Australian Cadel Evans and Belgium's Jurgen van den Broeck are among the big names hoping to lay their Tour de France credentials on the line at the Criterium du Dauphine stage race starting tomorrow night (AEST).
Australian Cadel Evans and Belgium's Jurgen van den Broeck are among the big names hoping to lay their Tour de France credentials on the line at the Criterium du Dauphine stage racestarting tomorrow night (AEST).
Along with the Tour of Switzerland, which begins on June 11, the Dauphine is the traditional stomping ground for those looking to both maintain fitness levels and peak in time for the crucial third week of the Tour de France, held July 2-25 this year.
Former road race world champion Evans took a deliberately low-key approach to his early season in a bid to keep fuel in the tank for an improved yellow jersey challenge in July.
Runner-up twice, in 2007 and 2008, Evans could only finish 26th overall last year after having to complete the final 12 stages with a fractured elbow following a crash.
With two stage race victories under his belt this season already, Evans goes into the Criterium as one of the overall favourites for victory at La Toussuire in the French Alps a week on Sunday.
"The favourite for me this year is Cadel Evans," said Alain Gallopin, the RadioShack sporting director of reigning Dauphine champion Janez Brajkovic of Slovenia.
"This year he's won two stage races, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie, and I don't see anyone out there who can beat him."
This year's 63rd edition of the eight-day Criterium will be of specific interest to the likes of Evans, Van den Broeck, Germany's Tony Martin, Italian Ivan Basso, Britain's Bradley Wiggins and Dutchman Robert Gesink.
As well as including several alpine stages the race will include the same 42.5km time trial around Grenoble that will feature on the 20th and penultimate stage of the Tour de France.
Van den Broeck, who finished an impressive fifth overall in last year's Tour de France six weeks after a fourth place finish in the Dauphine, says the race is crucial for his preparation.
"In July, I want to be on the Tour podium. No need to tell you how this last race before the Tour is important to me," said Van den Broeck.
HTC-Highroad come in the Criterium without exciting American talent Tejay Van Garderen, who was third overall last year.
While that decision hints at their ambitions for stage victories, it is more than certain that Martin will be targeting victory in the third stage time trial.
HTC-Highroad sports director Brian Holm said: "More than the overall, we'll be seeing what options we've got on the day by day.
"Tony Martin will be seeing what he can do in the Grenoble time trial, which is identical to the one in the Tour, so that's a great opportunity for him to get to know it."
Last year Brajkovic came to the Dauphine primed for victory, and succeeded after winning the time trial and keeping pace with Spaniard Alberto Contador in the mountains.
This year the RadioShack ace is focusing on being 100 per cent for the Tour de France, according to Gallopin, and that means that a successful title defence is unlikely.
Joining Evans, Van den Broeck and Martin on the Dauphine contenders list is Rabobank climber Gesink and Liquigas all-rounder Basso, the 2010 Giro d'Italia champion who is focusing all his ambitions on the Tour de France this year.
Wiggins, who failed to follow up on his fourth place finish on the 2009 edition of the Tour in 2010, will lead Team Sky and be supported by Geraint Thomas and Simon Gerrans.
Contador, who was second last year, will be absent although fellow Spaniard Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel is likely to star as he makes a bid to go one better than his fourth place overall finish at the Tour de France in 2010.