The Critérium du Dauphiné serves as a traditional warm-up race for the Tour de France and its course typically resembles a grand tour in miniature. Formerly known as the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, the race now goes by the shorter and snappier Critérium du Dauphiné after the Tour de France organizers bought it. The race remains true to its roots as it races through the Dauphiné region of southern France.
For the Critérium du Dauphiné, I have recruited a friend to help out with the previewing and general hijinx. Here, he interrupts my introduction to the race to talk about himself. He seems to enjoy doing that.
Cat Calls! Je m’appelle Levon. I am un chat très, très black. Tout black – nose, tail, legs - Tout black! But not my eyes. Non mes amis, mes eyes are non black. They are wide and yellow. They are staring at you now. They are still staring. Oui – still staring. Okay, sleepy, very sleepy. Hup, hup – some dust, got it! Je suis desolé, I have lost my concentration. Oh yes, I think I will design a race like the Critérium du Dauphiné and name it The Catérium du Très Black Chat! Or simply the Cat Chat.
My race like the Critérium du Dauphiné will draw all of the très, très black cats from the neighborhood in a superlative test of our blackness! Mais bien sûr and it will serve as a traditional warm-up for the traditional nap, formerly known as the formal nap. Alors! What does alors mean? Je ne sais pas!
Okay, Levon has some dust to chase, so I will continue with the previewing now.
The Critérium du Dauphiné opens with a 6.8 kilometer prologue in Evian-les-Bains, which sits on the Lac Léman near the Swiss border. A 49 kilometer time trial between Monteux and Sorgues offers a practice run at a Tour-sized long crono, while two mountain stages in the Alps preview the July battles to come. The Critérium du Dauphiné includes a finish on the Alpe d’Huez this year. There isn’t much for the sprinters in this year’s Dauphiné. The transition stages look made for the breakaway specialists more than they are for the organized trains of the sprinters. Between the long crono and the mountain-top finish on the Alpe d’Huez, this Dauphiné offers a balanced course for the Tour specialists. Paging Alberto Contador.
Again, Levon interrupts: The Cat Chat will begin in the kitchen with the opening of a can of tuna and will end someplace else. Perhaps under a table, or upon a couch. Maybe inside the closet on the laundry basket or behind the stove. One never knows. Where am I now? Where is my tail? I must go find it now! Alors! Où est mon tail? Cats from all over will come to the Cat Chat. There will be much napping, much cleaning, much chatting in the Tour du Cat Chat. On y vas!
Below the fold, a quick look at the Eight Days of the Critérium du Dauphiné, with a little help from my friends.
Prologue It’s short and sweet at 6.8 kilometers. The course gains about 100 meters and reaches its highest point at kilometer 2.8. Then, it descends an equal amount to the finish. Up the hill, down the hill. The climb is gradual enough that this prologue should be a day for the specialists. Starting on the waterfront at the Lac Léman, the course makes a loopy loop around Evian-les-Bains.
Levon’s friend Daisy shows up to help with the previewing: Daisy thinks that that the prologue with the little up hill could favor the favorite Contador but also, David Millar, former 2001 TdF prologue winner, former 2008 world TT champ Bert Grabsch, or former TT champ of Denmark Brian Vandborg.
Stage 1: Evian-les-Bains - Saint-Laurent-du-Pont The Critérium du Dauphiné races from Evian-les-Bains south over bumpy terrain to finish in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont. All up and down, this stage includes six categorized climbs of the short, steep classics variety. A stage for the breakaway riders, then, this sprinters won’t find much to love about the final climb which summits with 6 kilometers to race. The Côte de Miribelle-les-Echelles rises 3 kilometers at an average gradient of 6%, and provides a nice launch pad for a stage-winning attack.
Cat Calls! Stage 1: Evian-les-Bains! Let’s hit the bathtub. Run in circles, Drink the drain water. Bat the Bic shaver. Sniff the soap. Lie very still and flat. This stage will suit all but the heavy and uncoordinated.
Daisy, who is slightly more focused, says: The current U23 world champion, and former winner of the Tour de l’Avenir Romain Sicard could show his stuff here. This stage will also indicate the form of oldies Horner and Danielson. In the twilight of his racing career, Horner has been riding well all year, and this would be a nice stage race to add to his palmarès. However, smiley Chris might have some inner team competition from Janez Brajkovic. Inner team competition being modis operandi of Johan Bruny and his favored form of motivation. He remains the Champion director of pitting teammates against each other.
Stage 2: Annonay - Boug-Saint-Andéol Still traveling south, this stage runs between Annonay and Bourg-Saint-Andeol, passing just outside the city of Valence. Six categorized climbs decorate the profile this time, though the final climb comes well ahead of the finish. The category 2 Col de Benas summits with around 50 kilometers to go. The race should come back together by the finish, and this stage offers the sprinters their only chance to practice their craft. The Col de Benas is never especially steep with an average gradient of 4.8%. Totally doable for a sprinter on decent form,and really, anyone who can’t make it over that thing has no business racing the Tour come July.
