The Critérium du Dauphiné offers us a Tour de France in miniature. There is a short prologue, a long time trial, and two days in the high mountains of France. The queen stage includes two hors catégorie climbs, the Col de Glandon and the fabled Alpe d’Huez. It’s tempting to call this Dauphiné a climber’s party, but the 49 kilometer time trial puts paid to that notion. This race demands a balanced rider, a stage race talent who can survive the high mountains and ride hard against the clock. Always, the Tour de France looms over this race, as the riders focused on wearing Yellow in July balance their efforts over their long-term ambitions. This dynamic can make for unpredictable racing here at the Dauphiné.
Below the fold, some riders to watch: a few favorites, several wildcards, a young rider shout-out or two, and gaggle of stage-hunters. Yes, stage-hunters travel in gaggles. Because I said so.
Looking at the start-list, one name stands out more prominently than any other. Alberto Contador has twice won the Tour de France. He also won the Giro d’Italia. The Spanish rider is likely the world’s top stage-racer, and he can climb and time trial with the best. There’s no reason to think that he couldn’t win this Critérium du Dauphiné, except last year, he didn’t. Instead, Contador lolly-gagged around the June race, a mostly passive player. Alejandro Valverde profited from Contador’s decision to hold his fire until the big show in July. Of course, Valverde is gone from racing (at last). Maybe this year, Contador will race the Critérium du Dauphiné with more ambition. Certainly, the race is made to order for his talents.
If Contador decides to take it easy again this year, several riders stand ready to benefit. Samuel Sánchez might play the role of the absent Valverde. The Spanish riders, they like to stick together. Sánchez is something of a mysto rider, he chooses his results carefully. He only wins once in a while, but it’s usually a good one. Last year, Sánchez finished on the podium at the Vuelta a España and decided that he would focus this season entirely on the Tour de France. That plan may preclude a great showing at the Critérium du Dauphiné, though Sánchez does have the right combination of talents. He will also enjoy the descent from Chamrousse. Descending is fun.
Over at RadioShack, Haimar Zubeldia shares the somewhat cryptic record of Samuel Sánchez. Zubeldia has placed in the top ten at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, but not recently. A quiet rider, Zubeldia once topped the list of future Tour winners, but has never really lived up to the original hype. If he’s on, Zubeldia could win this race. He shares leadership at RadioShack with Janez Brajkovic. Best known for his climbing talents, the rail thin Brajkovic is no slouch against the watch. If they work together, Brajkovic and Zubeldia could make a solid team assault on this race. Either one could use a result like this one.
Denis Menchov won last year’s Giro d’Italia by surviving the mountains and crushing the wee Italians in the time trials. Menchov’s exuberant celebration in Rome offered a surprising contrast to his usual composure. The strong, silent type, this Menchov, he has suffered a sub-stellar season so far. Last week, Menchov started the Tour of Belgium, and dropped out just after the start of the first stage. Maybe he just doesn’t like Belgium. Still, the quiet Russian has claimed the Tour de France as his main objective of the year, and he declined to defend his title in Italy. Maybe he just doesn’t like the Dolomiti. Menchov has the right combo of skills to win this Critérium du Dauphiné, but I admit to skepticism that he will have winning form quite so soon. When did he last race? I really can’t remember.
Do I dare even mention Tom Danielson in a race preview? Danielson is riding this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné. I don’t dare say more. Garmin-Transitions also brings young talent Trent Lowe. Lowe came from mountain biking and his climbing talent has prompted comparisons to Cadel Evans. Injury and illness have slowed his progress over the past seasons. Maybe this year, things will go better for him. By all accounts, he should shine in the high mountains, and a short stage race like this Dauphiné, which does make the same demands for recovery as the grand tours, might offer him a chance for a result. David Millar is along to chase victory in the prologue and long time trial, and anywhere else he sees an opportunity. Also, a shout out to young rider Peter Stetina, who will ride his first Dauphiné this year.
On the subject of climbers, yes, we were talking about climbers, Jurgen Van den Broeck will lead Lotto here at the Dauphiné. Van den Broeck has the legs for the high mountains, but is mostly unproven in the long cronos. I’d expect to see him place well in the overall classification, but to win is a reach. Likewise for Juan José Cobo Acebo, who leads Caisse d’Epargne in the absence of both Alejandro Valverde and Luís Léon Sánchez. Really, I thought Sánchez was riding this race, but I seem to have dreamed it. Cobo’s climbing legs should put him high in the overall standings, but he hasn’t much love for the crono.
Also, in the wildcard climbers category, we should not overlook Kanstantsin Siutsou of HTC-Columbia. Siutsou is another rider who mostly lacks the time trial skills to win this race, but thanks to his climbing should be able to ride to a good result. On the subject of HTC-Columbia, shout-out to young rider Tejay van Garderen, who like Peter Stetina is racing his first Dauphiné this year. Is it wrong to say the Rèmi Di Gregorio is France’s answer to Tom Danielson? Probably, but it’s oh-so-tempting. Di Gregorio was widely touted as the next great French climber, but the results simply haven’t come and Français des Jeux left him off last year’s Tour de France squad. L’ouch. There’s still time, and a result in the mountains at this Critérium du Dauphiné would go far toward putting Di Gregorio back on track. If Contador decides to take it easy, Paolo Tiralongo might have a shot at stage victory. Sylwester Szmyd: Last year, the Mont Ventoux, this year, the Alpe d’Huez? Collect them all.
Is Edvald Boasson Hagen a stage racer? It appears we are going to find out. Boasson Hagen leads Team Sky for this Critérium du Dauphiné. He should rock the prologue and the long crono. Can he ride the high mountains against climbers like Contador and Sánchez? Really, I have no idea. That’s why I watch the bike race, silly. This race offers Boasson Hagen a big chance to show what he can do. Come July, he will race in support of team leader Bradley Wiggins, as the British rider attempts to better last year’s fourth place finish in Paris. Edvald Boasson Hagen, this rider intrigues me. I’m looking forward to his ride here.
A few talented young riders to watch. I’ve already mentioned Peter Stetina and Tejay van Garderen, the young Americans who are making their Dauphiné débuts. First year professional Romain Sicard will race alongside Samuel Sánchez at Euskaldi-Euskaltel. Sicard is the current U23 World Champion, and a stellar all-around talent. It’s probably too soon to ask for big results just yet in the professional ranks, but certainly, Sicard bears watching. Jerome Coppel in his second year as a professional also rode well as an U23, though not on the level of Sicard. Coppel has developed slowly in the pro ranks, and awaits his first big result.
Though the sprint stages are a bit sparse in this race, Daniele Bennati will ride for Liquigas, assuming of course that he doesn’t trip in the bath or suffer some other freak accident. Juan José Haedo, Jacopo Guarnieri, Gert Steegmans, and Paul Martens are also chasing sprints. The Dauphiné tends not to draw huge sprint fields, since the race has a rather mountainous profile for the big riders.
Stage hunters? Pierrick Fédrigo, Stef Clement, Lars Bak, Dominique Rollin... and well, a whole lot of other guys who aren’t specifically climbers or sprinters or general classification riders. These all-arounders, they love the breakaways. The terrain should offer the escapists a chance to party, especially as the race is not especially deep with sprinters.
Want more? Head over to the official Critérium du Dauphiné website. It’s fun for the whole family!
Photo credits: Alberto Contador and Denis Menchov by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport. Tom Danielson by Zoe Rochelle, Podium Cafe Photo Pool. Edvald Boasson Hagen by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport. Gratuitous Daniele Bennati Photo by Mark Blacknell.