One of my favorite races begins this weekend: the Criterium du DauphinÃ©. One of two primary build-up races to the Tour de France, this yearâ€™s event features a challenging Tour-style parcours (2 time trials and 4 summit finishes) and a start list stocked with riders hoping for glory this July.Â Hereâ€™s a rundown of this yearâ€™s favorites:
1. French squads Ag2r and Cofidis come to the DauphinÃ© with imports leading their teams. Ag2râ€™s Nicolas Roche is hoping to build on his performance in last yearâ€™s Tour de France; the DauphinÃ© will give us a chance to see if heâ€™s up for it. Meanwhile, Rein Taaramae has shown flashes of brilliance at Cofidis, but has yet to secure a major result. With Davide Moncoutie at his side, this might be his best chance.
2. Cadel Evans has already won both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie for BMC this season, now he heads to France as one of the favorites for his third prestigious win of the year. Evans has ridden well in the DauphinÃ© in the past and is suited to the raceâ€™s mix of time trials and high mountains. Iâ€™ve always said Evans would find more success were he to abandon his Tour aspirations in favor of hillier classics and one-week stage racesâ€”will the DauphinÃ© help him see the writing on the wall?
3. Euskaltelâ€™s Samuel Sanchez narrowly missed a podium spot in last yearâ€™s Tour de France; this year heâ€™s using the DauphinÃ© to put the finishing touches on his form. As for HTCâ€™s Tony Martin, he won Paris-Nice in March and would love to add the DauphinÃ© to his resume. For someone mentioned as a future Tour-contender, the DauphinÃ©â€™s difficult course will provide a worthy test of the Germanâ€™s skills.
4. As for Liquigasâ€™ Ivan Basso, 2011 marks his full return to the Tour de Franceâ€”at least in the sense that heâ€™s structured his season around success in the French grand tour. While others have rebounded from poor performances in the DauphinÃ© to earn high finishes in the Tour, I suspect weâ€™ll get an accurate assessment of Bassoâ€™s Tour chances by the end of next week. The time trials will prove one crucial indicator, but the Italianâ€™s climbing will determine his ultimate outcome.
5. Meanwhile, all eyes in Belgium will be on Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Jurgen Van Den Broeck. Last year, VDBeke finished 4th at the DauphinÃ© before his spectacular fifth-place finish in Paris. This week will be our first chance to see if the Belgianâ€™s more than just a one-hit wonder. And should he find himself in a position to do so, I wouldnâ€™t be surprised to see him win it. With Andre Greipel and Philippe Gilbert already jockeying for position within Lottoâ€™s Tour-team hierarchy, VDBeke could use a big result to remind everyone that heâ€™s the teamâ€™s best option.
6. Hollandâ€™s Tour hopes ride firmly on the shoulders of Robert Gesink, a fabulous climber who prior to this season had proven himself to be weak against the clock. But after some stunning performances earlier this season, it appears as if the Dutchman has finally found a way to contend. The DauphinÃ© offers two ITTâ€™s in which Gesink can test himself. If he passes, heâ€™ll be a top-3 contender in July.
7. For the French, while Europcarâ€™s Thomas Voeckler will seek to continue his spectacular success, Saur-Sojasunâ€™s Jerome Coppel will look to build upon his fifth-place finish last year. Arguably the most consistent French GC rider in the sport (thatâ€™s not saying much, I know), Coppel could be the next French GC-darling at the Tour de France. Saur certainly hopes so, as this will be the teamâ€™s first ever trip to the Grand Boucle.
8. At Garmin-Cervelo, two riders deserve your attention. Christophe Le Mevel rode an aggressive Giro dâ€™Italia in which he was a major contender for the maglia rosa. That said, I think the DauphinÃ© will prove to be too much after such a difficult Giro. But in addition to contending for a stage win, Le Mevel should prove a valuable ally to Daniel Martin. In a race known for ushering in the sportâ€™s newest champions, Martinâ€™s just the type of rider who could surprise us all. His time trialing might be a liability, but his climbing is more than enough to earn a place in the top-5.
9. And last but not least, two former DauphinÃ© championsâ€”one recently and one from years agoâ€”deserve attention as well. Radio Shackâ€™s Janez Brajkovic turned the race on its head last year with a performance that was downright Armstrong-esque (maybe thereâ€™s a better adjective). Regardless how you describe it, the Slovenian possesses the perfect mix of time trial and climbing ability to dominate a race like the DauphinÃ©. And if the new US Champion, Matt Busche, rides in France as he did in California, then Brajkovic might just have the best lieutenant in the race.
10. As for Astanaâ€™s Alexandre Vinokourov, he won the DauphinÃ© in 1999 and returns this year as part of what many believe could be his farewell season. I expect weâ€™ll see Vino score at least a stage win on his way to a top-5 finish. The overall win might be just out of his reachâ€”then again, heâ€™s proved me wrong before.
As for my prediction, Iâ€™ve picked Cadel Evans twice this season and heâ€™s won both racesâ€”Iâ€™m not changing anything. Robert Gesink will take second and Brajkovic third.
Whoâ€™s your pick? Share your comments below.