fourth-category climb midway through the stage, and could see a surprise winner, perhaps someone like Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling).

Whatever time differences are made in the TT probably won’t matter, because the Dauphiné goes straight into the mountains with the six-climb, 158.5km stage from Tarare to Col du Béal. The final climb, rated hors categorie at 13.8km with a 6.6 percent average gradient, was first used in the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir and could prove the end of GC hopes of more than a few in the Dauphiné peloton.

Stages 3 and 4 are no walks in the park, with tricky second-category climbs each day to put the peloton to the test. Sprinters will have to work hard to control breakaways and make it over the hard climbs with the GC favorites to have a hope of sniffing out the finish line. Stage 3 will provide the best chance for sprinters who can climb, while stage 4 tackles the Col de Manse, where Contador attacked Froome on the descent into Gap during stage 16 at last year’s Tour.

Stage 5 to La Mure is another five-climb roller coaster, with a mix of second- and third-category climbs sprinkled over twisting roads that will prove hard to control, giving aggressive riders and teams a real chance of destabilizing anyone who takes the yellow jersey Monday at Béal.

Stage 6 into Poisy might look like one for the sprinters, but a closer look at the closing kilometers reveals a kicker with 15-percent grades with 2km to go, making it a real hurdle for the pure sprinters to have a chance.

The GC battle will be decided in two demanding climbing stages in the Alps over the weekend.

The 161.5km stage 7 from Ville-la-Grand to Finhaut-Emosson summit in Switzerland is brutal by any measure. Back-to-back hors categorie climbs will see the GC favorites battling for overall victory. At 10.2km and an average gradient of 8 percent, the summit finish is Tour-worthy and will live up to the Dauphiné’s title of “dress rehearsal” for the yellow jersey fight.

The stage 8 finale could see some reshuffling of the GC, but it’s likely the winner will be crowned the previous day. Still, the final, 130.5km stage from Mègeve to Courchevel, two of France’s premier ski resorts, features a bumpy profile, with two first-category climbs and a second-category ascent before the first-category climb to Le Praz at 1,267 meters above sea level at Courchevel (lower than the typical Tour finale at 1,850 meters).

“It doesn’t feature very famous climbs, but some of them are extremely tough,” Voeckler said. “One of the climbs I previewed was the finish in Switzerland, in Finhaut-Émosson, the day before the finale in Courchevel. Riders who forget to mount a 27 [-tooth rear cassette] will be in a world of pain. Apart from that, it’s true that medium mountain stages, like the one to Gap with the Col de la Manse just before the end, are right up my alley.”

With a race route so demanding, the eventual winner will have to be on his toes from start to finish. There’s almost no respite, and it would not be surprising to see at least one major Tour contender ease off the gas if he feels things are not going his way. No one will want to risk a crash, injury, or illness at the Dauphiné that would be put their Tour hopes in jeopardy.

The race could see an opportunist with nothing to lose in taking it to the peloton’s Tour favorites. Even if that scenario plays out, the GC favorites will be keeping a very close eye on each other no matter who is on the sharp end of the action.

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