Arrivederci Italia, salut France. This Sunday the 8-day Critérium du Dauphiné begins. It's a fun course this year, with several scenic, not-too-crazy stages, a time-trial, then finally three huge mountain days featuring a new take on Alpe d'Huez, and two monster climbs that you may not know that well.
It's a star-studded field full of Tour de France contenders and pretenders: Chris Froome will defend his 2016 title against such rivals as Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Dan Martin, Richie Porte, Esteban Chaves, Fabio Aru, and Will's pick to win it all: Romain Bardet.
The Critérium du Dauphiné has run since 1947. It was created by the Grenoble-based newspaper the Dauphine-Libéré. But in 2010 the newspaper ended all involvement with the race - hence the name change. There hasn't been a French champion since 2001 (Christophe Moreau) with the last 6 winners having English or near-English as their first language (Froome '16,'15, '13, Talansky '14, and Wiggins '12, '11).
Did you know: The Dauphiné is a former province in south-east France whose area roughly corresponded to that of the present departments of Isère, Drôme, and Hautes-Alpes. It was a sort of independent principality until 1349 when the indebted Dauphin Humbert II sold his land to the King of France, Charles the V. Here began the tradition where the King of France would cede control of the Dauphiné region to his heir apparent.
Will: Most Tour de France contenders use either the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse as their final serious preparation race. So the standard question: Which race has the strongest field? More importantly, is there any heir apparent to Froome?
Jens: Often times these two are pretty evenly balanced, some riders and teams prefer to send their TdF captains to different races for whatever reason, usually based on how they feel it fits in their preparation plan. This year it is very simple: if you aren't riding the Dauphiné you're a bum. There is basically not a single real contender for the TdF in Switzerland if the current start lists are accurate. Dauphiné is for the GC bigs while the bigger name sprinters and classics guys/stage hunters go to Suisse.
As for heirs apparent I thought we all agreed we just saw him in Italy, no? If we are talking about heirs on Sky this might be a good temperature meter on Michal Kwiatkowski. If he is indeed to become a stage racer then logic would dictate that he should be showing us something here and/or in the Tour. If not then we can probably throw that plan on history's scrapheap.
Let's have a quick look at each stage:
Prologue - Flat
6.6 Flat Kilometres
Will: I for one won't miss having a prologue. They are usually a bit dull (although in 2016, it was a super steep, mountain time-trial prologue; Mont Chéry). This looks like a very fun profile. Looks too tough for the sprinters?
Jens: Yeah, as hard as Côte de Rochetaillée is to spell, it's going to be even harder for any sprinters to survive three times in the finale. Instead, this looks like a great setup for lots of riders who are willing to gamble a little in return for a leaders jersey. Should be a fireworks start to the week.
Will: On paper, this looks like the best stage before the three final mountain stages.
Stage 2 - Mid-Mountains
Those three middle climbs look suspiciously like one big climb.
Did you know: This stage is in the remote Massif Central. Parts of the region have long suffered from negative population growth, particularly the most rural regions. The population of Arlanc, the stage finish town, has halved from 3,700 in 1882 to 1,920 at the last census.
Will: Jens, you are famous for predicting stage winners. Will this stage see a break-away winner after the climbs, or will the sprinters get a chance?
Jens: Well, as heavy as the startlist is on GC guys it is not totally without sprinters. So between whoever managed to grab the lead on stage one and the teams with sprinters like Bouhanni, Kristoff, Démare and Coquard they should be able to hold this together for a bunch sprint. But it looks like anything but an easy cruise to that point.
Stage 3 - Sprint
Remember smaller races usually use an easier climb categorization system than the Grand Tours. This looks fairly flat.
Jens: I'm especially impressed with that last Cat 4 which seems to be at the bottom of a downhill. Now that is the kind of categorized climb I can support. (it's actually 1,4 km at 5.8%but nvm). No ifs or buts here, this is one for the fast guys of course, France has too many good ones at the moment to completely ignore them.
Will: I am guaranteeing a Démare victory.
Jens: Good man. Guaranteeing wins has always worked out great for me.
Stage 4 - Time Trial
Just north of the Vercors massif, this stage is low and flat.
Will: I know, how exciting that the Giro was decided with a Time Trial. But I'm going cycling instead of watching this stage.
Jens: I love how the Dauphiné almost reflexively sets itself up as a preparation race for Tour guys. The "long" TT in the TdF is 22.5 flat kms, this stage is 23.5 flat kms. Just completely by accident. And just as in the Tour it feels like the impact of the TT will be minimal unless a whole bunch of favorites suddenly get all PolkaRasmussen and start diving into every ditch they can find along the road. And we're not that lucky.
