08-15 June 2014

The Giro d’Italia is over and it’s now time for the first one of two warm-up races for the Tour de France: Critérium du Dauphiné.

Within the last two years, the overall winner of Dauphiné went on to win the Tour de France as well - Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013. This year, we have all the top favorites for the Tour at Dauphiné. No matter who wins overall, this will be a very interesting race to follow.

To spice up things, the race organizers have decided to bring back the bonus seconds. This means there are now 10, 6 & 4 seconds on the finishing line each day - except for the opening time trial. Stage 1 is the only ITT in the race and its 10.4 km won’t make big gaps amongst the favorites. This year, the race will be settled on the climbs - and there are plenty of them!

Stage 2 and 7 are most likely where we will see the biggest time gaps between the riders aiming at the general classification. Both days end on an HC-climb. It will be interesting to see the shape of the Tour de France favorites just a few weeks from Le Grand Départ. Stage 3 is the only day for the sprinters. Stage 4, 5 and 6 seem good for a breakaway, while stage 8 is the last chance to move up in the GC. You will find profiles of all the stages at the bottom of the page.

The favorites
Naturally, the two big favorites for this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné are also the two big favorites for the Tour de France.

Chris Froome won this race last year. He’s the prime pick. Froome has only done three races this season, which is two less compared to this time last year. In Tour of Oman, Froome easily won the big mountain stage and the general classification In Volta a Catalunya, he finished 6th overall after skipping Tirreno-Adriatico a few weeks earlier due to a back-injury. Last month, Chris Froome showed to be in great shape when he won Tour de Romandie overall after winning the final time trial in front of the triple world champion Tony Martin. Compared to last year, Chris Froome’s lead-up to the Tour de France hasn’t exactly been smooth. Injuries and sickness have kept him out of important races and the media hasn’t held back on the Wiggins/Froome-dispute stories. Bradley Wiggins doesn’t seem to be doing the Tour de France this year. Some may say this weakens Team Sky. I’m sure Chris Froome, Richie Porte and the rest of the team in Dauphiné (which very much looks like the Tour de France team) will be eager to prove those critics wrong.

The biggest threat to Chris Froome is, of course, Alberto Contador. The Spaniard is back at his former level, doing well in all the races he participates in. Contador has done four stage races this year. He has won two of them (Tirreno-Adriatico & Vuelta al Pais Vasco) and finished 2nd overall in the other two (Volta ao Algarve & Volta a Catalunya). Clearly, Alberto Contador is doing very well this season. Dauphiné will be his first race in nearly two months but usually this is not a problem. Tinkoff-Saxo is having a great 2014-season and they seem to deliver in every race they take part in. Contador is very eager to show the world that he is back at his best level. He wants to win the Tour de France, but in order to do so, he has to beat Chris Froome. So far, the two riders have only been up against each other in Volta a Catalunya. Contador won the fight back then, but this is something different.

Neither Chris Froome nor Alberto Contador has to win this race in order to prove they can win the Tour. However, neither one wants to lose face either. Whoever ends up winning this race - and I’m confident it will be one of these two - will enter the Tour de France as the top favorite. Personally, I think it will be a very close fight.

The other contenders
On the level just below Froome and Contador there we will find Vincenzo Nibali. After winning the Giro d’Italia last year, Nibali is now aiming big at the Tour de France. The strong Italian started his season already back in January, in Tour de San Luis where he finished 44th overall. Nibali usually knows what he’s doing, getting ready for his big targets. However, without a single win or an overall podium place this season, it’s starting to look a little worrying for Astana. So much that Gazzetta reports that Alexandre Vinokourov has sent a letter to Nibali, regarding the Italian’s “poor performances”. In Tour de Romandie, Nibali finished 5th overall, almost two minutes behind Chris Froome. On the big mountain stage, Nibali made the first attack on the final ascent. However, Froome quickly responded and it didn’t take long before Nibali was struggling behind. He finished 7th that day. It is obvious that something isn’t working for Vincenzo Nibali. Still, you can never count him out. Astana wants to see results. Nibali is very proud and I’m sure he will try to show both his fans and his team, that he’s ready for the Tour. I don’t think he will win Dauphiné overall, but I would expect him to win a stage.

The same goes for Tejay van Garderen. As I have already mentioned many times this season, this is an important year for Van Garderen. For the first time, the young American will lead BMC in the Tour de France and this year, he has had to prove that he’s up for the task. So far, he has done very well. Van Garderen finished 2nd overall in Tour of Oman, 3rd overall in Volta a Catalunya (after winning the big mountain stage) and 6th overall in Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Unfortunately, he crashed in the prologue in Tour de Romandie and abandoned a few days later. According to Tejay van Garderen, he’s doing very well right now. He has been able to train without problems and he feels confident going in to Dauphiné. While many others are using this race as a wam-up race for the Tour de France, Tejay van Garderen aims to be at 100 % already in Dauphiné. He wants to test himself and his BMC teammates. I expect Van Garderen to do well in the opening time trial and stay with Froome and Contador on the climbs for a long time. In Catalunya, he attacked all the top favorites (Contador, Froome, Quintana, Purito, Pozzovivo etc.) on Vallter 2000 and won the stage. This proves that Tejay van Garderen definitely is a serious contender not only for Dauphiné but also for the Tour de France.

Within the last three years, a long time trial has made a big impact on the overall result in this race. This year, the short ITT on stage 1 is the only fight against the clock for the riders. Naturally, the stage will create some time gaps, but they won’t be of huge importance with bonus seconds back in the mix.  Therefore, it’s much more important that you can climb than that you are strong on the time trial bike.

