Last year I started the convo about what was the fourth best stage race in the world, ceding the top three spots to the Grand Tours (for now -- I see you hiding back there, Vuelta). The outcome of my analysis was the Tour de Suisse, whereas popular opinion favored Paris-Nice. Well, being able to dictate public opinion is what keeps me going, so I will now redefine the query to exclude Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, and ask: what's the best pre-Tour stage race? The contenders:
In the corner to the south, wearing yellow tops with cute little dolphins on the sleeve, it's... the Criterium du Dauphiné!
Newly purchased by ASO and freed from the "Libere" surname (former owner, local newsrag), the CDD has been around since France got stitched back together in the late 40s. Known for imitating the Tour's key stages, and for brutally crushing its former competitor the Midi-Libre, the CDD has a rich, leg-breaking legacy to uphold.
In the corner to the east, wearing red trunks with a white cross and a watch that costs more than your house, it's... the Tour de Suisse!
The grand-daddy of Tour warmups (if you don't contemplate the fact that they used to run the Giro in June), the Tour de Suisse dates back to the 1930s and is the standard-bearing race for one of the sport's most important B-list nations. The air of dignity at this race is unmistakeable. And nobody, but nobody, puts their route on-line sooner.
And in the corner WAAAAY out to the west, wearing an impish grin and a cowboy hat, it's... the Amgen Tour of California!
Americans are good at overwhelming history with things like money and natural resources, and it's no secret that the ATOC has both: a surfeit of sponsors in California, plus a dazzling array of beautiful roads, mountains and podium gals who hone their tans year-round. Planning to do to May what they did to February: treating it like another speedbump on the way to the top!
This might get ugly... on the flip!1. Startlists
CDD: Oh, it's on. Obviously not everyone empties the legs in pursuit of CDD glory, but they do tend to open the accounts. This year's startlist begins with Alberto Contador, Denis Menchov, Sammy Sanchez, and the long-awaited showdown between Kevin Seeldraeyers and Jurgen Van de Broeck. Hm, not killer, but last year's GC read like a reshuffled version of the final Tour standings. Regardless, it's prestigious enough for riders just off the Tour top ten to chase victory here, so that should keep the pace high.
TdS: Ditto. Only more so. Teams bringing their full game to the TdS: The Shack, Saxo Bank, Liquigas, HTC, BMC, Garmin, Milram, and arguably Katusha and Sky. Teams bringing the full gas to the Dauphine: Astana, Euskaltel and the French teams. Suisse boys stepping on ASO's dog here. Being closest to the Tour doesn't hurt.
ATOC: Typical Americans, playing a totally different game (since they can't win the original one). By giving riders a major test far enough ahead of the other races, the ATOC doesn't actually make you choose it over the other entries here. Go with us and you can do not one hard test, but two! Saxo, HTC, BMC and the Shack are basically choosing Cali and Suisse. A handful of riders from Cali are doing the Dauphine, although it's easy to see Cali and Suisse -- comfortably spaced apart -- joining forces to snuff out the Dauphine. Everyone loves ASO, right? Maybe this is why ASO bought into Cali, to infiltrate the plan before it happened. Anyway, it's a clever plan.
Results? 1. Suisse; 2. Dauphine; 3. Cali.
CDD: Oh, you want to get in some climbing? How about frickin Alpe d'Huez? Or maybe Mont Ventoux? Or maybe you'd like an Alpe d'Huez to Mont Ventoux stage? OK, that last one hasn't happened (yet), but you get the point. The only downside is that mountains like these, not everyone wants to see them more than once a year. For more on the course, see Gavia's preview.
TdS: Not called the rooftop of the (western) world for nothing. The list of people who have considered Switzerland's mountains too formidable includes... Hitler! Yeah, I went there. Oh, and as for the French Alps, you can get through those on elephants. The TdS shamefully suppressed the climbyness of the race last year, the proverbial thumb on the scale in favor of home hero Fabian Cancellara, who obligingly won the race. But it's back to reality this time around, including stage 6 featuring three separate forays above 2000 meters and a good 6000 meters of total climbing (not a typ0).
ATOC: [gazing at navel]
Results? 1. CDD; 2. TdS; 3. ATOC
3. Time Trials
CDD: A prologue plus a 49km game-changer, including some climbing in the early going. Nice, stern test for the Tour GC guys. The only question is whether it takes the starch out of the big climbs.
