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Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré: Practice, Practice, Practice

Sunday one of the sport's more colorful events kicks off as the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré starts on its annual journey in and around the French Alps. The usual question hangs over the race -- will enough riders actually contest the outcome? -- but it should be a fun week regardless.

First off, there's a ton of useful info on the net. There's an English version of the Official Site though it's well worth starting at the Main page (in French) for the brilliant promotional video. Today's challenge: who was it that flipped off the road on a descent? Apparently there's some sort of live coverage at the site, though I can't say if it's graphics or video. Steephill.TV has a one-stop-shopping dashboard with links to everything you need to know, including video links. And this is a Cycling.TV event as well.

Despite its historic position on the calendar as a Tour de France training race, the organizers nonetheless take the race very, very seriously. Channeling Henri Desgrange?

Sometimes people challenge the race's format and encourage us to be innovative, as if we could move the mountains with a touch of a magic wand, or failing that knock them down. Even if we keep in mind what happened in the past, it is our imagination that creates the future. Ensuring that we are imaginative does not mean giving in to whims or impulses. We are in charge of a heritage which must be maintained and preserved. Therefore, we are attached to the principles which have made the Critérium legendary.

Indeed. Those principles consist of giving the peloton an invaluable race-pace workout over the same Alps passes (more or less) where the Tour will be contested the following month. And this edition is no different... and no laughing matter: two time trials (including a somewhat hilly 31km event) sandwiched around two flat stages, then a fearsome menu of climbs including the supposedly awesome Le Saleve on stage 4, the Totally-Hors-Categoire (T.H.C.) Joux-Plane in stage 5 with a nasty descent to Morzine, the combo of the Col de la Croix-de-Fer (T.H.C.) and La Toussuire (Cat. 1) finishing the 230km queen stage (6), and a final day bumping over three more Cat-1 and Cat-2 climbs before descending to Grenoble. Yikes.

The bad news always consists of how many big names will show up just to get in their miles, and with the Dauphiné coming a tad early, fully six weeks before the Tour's biggest days, the presence of Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde, Mick Rogers, Sammy Sanchez, Haimar Zubeldia, and Carlos Sastre won't amount to much. But Astana's exclusion from the Tour is the gift that keeps on giving, as '06 winner Levi Leipheimer will be present and gunning for glory again. Failing that (as he's coming from the Giro), Janez Brajkovic will get the go signal once the road turns up.

The question is, who will be this year's Christophe Moreau? Last year, the man and his wagging tongue ambushed a star-studded and somewhat motivated cast to win convincingly. However compromised the Tour studs may be, you can bet on any number of guys off the B-list being tempted out by the chance for glory on such hallowed slopes. One major name to watch will be Robert Gesink, the Rabobank wunderkind known for his brilliant climbing. Having just turned 22, Gesink won't be in the team's bigger plans for the Tour just yet, so the Dauphine (which he attended last year) is a great chance to gain some Alps experience. Another 22-y.o. to watch will be Remy Di Gregorio, though he doesn't have the luxury of risking his Tour de France form, so we'll see. A few more uneducated guesses would include JJ Cobo, Remi Pauriol, David Moncoutie, Alexander Kolobnev, and Vlad Efimkin. Form and motivations are ever mysterious though.