Also, Tony Martin is racing the Dauphiné so i think we can stop the discussion about possible winners right there. As far as I know he hasn't had to amputate any legs so he should have no problems here. And even if he has, he should be able to squeeze out a narrow victory.
Stage 5 - Sprint
Amy should be able to give us some good wine recommendations for this stage. The early climbs are in the Beaujolais, the stage finishes in Burgundy. Love countryside, not too challenging.
Did you know: Below the final climb Col du Bois Clair is the Tunnel du Bois Clair - the longest bike-only tunnel in Europe.
Will: The nearest major airport is Lyon. I assume the sprinters will be hoping for a fast stage so they don't miss their flights.
Jens: Do sprinters really leave the Dauphiné? I would have thought they would take the opportunity to get some climbing miles in, they're going to need them in July. This is of course another great chance for people to get a win with Cav, Greipel, Kittel and Gaviria out of the way. I hesitate to call the field "second tier sprinters" because I will only get angry emails from rabid Norwegian fans again for not recognizing Kristoff as top level.
Stage 6 - Mountains
In recent years, the Dauphine has previewed a stage from the upcoming Tour de France as a way of attracting a stronger field. This time, it's not an entire stage but stage 6 includes the final two categorised climbs of the truly gigantic Tour de France Stage 9. Note the Côte de Jongieux (vineyards) is not categorised by the Tour. We're going to be hearing a lot more about the ferocious Mont du Chat as the Tour approaches. Drink in disgust everytime someone says "the Mortirolo of France."
Did You know: Cat Mountain? Chat means Cat in French, but this is not the origin of the name of this mountain. Do you really think a thousand years before Youtube people were naming places after cats? The old French word Chas - pronounced like Chat (the "s" and "t" endings are silent) - means "eye of the needle" and describes the distinctive massif when viewed from the north.
Will: Mont du Chat is steep for a long time. A very tough climb. The descent is also steep, not the biggest road but it has very few hairpins. The riders will fly down - I think first over-the-top wins the stage. For a detailed blog post cycling up Mont du Chat see here.
How tough is Mont du Chat? The Dauphiné officially lists it as 8.7km at 10.3% average, although they will have been climbing less steep slopes for some time before the official start. The local Tourist office kindly places kilometre markers with the average grade for the entire next kilometre. From the summit, kilometre 5, 3, and 2 are all listed as 12% average.
Above: The Rélais in the name refers to the Ventoux-like telecommunications tower exactly at the road's summit.
The views on the climb itself are few and far between as it winds up through rough terrain and forest. Unlike neighbouring Grand Colombier, this mountain is too rugged for high pasture land or any farms. But from the summit are great views of Lac du Bourget below (the largest lake in France), Mont Revard across the lake, the high Alps in the distance, and Canadians up close.
Did You Know: The finish is not far from Chambéry, the home of AG2R's Chambéry Cyclisme Formation. These guys probably ride Mont du Chat for breakfast.
Will: I love this climb. OK, it's more of a love-hate relationship. We often hear about stretches of road that are in the teens or 20% or whatever. But these are usually short stretches. Averaging 12% for full kilometres is tough, very tough. Jens, surely this is too steep for Mr Froome?
Jens: Steep, winds up through rough terrain and forest and the views are few and far between? I'm tempted to say this sounds a little bit like "the Mortirolo of France"©.
Will: (drinks in disgust)
Jens: I dunno, does Froome really have a problem with the very steep? I mean except for that one time he got towed up the Mortirolo and got tossed out of the Giro? Either way this should be a super interesting day, not only because it previews a "new" climb but it's going to force out the bigs. With two more big mountain days to come they might otherwise be tempted to ride conservatively here but how do you ride conservatively on a 12% final climb? Plus a downhill finish adds a bit of uncertainty. Is a guy like Froome going to take any risks to win time and a stage a few weeks before the TdF? I think not. Instead, maybe we will already here get a sense of how Esteban Chaves is doing after some injury and a lot of time spent preparing in Colombia with some Orica teammates for company? Or even better, Kwiatkowski climbs better than ever, zooms down the descent to take the lead and set up a lovely bit of leadership-tension inside Team Sky.
Stage 7 - Mountains
This is not your standard Alpe d'Huez - there will only be a few of the legendary 21 hairpins. But this makes Will happy. Instead, the Dauphiné will approach from behind, climbing the higher, far quieter, far more beautiful and remote Col de Sarenne, then traverse towards Alpe d'Huez, briefly descending so it can finish with a few of the famous hairpins.
