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Critérium du Dauphiné Preview

Col du Noyer
Col du Noyer

Take off your pink pajamas, finish eating your panini, and no more prosecco. It's time to starting preparing for the Tour de France.  The eight day Critérium du Dauphiné starts June 5th.   It's a balanced course with a little something for everyone .... assuming they can survive an extremely difficult prologue.  But sprinters and punchers will have their chances, and mountain lovers can drool over the final three Alpine stages, all with uphill finishes.

Will:  Hey Jens, let's get right to it.  Serious Tour de France contenders usually use either the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse as the final major preparation event.  So the standard question:  which race has the stronger field?

Jens: Hang on...... I haven't finished my panini yet. It's got rocket salad and shark meat filling, very chewy...

Is this question ever really much of a question? This year the Velon teams announced a cooperation with the Tour de Suisse to help promote the race and build it commercially. So of course Froome, Contador, Aru, Porte, Van Garderen, Pinot, Rolland, Talansky and Mollema are all at the Dauphiné. But hey, the Tour de Suisse has Sagan and Wilco Kelderman (and I'm almost sure it's Peter and not Juraj but don't quote me on it). Suisse is probably just too hard, too close to the TdF for many riders. How do you solve that conundrum?

Will:  This Dauphiné is not a crazy tough route, but the prologue and those final three mountains stages are no joke.  Which teams do you think are most interested in targeting yellow? And who will come second behind Thibaut Pinot?

Jens: Sky tend to take the Dauphiné seriously don't they? Froome has been less than impressive so far this season and I do think he may want a confidence booster and see that he is near top level in this race. If that means going for the win I dunno, it doesn't really feel like an ideal Froome course so he may just be looking for some positive form markers. Contador on the other hand probably can't help himself but to go for it.

The names I'm most curious about here are Fabio Aru and  Lampre's Louis Meintjes. It really has been a sad start for Meintjes at Lampre and it would be nice to see some signs of life. And Aru getting ready for his TdF debut is an intriguing prospect. I hope he is riding seriously here but you never know.  If recent GT history is anything to go by you shouldn't expect too much of Astana captains before the big shows.

And then I'll make a repeat of my mantra from last race we previewed: I think the BMC boys want to set the pecking order a little. Here I suspect Porte might be the keenest. A big move in a positive direction in the last few years is how serious riders take the Dauphiné. Ten years ago there was basically a sense that if riders did well here then you could write them off as contenders in July. That is very much not the case now. Riders will still not go to lengths that will endanger their preparations for the TdF to win this race but on the whole you can now look at a top 10 from CdD and get some pretty strong hints on how the result in the Tour will look. I don't know what's changed, maybe it's the World Tour, maybe it's a difference in how riders train and prepare for races but the end result is clear.

Let's have a quick glance at each stage:

PROLOGUE (Mountain Stage)

Wow, this is steep, and as usual the official race profile below in no way exaggerates the grade.  Les Gets is a ski station in Haute Savoie, linked with Morzine.  Mont Chéry is above town and covered with ski pistes.  This route is basically a freshly paved ski-lift service road.

Will:  I keep telling you, the French Alps has some steep roads.  I know you never believe me, so as proof, I found some idiot to film cycling up this road.

Jens: Never believe you? I seem to remember slowly and painfully grinding up one of those roads while you were laughing at me and taking pictures. This is why they can't use these steep Alp roads, the natives are so quick to mock visiting riders suffering. In retrospect I'm really glad you get yelled at in that video.

Will:  Fresh from Cannes, a Moo Productions video preview of the Prologue route:

For the tourists:  There is plenty of great road biking in this region.  In fact the Etape du Tour, an exact copy of Stage 20 of the Tour de France, will pass close by - climbing Col de la Ramaz and Col de Joux Plane.

A steep prologue:

STAGE 1 - Sprint

This is a strange stage.  It passes behind my home mountain, leaves the Alps, passes through the Juras, but completely skips any significant climb.  Throughout the stage, if the riders look up, they will see nothing but mountains. But they'll have to wave to Grand Colombier from below.

Will:  Who are the top sprinters and will any of them still be here after that Prologue?

