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Criterium International: Call It a Minor Classic?

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Tomorrow starts Criterium International, the storied French weekend omnium, full of all-too-familiar names

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Criterium International is easily one of the weirdest events on the calendar. Historically it was a race with as glittering an honor role as Le Tour itself, at least since 1979 when foreign participation was first allowed. Even the French names prior to the introduction of outsiders were the best of the best. Such an honor roll suggests great importance for the race, and it was treated as such over the years.

To US fans, it's a race we've been force-fed since the Lance years, as HWMNBN used it in his spring program regularly, giving Phil and Paul something to talk about before June. And it's right about then that the race began to grow stale (causation?). In the mid-2000s it morphed into the Jens Voigt Invitational Open, was exiled from the Ardennes to Corsica, and continued to limp along, albeit with a raft of ASO money that ensures its stability for a while longer. The race airs tomorrow in the US on NBC Sports, home of Phil and Paul, and whose website features a main story on... you guessed it... Lance Armstrong.

Still, while its reputation gathers cobwebs in the States, the race itself is doing fine down by the sea, thank you very much. Corsica is a pretty nice place for a race, as the Tour discovered two years ago. Sunshine and seascapes, viewed from the slopes of challenging climbs, are just about everything you want in a bike race that's not trying to be a northern classic. The organizers have hit upon a formula that guarantees lots of selectivity but in small enough gaps as to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The Col de l'Ospedale pretty much decides the race on the third and final stage, following a rolling sprinter-friendly affair and a prologue-length time trial, both on Saturday, to shake up the GC. In that sense, while there is some business happening tomorrow, it's really Sunday that serves as a classic of sorts, one day to decide the championship of a pretty prestigious and regularly-run event.

Map:

Criterium International stage 3 map

Climbs:

Km 56.5 - Côte de Roccapina, 2.8 kilometre-long climb at 3.8%

Km 67.0 - Côte d'Orasi, 4.4 kilometre-long climb at 5%

Km 86.0 - Côte de Granace, 2.7 kilometre-long climb at 3.1%

Km 102.0 - Col de Sainte-Lucie-de-Tallano, 10.2 kilometre-long climb at 6%

Km 121.5 - Col de Bacinu, 10 kilometre-long climb at 4.5%

Km 146.5 - Côte de Ceccia, 2.1 kilometre-long climb at 6.1%

And the main course:

Criterium International climb profile

Like I said, it's the same every year, and the final climb tends to produce gaps in, oh, 45 seconds to a minute among the top ten, depending on whether we're taking time from, say, Chris Froome (2013 winner) or JC Peraud (2014 winner).

For some reason, however, the startlist has suddenly fallen precipitously, It's been part of the UCI Europe Tour for years, and has run up against the Volta a Catalunya/Coppi e Bartali/E3-GW gauntlet as well. My guess is that the teams have evolved in their view of World Tour points, which they can score in Belgium and Spain, not in Corsica, so the Froomes and Evanses wouldn't prefer an island getaway over the more valuable results elsewhere. [Though frankly Froome would be better off at Crit-Int than the Volta right now.]

Anyway, the favorites on the Col de l'Ospedale include the 37-year-old defending champ Peraud, vets like Linus Gerdemann, 2014 Queen Stage-winner Mathias Frank, Remy Di Gregorio, Frank Schleck, Janez Brajkovic, and maybe someone like Thibaut Pinot or Alexis Vuillermoz, who could inject a little younger life into the race. Of course, Peraud was on historic form last year, which he kept all the way to the second step of the podium at Le Tour. If Criterium International can keep producing surprise Tour challengers, it'll be a race to watch, and ride, for the foreseeable future.

OK, who ya got?