Froome, Contador to square off in Tour preview, Criterium du Dauphine

Chris Froome and Alberto Contador are the two favorites at the eight-day Criterium du Dauphine, which has a mountainous route throughout

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The eight-day Critérium du Dauphiné (June 2-9) is often hailed as the final dress rehearsal for the Tour de France.

While it’s true that most of the Tour contenders skip the Giro d’Italia and hone their form at the Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse, it’s an exaggeration to claim that the French race reveals too much about what will happen in July.

While the Dauphiné certainly provides a litmus test for what fans can expect during the grande boucle, it’s rare to see Tour winners winning in June. In fact, only eight riders (if you do not count Lance Armstrong) have won the Dauphiné and then gone on to win the Tour. Last year, Bradley Wiggins was the last to do it.

Typically, it’s a rider who wants to win the Tour someday who steps up and rides to victory.

This year, however, should see a real doozy of a fight. Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) line up as the top favorites in a deep field that also includes Tour-bound riders Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

The Dauphiné typically mirrors some of the same climbs and type of racing the Tour will offer in a few weeks time. Like this year’s Tour, the 65th Dauphiné is heavy on climbing in a course that will prove highly difficult for anyone to control from start to finish.

Such climbs as l’Alpe d’Huez and the Risoul summit anchor the final two stages across the Alps in what could produce some of the most explosive racing of the year.

Mountainous challenge

Since taking over the Dauphiné in 2010, saving the race from oblivion, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) has tweaked a few things, but otherwise has kept the race true to its roots as a race set in the heart of the French Alps.

The stages are all on the short side, with the longest at 184 kilometers in stage 7. Gone is a prologue, but a mix of mountain stages, some sprint opportunities, a time trial, and mountain challenges across the Alps all remain in place.

Three summit finales in the closing four stages will certainly see the favorites locking horns, assuring tension to the end of the race assuming someone doesn’t ride away with the jersey before that.

It won’t be easy containing the race, as the opening stages are peppered with tricky climbs that could prove challenging to control.

The 65th Dauphiné starts with a tricky, 121km rollercoaster stage starting and finishing in Champéry. The short, potentially explosive stage features two first-category climbs in the opening 75km of racing. A second-category climb at 101km leads to a short, punchy finale up a third-category climb, which averages 3.3 percent in the final 6.9km.

The hills continue in the 183km second stage from Chatel to Oyonnax, with no less than six rated climbs in a course that looks like the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, at least on paper. The route is littered with short, explosive climbs that will prove difficult to control.

Sprinters will have to make it over two third-category climbs in the final 50km of racing in the 167km third stage from Ambériu-en-Bugey to Tarare if they hope to have a shot at the win.

The 32.5km time trial in stage 4 is a flat, though technically challenging, power course that should favor the likes of Froome. Starting in Villars-les-Dombes, the route loops across flat, open farmland before finishing in the Parc des Oiseaux. Winds could be a factor in the decisive race against the clock.

Stage 5 hits three relatively easy climbs along the 139km course from Grésy-sur-Aix and ending atop the hors-categorie Valmorel climb. At 7 percent over 12.7km, the climb will certainly eliminate some pretenders to the throne, but will unlikely crown the winner.

Four rated climbs are sandwiched in the middle of a technical, hilly course from La Léchere-les-Bains to Grenoble in the 143km stage 6. Stage-hunters could prove dangerous to GC contenders trying to control a lumpy stage ending with a long, steady 15km descent into Grenoble.

More suffering is on the menu for the 187.5km seventh stage from Le Pont-de-Claix to Superdévoluy, including the mighty l’Alpe d’Huez right off the bat in the opening 50km. The 21 lacets will explode the race and perhaps turn everything upside down for anyone in the leader’s jersey. The route traces the climb of the Cat. 2 Col de Sarenne and the descent that the protagonists will see in the Tour in a few weeks time. Rather than go back up the l’Alpe d’Huez, as they will in the Tour, the route instead goes over the Cat. 1 Col d’Ornon and the Cat. 1 Col du Noyer, before the short, explosive third-category 4km run to the finish line.

If the GC isn’t already decided, the Dauphiné winner will be crowned in the 155.5km finale from Sisteron to Risoul. After hitting a third-category at 52km, the peloton climbs the barren, Cat. 1 Col de Vars before dropping to Guillestre to tackle the Cat. 1 climb to the Risoul ski station. At 6.7 percent in 13.9km, a reduced pack of elite climbers should be fighting for the glory up the final switchbacks.

Froome vs. Contador

All eyes will be on Froome and Contador. Both have a lot to prove.

Froome will be keen to post another win to reconfirm his status as team leader for the Tour at Team Sky. With Wiggins’ status for the Tour unclear because of a knee injury, Froome will still need to assert himself not only within the peloton, but also within his team to prove to everyone that he’s worthy of the responsibility of carrying team colors at the Tour by winning a high-profile event like the Dauphiné.

The route certainly favors Froome. With a flat, power TT course in stage 4, the Kenya-born, South African-bred, Monaco-residing, British passport-holding rider will want to take some important gains to the pure climbers going into the final two mountain-top finales to close out the race.

Froome has picked up where Wiggins left off last year, winning every stage race he’s started this year, with the lone exception being second to recent Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) at Tirreno-Adriatico. Otherwise, his 2013 has been impeccable, with wins at Tour of Oman, Critérium International, and Tour de Romandie.

Backed by a strong Sky team, with Richie Porte and David Lopez ready to protect his flanks in the mountains, Froome is the top favorite to win.

Nipping at his heels will be Contador, who has yet to post a major win this season. Although he won a stage at the Tour de San Luís in his season debut in Argentina, Contador hasn’t quite been able to deliver in Europe despite being close, with a third at Tirreno and the one-day Clasica Primavera, and a fifth at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country).

For a rider as prolific as Contador, it’s somewhat surprising that he’s never won the Dauphiné. Its course also favors Contador, though he will likely need to lean on his climbing legs to make the differences on the final two stages.

Many will be watching Contador closely to see if he can put the hurt on the peloton like he used to. Since his comeback from his back-dated two-year ban for his clenbuterol case from the 2010 Tour, Contador seems a step off his best. Although he won the Vuelta a España and Milano-Torino last year, Contador hasn’t had the same knock-out accelerations in the mountains or top speed in individual time trials.

Other top favorites include former two-time winner Valverde, who is putting everything on riding to the podium at the Tour in July, so he might not be taking the needed risks to win.

Rodríguez, Van Den Broeck, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), and Pierre Rolland will all be riding to confirm their Tour credentials.

Talansky is certainly a podium-man for any race he starts. Europe’s nasty spring knocked him back at Romandie, but his second-place and stage win at Paris-Nice confirmed that the “Pit Bull” has reached a whole new level in his third pro season.

With Garmin teammate Ryder Hesjedal still recovering from a nasty chest infection that knocked him out of the Giro, Talansky will be aiming for a strong ride to prove to Garmin brass he’s more than ready for what will likely be his Tour debut next month.

Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) will be looking for his eighth win of the year in the time trial, while Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) will hope to win a stage to prove he deserves a ticket to the Tour.

One team that will not be there is Ag2r-La Mondiale, which voluntarily pulled out of the event in accordance to rules of the Credible Cycling Movement after two of its riders were involved in doping cases.

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