Jens: Here's an idea to make the Prologue even more spectacular. GC riders climb the course and the sprinters descend it but can't count their times for the GC. That way we should get some fun and the sprinters will start the week less cranky.

Will:  At the same time? I like it.

STAGE 2 - mid-mountains, uphill finish.

This stage finishes at the little ski station of Chalmazel in the Loire department.  It should be an attractive stage through lightly developed country-side.

Will:  In recent years the Dauphiné has had a stage identical to a stage that would appear in the Tour.  A smart way to attract top Tour riders and ensure a stronger field than the Tour de Suisse.  Why not this year?

Jens: They usually do it to test and let the riders pre-ride some new stuff but there isn't so much of  that in the Tour this year is there? There is the Finhaut-Emosson of course but the Dauphiné tested that in 2014 already and they may not want to take away the novelty of that by running it twice in a few months?

Will:  What the hell is a puncheur, and which one will one win this stage?

Jens: Apparently Nacer Bouhanni is quite the puncheur, just not the kind we usually associate with cycling? Puncheurs are the snappy attackers who can decide races in sharp punchy attacks in tougher terrain. Mostly we think of the guys who can win the short steep uphill finishes, the Mur deHuy, Cauberg etc. etc. Alexis Vuillermoz from Ag2r is probably a good bet here, there is a decent amount of semi-steep climbing at the end here which should suit him. We're pretty close to their team base here too aren't we?

STAGE 3 - (mid mountains)

Will:   This could be an interesting stage.  That last Category 2 climb could be decisive.  I am predicting it will be too much for the sprinters.  I have also heard that Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid can be cold.

Jens: Froid is cold? I thought it was named after that psychoanalysis guy? That's why I hesitated to say the race profile looks like Jayne Mansfield laying down, I was worried someone would draw conclusions about my mental state from that. 

Will:  The profile does look like Jayne Mansfield!  Nice.  But stop confusing all our readers under age 80:   

Jens: That finale does look like a setup for good racing. As you say, hard to see sprinters getting over that at the front, it has a wicked steep bit in the middle. Could be a very interesting attack vs. chase on and after that climb with the outcome maybe depending on how complicated the bit after the climb is.

For the Tourists:  The finish towns for each of stage 2 (St Vulbas), stage 3 (Tournon-sur-Rhône) and stage 4 (Belley) are on the Via Rhône. an 815 kilometre bike route from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea.  Much of the route (still being improved) has dedicated green ways (bike-only) sections - including very good sections passing through the final 2 towns.  Official site here.

STAGE 4 - (Sprint)

Luckily the finish is not too far from Chambéry airport / train station.   Because the sprinters can head home at the end of the day.

Will:  I am boycotting this stage.  Belley is the historic capital of the Bugey region of l'Ain - believe it or not, mountain country.  But like stage 1, Jura mountains everywhere, except on the route.  Boo!  On the bright side, citizens of Belley are called Les Belleysans (guys) and Les Belleysanes (gals).  Nice.

Jens: Isn't that just typical. We knew when we took on a writer living in France that he would go on General Strike at any given, inopportune time. 
Sprint stages here and in Suisse are always a bit of a sideshow aren't they? Most teams are so focused on the GC riders here that if one or two teams (read "Cofidis") actually bring a team to win sprints they can run the table. Not that there's that much on the table.

Beside Cofidis you have Giant and Trek-Segafredo coming with some interesting names for the any sprinting that will occur. Both have sprinters who can handle a bit of terrain too so they may not do too badly. It would be good to see some positive signs on the recovery of John Degenkolb even if I doubt he will be a winner on these parcourses. As for Trek they have both Bonifazio and Theuns who are always fun to watch. If they could be a little more cohesive too they may get more wins. Trek always seem the team that places 2-3 individually sprinting riders in the top 10 but rarely one supported lead-sprinter on the top step of the podium. Then again, practicing sprint trains has never really been the pedigree of this team.

STAGE 5 - (Mountains)

Now we're talking. Six small but categorized climbs in the first 80 kilometers of this stage as the race heads south. The climbs are in the foothills of the high Belledonne Alps (think Chamrousse).  After passing near Grenoble, the route will head deeper into the Alps on the road that leads to Alpe d'Huez.  But just short of Bourg d'Oisans they'll turns briefly onto the road to Col de la Croix de Fer before a short but often very steep climb to Vaujanay ski station.