Cat Calls! Stage 2: Floor-Ladder-Frack-Bed: No très,très black chat has any business in the Cat Chat unless he can climb a frack bunk bed, Ikea’s finest. I will always do well at this stage. Some large fluffy beige cats will not. But we won’t mention names. Ce n’est pas génial!
Little French Samuel Dumoulin could sneak into a break and steal a win here. Saxo Bank sprinters JJ Haedo and Baden Cooke might be able to pull off a field sprint if the break is brought back.
Stage 3: Monteux - Sorgues It’s time trial day at the Critérium du Dauphiné. This year’s long crono runs over a 49 kilometer course between Monteux and Sorgues. We’re in the neighborhood of Carpentras not far from the Rhône river. The course climbs gradually for the first ten kilometers. Then comes the category 3 Côte de La Roque-sur-Pernes, which rises 1.9 kilometers at 6.8%. The road continues to climb gradually after the côte summits at kilometer 15.5, which isn’t especially kind, but bike racing is like that sometimes. Around kilometer 20, the descending begins and the course passes through Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. Feed zone! The final 25 kilometers or so are all slightly downhill. The early climb won’t totally rule out the specialist time trialers, and everyone will enjoy the 25 kilometers of false-flat descending, to the extent that it’s possible to enjoy anything while riding a time trial bike.
Cat Calls! Stage 3: Time trials are my forté. I like to go very very fast down a long wide open hallway. This stage runs east-west, or west-east if you turn around which I do often when I pounce on my tail! And I go very very fast when I have to CATCH A BUG. So hoping for good legs and lots of bugs on this stage, or maybe some fluff, or a little bit of string, or even nothing, because sometimes I CHASE NOTHING VERY VERY FAST!
Long TT? Daisy will be looking for Big Bert or David Millar to place high along with Contador who may already be in yellow. Katusha's Goose in his pre-suspension days might have had good ride on this long course so it will be interesting to see what his form is now in 2010. Denis Menchov, meanwhile, will need to have a very good ride so his morale gets a bit of a boost. Menchov dropped out of the Tour of Belgium on the very first stage.
Stage 4: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux - Risoul The Critérium du Dauphiné turns east and heads toward the Hauts-Alpes with this stage between Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux and Risoul. As it heads toward the high mountains, the course steadily gains elevation. Though there is only one categorized climb during this stage, it’s all up and down, and mostly up. The stage finishes with a category 1 climb to Risoul. It’s a 12.8 kilometer grind to the finish. The average gradients weighs in at 7%. That won’t tickle, especially after the previous day’s long time trial. By the time the race reaches Risoul, the general classification battle should start to show itself.
Cat Calls! Stage 4: I like a good tickle so I will not ride this stage. I protest this stage. Alors! I call a nap strike on this day. Drop where you are! Flop down on the ground and strike. We want a tickle!
Contador should be licking his chops along with the other climbers. Look for young guns Romain Sicard and Peter Stetina along with the bald gray panther Chris Horner to enjoy the uphills on this stage. Tom Danielson needs to show himself if he wants to finally make the short list of a Tour team.
Stage 5: Serre-Chevalier - Grenoble. With this stage, the Critérium du Dauphiné pays a visit to the old capital of the Dauphiné region in Grenoble. Serre-Chevalier sits not far from Briançon, and this stage is all about the Alps. The course begins with a jaunt up the Col de Lautaret, followed by a lengthy descent to Bourg-D’Oisans. The opening climb of the day rises 15.5 kilometers at 4% and carries a category 2 rating. Around 40 kilometers of descending follow the summit of the Col de Lautaret. The terrain briefly flattens as the course passes through Bourg-D’Oisans and les Sables. Then, it’s back to descending until the course hits its lowest point at kilometer 86 in Vizilles.
Hors Catégorie. It must be almost time for the Tour de France. The hors catégorie climb to Chamrousse at 1725 meters above sea level offers the final obstacle for this stage. These Alpine climbs are always long and it’s 17.5 kilometers to the summit at Chamrousse. The average gradient holds at 7.5%. Despite the long climb, this stage could still come back together. Just over 30 kilometers separates the summit of the col with the finish in Grenoble. Nothing like a long downhill chase to the line, that’s what I always say.
Cat Calls! Stage 5: Still napping…
Daisy is awake, but she agrees with Levon. Breakaway day. Let the mice play and the big cats rest for L' Alpe.
Levon wakes up. He is impatient. He can’t be bothered to wait for the course description.
Cat Calls! Stage 6: The queen stage. Alors! This is my stage. I have conquered every mountain in my path. First the L:’Alpe du Refrigerator. Alors – Quelle horrors! People you might clean up there! After summitting the Bed du Frack, I set my very wide yellow eyes on the the Roof Du Chez Moi accessible only after a challenging and might I add kinda scary climb along the back deck and very wobbly drain pipe. After this short but tough flat section, now the real climbing begins. A steep 20% uphill while the crowds scream my name: "Levon! Levon!" They bang little opened cans of food to cheer me on. Sometimes the food distracts me from my ascent. The delicate whiff of fish parts of unknown origin diverts my attention from my ultimate goal – Le Roof du Chez Moi. But on I go. A très, très black cat to the very roof of the world!
