Saturday, 1 June 2013

Critérium du Dauphiné 2013: The Contenders

The Critérium du Dauphiné 2013 gets underway tomorrow and it starts with an unusually lumpy stage including a category three climb to the finish setting the scene for much of the week ahead. The riders looking to race well here will be the same riders looking to bag a podium place at the Tour de France next month but let's not forget that this is a top level stage race in it's own right. So who will be looking to take the yellow jersey and put the frighteners on everybody else in time for the Tour?...

The Favourites

Chris Froome (Sky)
The most obvious contender for overall victory and one most in the limelight is Sky's Christopher Froome. If I had written this earlier in the week I would have put Froome as 'the' firmest of favourites as he would have looked to stamp his mark ahead of the Tour de France hoping to seal team-leader status ahead of Bradley Wiggins but as it's now official that Wiggins will not be riding the Tour de France then Froome might feel a little more relaxed about how he races the Dauphine. Then again Wiggins has won this race for the past two years and Froome won't want to be outshone - we haven't seen him race since the Tour of Romandie but it was one that he won along with the Criterium International (where he looked super impressive) and the Tour of Oman. He's beaten the likes of Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez more than once this year and if this is an ongoing trend then he will be tough to beat here.

Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff)
We haven't seen the Spaniard since Liege and he's looked a little out of kilter all season, at least certainly not at his best. He's taken a break from racing stating tiredness (Last years Vuelta was pretty brutal) but has since got back on the bike and been training hard in France. It's perhaps the battle between Froome and Contador that is expected to be the main event at the Tour de France in July so here is a little precursor but if we are going on recent history then Alberto Contador certainly has his work cut out. It's worth mentioning though that he's been in the press this week with talk of 'good legs' and telling the world neither Froome or Wiggins scare him - this is typical fighting talk but the frightening thing is when Contador starts saying things like this he often backs it up with actions.

Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
Again we haven't seen much of Rodriguez since April and if he was the UCI ranked number 1 rider last year then he still has a way to go to finding that form again. He's yet to win a race outright this year but did take stage honours in both the Tour of Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico. It's usually the Time Trial where Rodriguez comes unstuck but it's not overly long this year at just 32.5 kilometres and there is plenty of his favoured mountainous terrain to claw any time loss back - problem is he has to do it against the best climbers in the world.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
He's no spring chicken at 33 but Alejandro Valverde had one of the best years of his career last year and he's taken a few wins in 2013 too. He proved in last years Vuelta that he can climb with the best of them but perhaps Valverde has something different to prove this year: That he's better than team-mate Nairo Quintana. Quintana isn't riding the Dauphine but he is riding the Tour and if any in-team fighting at Sky has now vanished then surely Movistar are a team with a similar problem. Both riders are Friends but just as one's career enters it's twilights a star is born with another, Valverde only just finished inside the top ten at the Tour of Romandie - he's going to need to put in a better shift here if he wants to remain team-leader at the Tour.

The Outsiders

Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol)
How many times do I need to list the Lotto-Belisol mans name in a 'Contenders' post before he actually justifies his position there? We have to look back to 2002 to his last stage-race victory and 2011 for his last stage win which was taken in this very race. He's touted time and again as a favourite and yes he's finished consistently in the top 10 of many a Grand Tour but has never made the podium and looking at the competition at the Tour de France this year it's unlikely he will in 2013. Keep a keen eye on him in the Dauphine though and if he proves me wrong here then he could for the Tour. He's raced consistently again this year but it's time to step it up a notch.

Andrew Talansky (Garin Sharp)
At 24 his palmares read quite nicely and this year is no exception, finishing second overall at Paris-Nice and taking home the Young Riders Jersey but when Chris Froome and Richie Porte rode away at the Criterium International earlier this year he just didn't have an answer. He's certainly coming in to his own but he perhaps misses something in the latter part of a stage race - no doubt this will come with time and experience and maybe he's ready to do something special at the Dauphine. He will certainly be one to watch out for in the mountain stages, often one of the first riders to kick off the action at the front.

Pierre Rolland (Europcar)
I was tempted to list the Frenchman in the 'favourites' section but changed my mind. He's ultra aggressive and has great attacking style not to mention the beauty of his effortless pedal-stroke but he just isn't in the class of Contador or Froome yet. BUT I'm hoping this year could prove to be 'his' year. Like Talansky he's young but he's garnered enough experience by now to be knocking on the door of big success. We have seen him conquer l'Alpe d'Huez so there is no doubt in his climbing ability but again he struggle in the Time Trials - this years Dauphine course should suit him though. He was of the pace slightly at the Giro del Trentino but I have a feeling he will back to his best here. Watch closely.

Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil)
De Gendt announced his Grand Tour arrival by finishing third at last years Giro best remembered for his solo climb on the Passo Stelvio that sealed him victory on stage 20. A performance like that shows he has what it takes to go the three weeks even with some brutal climbs so a week long stage-race like the Dauphine should be quite a prospect for De Gendt. Like Rolland he's aggressive and is often seen more as a stage hunter than an overall contender but this is changing. His only noticeable performance this year was a stage win at Catalunya but don't expect him to keep so quiet at the Dauphine.

The Others

As with all races anything can happen and 'anyone' can happen. There's likely to be some names others might like to see further up the list but many of the riders taking part in the Dauphine are such an unknown entity form-wise that it's difficult to judge just who's doing what. Blanco line up with Laurens ten Dam and Tom Slagter - both of whom like a stage race and some tough climbing. ten Dam is often seen on the cusp of great things and maybe his beard could cross a line or two first here. Richie Porte (Sky) could easily be a 'favourite' but to avoid anymore Sky confrontation I've left it with just the one team-leader for this race but if Froome wins it's not so hard to envisage Porte on the second step of the podium.

There is plenty of young French talent on offer here as the French cycling revolution continues and a few to really keep an eye on are Jerome Coppel (Cofidis), Warren Barguil (Argos-Shimano) and Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) who are both capable of great things, whilst a more familiar, older Frenchman in the form of Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) might have something to say if he can stay with the other GC guys.

Omega Pharma-Quick-Step have more wins than any other team this year and they arrive in France with a strong roster. Sylvain Chavanel, Michal Kwiatkowski and Tony Martin can all perform well here and expect to see Martin hoover up the TT though it could be Kwiatkowski who finds himself centre stage and finally Sammy Sanchez heads up the Euskaltel team but it's difficult to see him doing anything special here having just completed such a brutal Giro d'Italia - perhaps team-mate Mikel Nieve will get a chance to shine.

The Conclusion

A mountainous race ahead of the Tour de France has plenty to offer especially when so many of the greatest cyclists on the planet are involved. It's perhaps not a case of picking riders who will finish on the podium at the Dauphine but more a question of in what order. My prediction? 1. Froome 2. Contador 3. Valverde.....

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