TdS: WTF? A 27km crono at the end, plus the opening 7km? For the country that brought us watches and Fabian Cancellara? Frankly it wouldn't shock me if they did an edition where they ran eight consecutive time trials. This? Don't understand. OK, I do sort of -- they are keeping the crono length in proportion to the race itself, so that the outcome will still be decided on the ascents. Also, it's not quite July, so maybe a 27km crono is all people want. Meh.
ATOC: Definitely checking in with the glitziest entry, a 33km jaunt around LA. At rush hour that would take some 7 hours, but with the streets closed Tony Martin was able to get finished in just over 41 minutes. Like the TdS, expect the ATOC to keep the time trial in perspective of the overall race, not going hog-wild and throwing off all pretense of being important outside the Tour, like the Dauphine. Points deducted for not including actual air.
Results? 1. CDD; 2. ATOC; 3. TdS
4. Honor Roll
CDD: The Great Ones have mostly won here, guys like Armstrong, Indurain, LeMond, Merckx, Hinault, Anquetil. So too have some of the great climbers who didn't make the cut at the Tour, like Ocana, Poulidor, Herrera, Millar, Mottet. Most recent winners do not include the Tour podium guys, crowded out by the near-miss crowd (Valverde, Leipheimer, Vino, etc.). Still, perfectly respectable.
TdS: More of an alternative honor roll, featuring more Swiss (duh), Germans and Italians, as well as Sean Kelly, Hennie Kuiper, Roger de Vlaeminck, and Andy Hampsten (twice). Definitely tops the Dauphiné in recent winner charisma, with Kreuziger, Cancellara, and Jan Ullrich's last professional bike race/victory. It's also the only race on the list that Levi hasn't conquered (yet).
ATOC: Nice to see someone break the American stranglehold. I usually root for our boys but if you're going to raise the race's profile you need to give the outsiders a reason to keep coming back. Floyd Landis is the only winner besides Levi and Mick Rogers. Not sure what to make of that, really. Small sample size?
Results? 1. CDD; 2. TdS; 3. ATOC.
CDD: Since this is a made-up category intended to screw over the Dauphiné, let's just say that whatever is meant by intangibles isn't found here. It's a Tour warm-up, no pretense, no ulterior motive.
TdS: Unlike spoiled French fans who can ignore the Dauphiné and keep sipping their excellent coffees for another month til the real peloton rolls by, Suisse fans are out in force for their national race. For nine days it's all love, pocket knives and killer chocolate from peak to valley. Also, I don't know this, but I could swear every team hunting for a sponsor comes out in force for the TdS (I'm looking at your shiny pate, Bjarne).
ATOC: To hell with musty, stodgy Old Europe traditions, cycling in the McQuaid Era is all about embracing the New, and the ATOC is 100% new cycling to its core. New places to ride, new sponsors in the sport, new teams, new fans who don't remember anything before 2003. This race has the vibrancy of a young 20-something just about to discover (and probably fritter away) his physical peak. The possibilities are endless... and lack of experience makes it easy to forget the downside of that statement.
Results? 1. ATOC; 2. TdS; 3. CDD
And the final ranking... with commentary:
The course is just a little better. Totally vulnerable on the atmosphere and intangibles though, and it shows in the startlists. So if the TdS can just lengthen the cronos a bit and keep using Cali to form a Dauphiné sandwich, there's room for change at the top.
2. Tour de Suisse
I Just freaking love this race. Following the cameras across Switzerland is like being let into an exclusive country club -- it's nicer than you expected from the outside, and you should feel lucky to be there. Now, kids' books can be misleading, not every inch of the place is a spectacular Alpine slope, and in their efforts to make a national race the TdS people let the race lie low more than the rabid fan would prefer. But it wouldn't take much to complete a hostile takeover.
3. Tour of California
Growing up fast. I wonder if they can find a way to host real mountain stages, with high alpine finishes. I'm sure this has been debated already so I'll pass here, but so far the race's choices have been spot-on every time. Ideally the old guard (Levi, Zabriskie, etc) will someday give way to a more diverse array of international challengers and not be captured by the home team -- as I said above, this is all in the interest of growing beyond "new kid" status into a serious American Tour. For now, I like that the organizers have been bold, but deliberate.