Dauphine the perfect rehearsal for TdF
Triple Olympic champion Bradley Wiggins will face his last major test before launching a renewed assault on the Tour de France yellow jersey when he defends his Dauphine Libere crown next week.
Beginning on Sunday with a prologue and continuing with seven stages from Monday through to Sunday (June 3-10), the Dauphine's rugged route means it usually offers clues on who will be the men to beat in July's three-week epic.
This year's race, however, arguably has even more incentive for Tour contenders.
Like the Tour de France, it opens with a short prologue (5.7 km for the Dauphine, 6.4 km for the Tour), features a long time trial mid-race (53.5 km) and will see the peloton tackle the challenging ascent to the summit of the Col du Grand Colombier.
The last time the Grand Colombier featured on the Dauphine was in 1988. This year, the 17 km uphill hike makes its Tour de France debut on stage 10 from Macon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine.
Although the same company – ASO (Amaury Sports Organisation) – organises both races that will matter little as the field hit the Alps of south-eastern France for 1052 km of intense racing. Whoever emerges among the top five, will be looking towards the June 30 start of the Tour in earnest.
Cadel Evans last year created history for Australia by winning the Tour de France – only a month after racking up an impressive fourth runner-up place at the Dauphine.
Evans, who rides for BMC, will be joined by fellow Tour contenders Andy Schleck (RadioShack), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto) in taking a shot at Wiggins' crown.
While Nibali stands out from that crowd in terms of enjoying a respectable level of success this season, Wiggins is arguably stage racing's man of the moment.
Having soaked up most of his previous world and Olympic glory in track pursuit events, the Londoner now has more than one string to his bow.
Despite suffering injury when crashing out of the Tour de France on stage seven, Wiggins went on to secure a podium spot on the Tour of Spain two months later.
He subsequently won individual time trial silver at the world championships, where he helped Mark Cavendish to road race gold, and has since triumphed at Paris-Nice (2012) and, most recently, the Tour of Romandie.
It is all a far cry from only five years ago, when Wiggins, then with Cofidis, lined up at the Tour de France hoping to win just the prologue.
But, a month out from the Tour, Wiggins is not about to put his feet up as he bids to defend the title that proved a breakthrough moment in his career.
"I guess the biggest thing for me last year was never dwelling too much on the successes I had and instead be always looking forward to the next target," he told teamsky.com.
"I think that's continuing right now – we've spent months looking towards this year and planning for it – and we've not been resting on any laurels."
While Wiggins is expected to be among Evans's biggest threats in July, Nibali is hoping to push his way into contention.
The Sicilian succeeded Evans as Tirreno-Adriatico champion in March and finished second in the hilly Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic a month later.
A former winner of the Tour of Spain (2010), the 27-year-old will take to the Dauphine start line in Grenoble with one eye on July.
"The Dauphine's the best place to prepare for the Tour de France and my sole aim is to build my form for July," said Nibali, whose only participation in the week-long event was in 2009, when he finished seventh.