Route du Sud - la Depeche du Midi. Okay, it's a cool name, but in case you're not familiar with the race - and to be fair it isn't given exhaustive coverage - it's a short stage race in the Midi-Pyrénées, started in 1977. This is its 39th edition and it has a not-unimpressive list of winners, headed by Stephen Roche, Laurent Jalabert, Francesco Moser, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle (three times) and Nairo Quintana, who's back this year. Last year there were three stages, with one summit finish to Val Louron, and Nicolas Roche won solo, becoming the second Roche to win it, 29 years after his father, which presents a certain nice symmetry. However, Roche was pretty typical of the kind of rider who has won this race in recent years. No one with their "eyes on the prize" - The Tour de France. Yes, Valverde was there last year, but this changes all that. Contador and Quintana have not ridden the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse, but are riding this instead. Leaving out Contador, with his calm May ride in Italy, if Quintana wins the Tour, will the Route du Sud become a common race for Tour contenders? Certainly, Quintana has avoided the fatigue that will have come to Froome, with 8 hard days racing in the Dauphiné. An interesting thought. The race is not a big one though. Only five World Tour teams are attending, along with five more outfits which are only Continental. It's only a UCI 2.1 event, technically no bigger than the Rás (and I do apologise about all the Irish stuff in this) in Ireland or even races you mightn't have heard of.
Anyway, of those five World Tour teams, Cannondale-Garmin, Movistar, Tinkoff-Saxo, FDJ and AG2R, a fairly impressive startlist has been cobbled together, including of course, Quintana and Contador, but also Ryder Hesjedal, a Grand Tour winner, David Arroyo and Michael Rogers. They'll be facing three flat stages and one mountain day over the four-day race.
Stage 1: Lourdes - Auch (204k)
Two climbs and a slightly rising finish do not an important stage make, despite the y-axis, which is notable in its absence. It does look like an uphill sprint, if only slightly. The profiles for this race aren't always reliable either, but either way, a real favourite for this would by French sprinter Bryan Coquard. He seems to have spent this year improving his climbing and not being as fast as he was in last year's Tour, almost winning the final stage of the Volta a Catalunya, but what points out his ability for stages like this is his performance, against a far superior field on stage five of Paris-Nice, finishing second to only Davide Cimolai on a stage that looks similar, beating such riders as Michael Matthews. Eighth on that day was the Briton Daniel McLay. The young rider won a stage of the Tour de L'Avenir last year, along with stages of the Tour de Normandie and a stage of the Tropicale Amissa Bongo this year. Bretagne-Seche Environnement were not invited to the Criterium du Dauphiné, and this is the last chance, bar nationals for riders to impress for the Tour, so expect to see Bretagne-Seche riders everywhere here.
Stage 2: Auch - Saint-Gaudens (141km)
Another flat stage with two cat. 3 climbs and a riding finish. I'm tempted to copy and paste what I wrote for stage one. Coquard's equally suited to this one, and with the lack of sprinters here, he's probably the fastest man here. Don't discount Lorrenzo Manzin, the guy who caused that big crash in the Tour Down Under. Or maybe the break, with weak teams and a hard mountain stage the following day.
Stage 3: Izouart - Bagneres-de-Luchon (181km)
Only important stage, three big climbs, three times going over 1500 metres, but one big valley, so only one of those climbs is going to matter. The Port de Balés is a fearsome climb, 20 kilometres long, shallow at the bottom, but the last twelve kilometres are steep, and it's followed by a tricky descent to the finish. There are only three people who truly have the calibre to win a stage with as much climbing as this on the startlist. The first is Ryder Hesjedal. He grew stronger as the Giro grew older, and is riding this race after not competing in the Dauphiné ahead of the Tour. He's a good descender, but I don't think he'll be able to quite climb with Contador and Quintana. Of course, Alberto Contador is another. He, of course, won the Giro, without expending too much unnecessary energy attacking and after Froome won the Dauphiné may want to put down his own marker. However, I think it unlikely that he'll be on such form now, when it still may be on a downward slope. This only leaves Nairo Quintana, who's my pick to win. He's been quiet so far this year, at least after winning Tirreno-Adriatico, but has just come back from training in Colombia and might be looking for some racing (and winning) in his legs. He hasn't raced since Romandie, and hasn't won since Monte Terminillo in Tirreno, and his only concern could be rustiness, but our favourite Colombian
75 65 55 45 35 25-year-old is in a good place to win this. Rigoberto Úran knows how well he can descend, and he will be far less worried about fatigue than Contador and Hesjedal.
Stage 4: Revel - Gaillac (166 km)
This is the fourth day of the race, and I find myself wondering why they bothered. They only had three last years, and for some unknown reason have three flat stages. All of that would be okay if loads of sprinters were here, but there aren't any. They're all al the Tour de Suisse or the ZLM Toer, like they always are. Coquard, Manzin, or Romain Feillu, unless an outsider like Michael Carbel can sneak in. The final stage last year was won by a time-triallist breaking away towards the end.
As I've said above, the GC will wholly be decided by that mountain stage. which I think Quintana will win, so he's my pick.
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)