Will: I am just glad the bastards won't climb Alpe d'Huez.

Jens: This was a bit of a fun twist, a less used bit of road right in the middle of the most used area of the Alps. I say the good people (and hotel managers and lift operators) of Vaujany deserve a nice stage finish. especially since they probably paid for it. That long bit between the penultimate and last climb looks like it might make the race all about the last 6 kms though.

Will: Yes, before Vaujanay climb it's 420 metres of uphill over 27 kilometres, 1.5% - basically the definition of false flat.

For the tourists:  The paved road goes much higher than Vaujany - all the way to Col du Sabot.  At 2100 meters, it's higher, harder, and much quieter than its neighbour ...  Alpe d'Huez.

STAGE 6 - (Mountains)

Easily the most difficult stage of the race.  It's a sneaky tough start up the superb wooded hairpins of Col de Champ-Laurent and into the Maurienne valley via Col du Grand Cucheron.  Next is Col de la Madeleine, one of the true giant climbs in France - and easily the biggest challenge in this Dauphiné.  The final climb to Méribel is a bit blah, but does feature a very steep final few hundred meters.

Will:  If I was going to watch a stage of this race.  I'd pick the top of Madeleine.  Great views, and fun to cycle before hand.  This is a tough stage.  Perhaps we'll see which teams are strong enough to get over Madeleine and still have numbers enough to support their GC rider.

Jens: At some point we need clarification on why some climbs are "Montée" and not "Cote"? I thought they were only montées when they were named after Laurent Jalabert but apparently not.

Will:  Hmmm, good question.  I'd see Montée as a real climb just not a Col, and Côte as a long uphill stretch in a hilly region. But, admittedly, I have no idea.

Jens: You would guess the pure Watt- guys (Hello Sky-train!)  would want to take as much time as possible on this more traditional stage with a predictable uphill finish? The next stage seems as tough in the finale but also a lot more complicated and less controllable.

For the Tourists:  Méribel is a major ski station in the huge Trois-Vallées ski domaine.  But along with Courchevel it's mediocre cycling on highly developed ski station roads.  The best climb here is through the third valley, up to Val Thorens, the highest ski station in Europe.  +38 kms to 2400 meters.

Hopefully they'll paint over the anti-gay marriage graffiti on the last kilometer of Col de la Madeleine (photo 11/15).

STAGE 7 - (Mountains)

A scenic, mountainous stage in the Hautes-Alpes.  Here's a handy bit of knowledge:  every time you see "Super" at the start of a french town, it is a ski station (Superbagnères, Super Sauze, etc).

Will:  One could argue this is a mini version of the recent very exciting Giro Stage 20:  Some big mountains, a short, hair-raising, descent, then two or three challenging kilometers uphill to the finish.  The final big climb - Col du Noyer - is very cool, with one of the best looking final kilometers I know. This should be fun.

Jens: So basically you are saying Romain Bardet has this win sewn up already? Because to me it looks a lot like last year's Pra Loup stage except now without the wolf. If it's one thing I've learned from the Giro it's that you don't bring a wolf to a French mountain party. Well that and you shouldn't ride into an ice wall when you are about to win a Grand Tour. If it's two things I've learned from the Giro it's that.

For the Tourists:  The Hautes-Alpes department has 2 week-long series of Cols Réservés (closed roads, bikes only) this summer.  The drool-worthy list of climbs includes Noyer, not to mention, Agnel, Risoul, and Izoard.  See here.

Col du Noyer is beautiful:

FSA DS - Who Are You Sending?

Will:  My boys, Team Moo, took a break for the Giro.  But for the Dauphiné, we're looking to sweep the podium.  My top stars include Coppel, Pinot, Bardet, and Rolland.  Allez les gars!

Jens: Looks like I'll be relying on Bardet to do something really magical here unless Arthur Vichot feels the urge to actually contribute something besides having the same hairstyle as Fausto Coppi. Because the last time I checked there were no FSA DS points for that. Also if Michael Valgren broke ranks and rode for himself that would be welcome too but he is much too nice and polite for that. Bloody Danes.