The Pro Cycling Tour and Anthony McCrossand make their return to your living room starting Sunday morning with the launching of this year's annual Criterium du Dauphine Libere, a/k/a Tour de France training camp. All of this year's most compelling Tour contenders will go head to head to see who is looking the sharpest leading up to July and the big prize. Well, not all of them, Ullrich and Basso to name two will be missing. Also, nobody wants to overextend themselves, so it's not clear when they'll actually be trying. But it should be great! Let's break it down...
on the flip:
A little histoire... Dauphine (with an accent aigu at the end) is an old sudivision of France referring to the area from Provence to the Alpes, so named because apparently the local noble looked like a dolphin. Or at least, he had a dolphin on his coat of arms. Anyway, the Dauphine Libere is the regional newspaper of record, and desperate to lose money they began sponsoring a professional bike race in 1947.
The Criterium was a mostly-French affaire until Greg LeMond's victory in 1983 (!) set off a string of 18 foreign victories in the last 23 years. Lance racked up victories in 2002 and 2003, and it was thought that maybe the Dauphine was part of the psychological pre-Tour battle, but subsequent victories by Iban Mayo and Inigo Landaluze demonstrate that the Criterium can be won by a guy who has no hope in the Tour. Maybe Euskaltel have decided this is their Super Bowl.
Anyway, the race is made by its tendency to include climbs that are featured in the Tour a month later, as well as enough time trialling to give maillot jaune hopefuls a good tune-up. Despite my initial failure, I've found the Official Website in English, which is very useful... especially in pinning down the parcours.
This year's event features a flat prologue, two days of gentle rolling, and a modest 43km time trial before next Thursday's hump up Mont Ventoux. Stage 5 features the Izoard, while stage 6 punishes the peloton with the Galibier, Crox-de-Fer, and La Toussuire alpine climbs. The final stage is an anticlimax ending in Grenoble.
There is no earthly way to predict who will win, although chances are it won't be the guy who wins six weeks later in Paris... that's just too far away to hold on to peak fitness, and since the Pro Tour has flooded the field with every top team, surely someone (Euskaltel for sure, others too) will show up ready to sacrifice their future to win this event. Thus, while you'll get to see Landis and Vino and Leipheimer racing against each other, look for someone else to actually take the race.