A peek at the course and riders heading to the Criterium du Dauphine starting in France on Sunday make for a mouthwatering prospect for cycling fans, but aside from the fascinatng spectacle ahead, perhaps more importantly the race will serve as an important dry-run for the main event, the Tour de France, in four weeks time.
Cadel Evans (BMC) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky) headline the list of names taking part for the anglo-audience but with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar), Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Belisol), Denis Menchov (Katusha), Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Barracuda), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Jean Christophe Peraud (Ag2R) a who's who of Tour contenders are in attendance.
Perhaps the only riders conspicuous in their absence are Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), and Robert Gesink (Rabobank) who have both opted to ride the Tour de Suisse instead.
Leipheimer's rationale is obvious considering he's still in the process of rehabilitation ahead of the Tour, while Gesink may be looking to adjust his preparation after last year's Dauphine failed to prime him for a successful showing in July.
Evans versus Wiggins
Perennial bridesmaid at the Criterium du Dauphine, (Evans has been runner-up on four occasions), Cadel Evans would likely be pleased to take the same result this year, after a less than stellar season from the Australian. The one major result, overall honours at the Criterium International in April, has so far been bookended by frustrating rides at Tirreno-Adriatico, and the Tour de Romandie.
Evans has said previously he is aiming to be better later in the season, the Olympics, and the World Championships remaining clearly on his 2012 radar, but while that rationale, and illness go someway to explaining the Australian defending Tour de France champion's form, he could do with reminding both fans and rivals alike what he can do at the Dauphine.
Not least, Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins' season has been one of superlatives, and there's little the Briton has failed to show or do this year. Winner of Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie, his preparation has obvious similarities to Evans' own 2011.
Like Evans, Wiggins has been consistently good, and has been ably flanked by a Sky team akin to a Game of Thrones Kingsguard; Richie Porte, Michael Rogers and Chris Froome, all strong contenders in their own right.
On ability and form alone, Wiggins looks ready to right the misfortune of his last year's Tour de France participation when he crashed out. If he can get an extra edge over Evans at the Criterium du Dauphine, he'll be holding all the cards ahead of the Grand Boucle.
Martin, Nibali, and Schleck
The additional time trial kilometres in this year's Tour de France have many asking whether Tony Martin can make a bid for overall honours, the first German to make an impression at a Grand Tour since the halcyon days of Jan Ullrich. Martin last week won the Tour of Belgium, but his biggest weakness remains his ability on the climbs. If he can channel his 2011 Paris-Nice he may be able to pull a surprise in July, but we'll know after Stage 6 of the Criterium du Dauphine, the queen stage of this year's race that's going to be a possibility.
Nibali and Andy Schleck are interesting to consider, with both apparently lacking form ahead of July. Nibali failed to fire at the recent Amgen Tour of California, but his super-spring would indicate there's not a huge cause for concern. Like Evans however he needs to show something in the Criterium du Dauphine if his Tour de France chances are as real as he thinks.
"The Dauphiné's the best place to prepare for the Tour de France and my sole aim is to build my form for July," said Nibali.
Schleck is in the same quandary, perhaps more so considering he's been almost absent all year. His season has resembled a soap opera at times. In the Luxembourger's defence, he's always been good come Tour time, and it would be foolhardy to completely write him off. A Dauphine stage win would be a much needed boost for the 2010 Tour de France winner's confidence.
Key stages, Bourge-en-Bresse time trial (stage 4), Morzine (stage 6)
The overriding sense from the 2012 Criterium du Dauphine parcours, is that the race is going to be uniformly hard. There is no one day that could be said to be easy, but strangely the race also lacks a really decisive day.
The 53km time trial between Villié-Morgon and Bourg-en-Bresse on stage 4 may well decide the race, with the key impediment for the heavier chrono specialists to overall victory, two days after when the race finishes in Morzine.
The famous Colmbiere, and Joux-Plane feature, but the downhill finish takes away from what is otherwise a spectacular stage.
The final day will be complicated for the leaders to navigate, but it will be the accumulated attrition of the previous week, and not the final day's parcours that causes a major change in Chatel.
SBS will be streaming every day of the Criterium du Dauphine live on the Cycling Central website, as well as broadcasting from the Sydney studio headed by Mike Tomalaris on SBSTWO.