Col de Sarenne near its summit:
Note, this stage starts in Aoste, a small French town, not Aosta, Italy.
Did you know: The early part of the route is also quite interesting, climbing two of the three climbs often known as the Chartreuse Trilogy (Col du Granier being the third). These three climbs cross over the length of the Chartreuse Massif (think Carthusian monks and their green liqueur). The Motherhouse of the Order is here below Col du Cucheron.
Will: See Jens, I don't hate everything about Alpe d'Huez. I love this stage.
Jens: Another HC climb day. Looking at these mountain stages it's no wonder all the TdF contenders are here. This looks to me like the day Valverde gives a blistering performance that makes everyone sit up and wonder if he really shouldn't be the Movistar captain for the Tour de France. If not Valverde then surely one of the French guys would like the Alpe on their palmares. Bardet and Barguil could certainly win a stage like this and will we perhaps even see the kids, the talented Latour and the mega-talented Gaudu?
Generally, you have to love the trend in the last few years of riders who actually see the Dauphiné as a worthy race in itself. We don't see many of the TdF favourites coming here with no ambitions and what appears to be shitty form or attitude anymore. We've made plenty of jokes over the years about how pointless it is to look for signs here of what the Tour will be like but those days are gone. If a rider is going to do well in July, chances are we can see signs of it already here.
Stage 8 - Mountains
This tough North French Alps stage starts with three well know climbs, all along the Route des Grandes Alps that links Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) to the Mediterranean. But the final climb? It's a lesser know, very steep dead-end road on the very north edge of the Alps. If you're taking the auto-route to Chamonix with Will, he will point up at a little cliff stretch and yell "the road to Solaison!" - every fucking time.
This will be the easier side of Tour regular Col de la Colombière. Col des Aravis is the most beautiful of the first three climbs - almost Dolomite-like. Just ask Jens:
Jens: Did someone say "Saucisson"!? Oh, "solaison" , nevermind, go on then.
But this stage and perhaps the entire race is all about the climb to Solaison. This is a very, very challenging ascent, especially the early slopes in the woods. It doesn't have much of a pro pedigree but it did appear in the 2014 Tour de l'Avenir (stage won by I. Davidenok). More details on Solaison here.
Will: Wow, what a stage! And after very difficult stages six and seven, it will be a tired peloton racing up these steep slopes. Is there a mountain goat in the peloton who can defeat Froome and his team of lieutenants? Some of my local cycling club will be riding Solaison from Geneva that day - look for guys holding beers.
Jens: This climb looks fantastic. I especially like the green and yellow sections in the beginning and end of it. The middle parts not so much. But then again as long as I only have to watch pros ride it on TV the whole thing looks great. Could this be the day Sky selects for their big attack or will they have done that already? On paper this looks like their day, the day Froome and Mini-Froome (Richie Porte) go head to head to decide the race between them. Porte might be the one who most needs a confidence booster before July with BMC just coming off yet another GC-collapse in the Giro. Or maybe those two fight amongst themselves as Contador rides off with the win here? If he still has what it takes to ride away on a +10% climb that is, time waits for no man.
Will: I predict everyone will complain about the Sky train until stage 6 when it completely explodes climbing Mont du Chat and Romain Bardet shocks us all with the victory. Valverde will be dropped on Col de Sarenne after an unplanned toilet break and be arrested for despoiling a protected parkland. Jens will pick every stage winner, in his head, but forget to publish the predictions.
Jens: I don't get why my predictions are mocked? Many people are saying I have the best stage winner predictions and I think my record reflects that. Just look it up. Bigly.
Personally, I predict this race will start off with a bang and then be pretty anonymous during the week only to reach a crescendo with those three massive mountain stages with lots of talking points. The midweek stuff could be a bit tame though especially since fans will still be a little zonked from the crazy Giro finish. I expect Movistar and BMC to be firing on all cylinders while Sky are a bit conservative. Will's favourite Bardet will certainly be looking to make up for his miserable exit from Paris-Nice but I'm hoping he keeps his powder dry for what certainly must be an excellent TdF route for him. Not sure how many opportunities as good as that he will get in the coming years.
In the end, Richie Porte will end up winning the Dauphiné with a slim margin. You can take that prediction to the bank.
Cuddles the Cobble Jens, and thanks to everyone for listening. Please vote in our Queen stage poll below. Enjoy the race.