Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Criterium du Dauphine - A Preview

So with the Giro d'Italia now but a distant memory its time to look ahead once again as riders prepare for the Tour de France. Next on the radar for those riders looking for some final preparation is the Criterium du Dauphine, an 8 day sage race set in the mountainous French region of Dauphine. The Dauphine has been used as preparation for Tour riders since its humble begginings in 1947, don't let that that fool you into thinking this is just another dull training exercise though, because it isn't...

The previous winners list reads like a who's who of post war cycling and is the only other race that's been won by the quintuple winners of the Tour de France -  Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain and Armstrong - which tells us this is no training camp, it is a hard fought race in it's own right and as stage races go, though it has this 'Tour Prep' tag is often sighted as one of the best.

However the preparation element is of course an important part of this race and this year goes above and beyond in that certain stages provide more than just a glimpse into the route of the Tour. Featuring the climb up the Grand Colombier in the eastern region of Ain, this mountain pass will make it Tour de France debut in July giving riders a near perfect dress rehearsal. Also in this years Dauphine is the inclusion of a 53km individual time trial, mimicking almost exactly the length of the one that will feature in the Tour.

A warm up race it may be but for last years winner Bradley Wiggins it was also the highlight of his career until his recent Paris-Nice and Romandie victories, when a race appears as a highlight in a grand tour general classification riders career its certainly a big deal. Wiggins went there to win ahead of the tour, not to train.

With the 'Tour Prep' tag comes this common notion that whoever win's here will be an obvious favourite for the Tour - a common misconception, for a race that acts as preparation its surprising to learn that only 7 of the previous 67 winners has one on to win the Tour de France in the same year, the last of which was Lance Armstrong, 9 years ago.

The 2012 edition of the dauphine kicks off with a 5.7km prologue. A rider like Wiggins could get his foot in the door here but time gaps among favourites are likely to be minimal. On to Stage 1 and already there are lumps and bumps, in fact there are a total of 6 categorised climbs along the length of the stage however none are overly long or difficult.

Stage 2 is similar, though here the stage finishes atop a category 4 climb, enough maybe for somebody to take a flyer off the front and take some time on the general classification. Stage 3 also has climbs, though this time they all appear within the first half of the stage and the sprinter should be able to get over these with ease and line themselves up for a bunch finish.

Stage 4 is the 53.5km prologue, it's no flat road by any stretch of the imagination and the length in itself will provide a stern test for the race favourites. Its here where time gaps are likely to open up, and its here where we will really see what shape the favourites are in ahead of a TT heavy tour de France. Expect Wiggins to put in a good shift here.

Stage 5 is a 186km brute, featuring the Hors category climb of Le Grand Colombier at the midway point. It's here we get a sneak peak of a debuting tour climb and at 17km in length averaging 7% gradient its certainly a beast worthy of the tour. Whether we will actually see any fireworks here is debatable as the climb comes quite early on the stage. Those GC contenders going over the top first are likely to be caught in the remaining 60km but it could provide an ideal launch ramp for a break-away, if it doesn't contain any favourites they may be allowed to escape to the end.

Stage 6 is likely to reveal the winner of the Dauphine. An undulating route featuring the Hors category Col de Joux Plane 12km from the finish. At 11km it is shorter than the Colombier but the average gradient steeper at 8.4%. Once over the top its downhill to the finish, the stage winner will be equally as good a descender as they are a climber. 

If the winner hasn't been decided in the previous 3 days, which is unlikely, then the final Stage 7 could make for interesting viewing. Again it's undulating but probably not difficult enough to desperse the favourites. preceding the final climb though is 7km Col du Corbier, with particularly steep sections this stage race could be won or lost here as we head into a difficult finish.The final 2km is a steep category 3 climb that could see some ferocious attacking in a bit to claim the overall. 

The Contenders

I'm writing this way ahead of the release of any provisional startlist but it looks like the usual tour suspects will be lining up at the start. Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali all look set to start. I suspect this years winner will be a big name favourite, however with only 7 previous winners going on to win the Tour in the same year, its a question of whether any of the Tour favourites will actually want to win. Professional cyclists are a superstitious bunch.

The statistics didn't worry Wiggins last year though who rode to victory in Dauphine and it certainly wouldn't surprise me to see him do well again here, especially with the lengthy TT playing a big part in the race - which will also have me watching Andy Schleck closely. This years Tour de France is a big one for Andy Schleck. There will be no Alberto Contador chasing him, pressurising him, attacking him, which should give Andy Schleck more freedom to attack on the high mountain stages as one of the races remaining true climbing specialists for 2012. Contador has always been Andy Schlecks biggest threat, without him though Andy's remaining weak link is the Time Trial. If the tour had gone along the usual climbing lines of the lasy couple of years, he would be an outright favourite, the TT pegs him back again. Those closest on the favourites list for this years Tour are all good time trialist but not exceptionally comfortable in the mountains in the same way that Schleck is. The Dauphines 53km Time Trial will at least provide some indication as to how wide the gap will be come the Tour...

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. Displaying my ignorance here - this was a race whose name was familiar to me but about which I knew nothing. Now I feel interested and at least in a basic way knowledgeable enough to follow it. This is one of the reasons I have been enjoying your blog so much. It has brough the racing season alive for me.