Stage 6: Crolles - L’Alpe d’Huez The queen stage of this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné starts in Crolles just outside Grenoble and finishes at the summit of the storied Alpe d’Huez. As if the Alpe d’Huez were not enough, the stage also includes Col de Grand Cucheron and the Col de Glandon. Both the Alpe d’Huez and the Glandon carry Hors Catégorie ratings. It’s a day for the climbers, of course, and this stage should decide the general classification.
There are few flat roads on this stage, and the hostilities begin with the category 3 Côte des Fontaines which summits at kilometer 15.5. Nothing to worry about here, the Côte des Fontaines lasts a mere 2.5 kilometers and has an average gradient of 6.2%. The course bumps along until it reaches Détrier and the start of the second climb of the day, the Col de Grand Cucheron. A category 2 climb, the Col de Grand Cucheron is a long one at 18.5 kilometers. The gradients are relatively easy here, and the average is a friendly 4%. The col summits at kilometer 49.5. After descending, there’s a brief respite as the road turns relatively flat in the neighborhood of La Girard. Not for long, as too soon the climbing begins again.
From Saint-Etiennes-Cuines, it’s 19.5 kilometers of climbing to the summit of the Col de Glandon. The col carries a hors catégorie rating. No more Mr. Nice Guy, the Col de Glandon has an average gradient of 7.5%. Now the real climbing begins, and the Critérium du Dauphiné shows its climber-friendly colors. The Col de Glandon summits at kilometer 99. From there, it’s a long, stair-stepping descent to Allemond. A brief flat stretch offers an intermission in the hostilities, but it is short-lived. The climb to the summit of the Alpe d’Huez begins just past kilometer 135.
The famous switch-backed climb up the Alpe d’Huez is one of cycling’s most famous places. Left out of the Tour de France this year, the Alpe provides the finale for the Critérium du Dauphiné, a first for the race. The climbers, they are smiling. The Alpe d’Huez is Hors Catégorie, natch. It summits at 1850 meters above sea level. The hardest gradients come on the initial slopes of the climb and reach 12%. Then, it’s all swoopy switchbacks to the finish. Each of the 21 switchbacks celebrates a stage winner from the Tour de France. The climb is 13.8 kilometers long and averages 7.9%. It’s not the hardest climb in cycling by any means, but the twisting spaghetti bowl switchbacks and the climb’s famous history nearly always make for a hard day of racing. Everyone comes to race on the Alpe d’Huez.
Daisy says: Contador with catnip. Should be a fun stage to watch.
Stage 7: Allevard-les-Bains - Sallanches Beginning in Allevard-les-Bains in Isère, this stage runs north through Albertville and finishes with a circuit in Sallanches. The first 50 kilometers are relatively flat. Just outside Ugine comes the category 2 Côte de Rafforts, which climbs 11.2 kilometers at 5.2%. After descending the Côte de Rafforts, the course climbs gradually, passing through Praz-sur-Arly. Then, it’s a descent to Sallanches. Upon reaching Sallanches, the riders race 5 laps on a short, hilly circuit. The circuit includes the category 3 Côte de Dormancy, which the riders will climb five times before descending to the finish. The profile looks like shark’s teeth and it’s all up and down on this circuit. The Côte de Dormancy is short and steep at 2.4 kilometers and 9.2%. No, that’s not a misprint, it’s 9.2%, and they climb it five times. Yowch. After the hors catégorie adventuring of the previous day, this circuit certainly will not tickle. If the general classification is still close after the high mountain stages, there could be a battle in Sallanches. Most likely, though, it will be a battle for the stage victory rather than the overall classification on this final day of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Cat Calls! Stage 7: I missed this stage. Still sur La Roof du Chez Moi. Someone come get me, please. Help… Meow!
Next up: A look at who’s showing up to race this thingy. And another visit from that pesky cat!
Levon and Daisy live in Berkeley with their human sla...er, companions Erika and Linda. They have been known to travel to bike races to watch the humans do their silly bike tricks. Humans are weird. I last saw Daisy hiding under the bed at a Motel 6. Levan and Daisy also have Twitter accounts, @_levon_ and @daisyness, though Daisy doesn't seem to the twittery sort. Here at the Shack, Milo can't be bothered with bike racing, though he does like the grand tours. Every morning there is a warm lap top to sleep on. Thanks to Levon, Daisy and the Human People for helping out with the Dauphiné hijinx.
Photo Credits: All photos courtesy Getty Images Sport. Contador by Jasper Juin, Sunflowers by Pascal Roindeau, Mountain switchback by Pascal Roindeau, and Alpe d'Huez by Doug Pensinger.
Graphics by Sheri. Thanks Sheri!