This is also the reason why I don’t see Michal Kwiatkowski as a top favorite. The opening time trial is an advantage for him - actually I think he will win it - but I don’t think he will be able to beat the riders mentioned above on the big climbs. Kwiatkowski is a once-in-a-generation-talent, there is no doubt about this. He will soon be a strong contender for the Tour de France, but not yet. He still needs to improve much more on the difficult climbs. The way I see it, Top5 is the best the young Pole will be able to do in this field.

Regarding other strong outsiders, look to Jurgen van den Broeck, Andrew Talansky, Simon Spilak, Leopold König, and Wilco Kelderman who’s hoping to use his good shape from the Giro to gain a result in Dauphiné. Not to forget youngsters like Adam Yates, Bob Jungels and Kenny Ellisonde.

My two personal super-jokers are Edward Beltran and Sebastien Reichenbach. Every team wants a Colombian rider these days and Edward Beltran was Tinkoff-Saxo’s choice. He’s from the golden 90’s-generation but he has been struggling to show his talent after his impressive performance in the Baby Giro in 2010. Beltran is a very strong climber and it will be interesting to see how long he can stay on the climbs with Alberto Contador. Personally, I think he will be doing very well. This goes for Sebastien Reichenbach as well. Dauphiné is a big goal for the Swiss rider who has been doing very well this season. You may not have noticed him, but Reichenbach has finished 11th in Paris-Nice, 15th in Critérium International and 15th in Tour de Romandie. He’s very good on the climbs and not afraid of attacking. I’m sure Sebastien Reichenbach will show his talent again in this race, making another good result. If everything works out for him, he may make Top10 overall.

Stage previews
Due to limited time, I won’t be writing the usual daily stage previews of the race. However, below, you will find the profiles of all stages. I will write a few lines about each stage, the evening before it starts. Therefore, remember to tune in each day to get my winner and joker picks for the stage. For thoughts and updates on the race, make sure to follow me on Twitter at @mrconde. The official Twitter hashtag for Critérium du Dauphine 2014 is #Dauphiné.

For live coverage of this year's Critérium du Dauphiné 2014 go to steephill.tv

Stage 1

You may not see it on the profile but the riders actually have to overcome a short climb halfway through the stage. About 800 meters of 5.5 % will have an important impact on the outcome and so will the following tricky descent. The final 4.5 km are flat and - except for a few 90° corners - won’t trouble the riders much. The most spectacular thing about this stage is the 1800 meters long cycle path tunnel, known as Le Tube, in the beginning of the stage.

Winner pick: Michal Kwiatkowski
Joker: Jan Barta

Stage 2

No less than six categorized climbs awaits the riders today. A break will most likely get away already on the first or second climb. Team Sky’s riders proved to be in great shape in the opening time trial and they shouldn’t have any problems controlling the race. It all comes down to the final climb, Col du Béal. The 13.6 km towards the top have an average gradient of 6.6 %. Do you remember Chris Froome and Richie Porte on Col de l’Ospedale in Crit Int. and on Ax 3 Domaines in the Tour last year? I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to do the same thing today. It won’t be easy though, seeing how strong Alberto Contador and the other GC riders are right now. Still, to me, Chris Froome is the favorite. Don’t forget, every win against your top rivals for the Tour is a big psychological win as well.

Winner pick: Chris Froome
Joker: Leopold König

Stage 3

Most likely, this is the only stage for the sprinters in this year's Critérium du Dauphiné. Therefore, the fast riders can’t afford to miss out today. It’s another warm and sunny day in France. The riders will be battling a crosswind for most of the stage. It will be interesting to see if the wind is strong enough for some of the teams to try to split up the peloton. The final 45 km are flat and take place in headwind. This should kill any chance a morning break would have of making it all the way. The final kilometer is a bit tricky with a handful of difficult turns. The last one comes just a few hundred meters from the line. 

The two top sprinters in the race are Arnaud Démare and Giacomo Nizzolo. Both seem to be in great shape. Nizzolo is eager to finally get a win after finishing 2nd no less than four times in the Giro d'Italia. Démare has won four sprints within a month but the competition hasn’t been that great. However, after his teammate Nacer Bouhanni beat Nizzolo in the Giro multiple times, Démare wants to prove he’s equally fast just a few weeks before the Tour de France starts. On the level just below Nizzolo and Démare, we’ll find riders like Gianni Meermans and Thor Hushovd.

Winner pick: Arnaud Démare
Joker: Nikias Arndt

Stage 4

Usually, a breakaway makes it all the way when the finishing line is placed in Gap. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this happen again today. Col du Manse (9.6 km / 5.2 % avg.) is a well-known climb for most riders in the peloton. The last two times the climb was used in the Tour de France, Alberto Contador put in multiple attacks. We can expect history to repeat itself on Wednesday afternoon.

The descent from Col du Manse is always the center of a lot of drama. However, this time, the riders are not going through La Rochette the way they normally do. Instead, they turn right and head down towards Romette. It’s still a very technical descent with many difficult turns, especially on wet roads. Tuesday evening, the weather forecast shows a 50 % chance of rain in Gap at the time the riders are set to finish. Hopefully, we won’t see any crashes.

If a breakaway makes it, look out for strong riders like Thomas Voeckler, Sylvain Chavanel, Daryl Impey, Damiano Cunego and Jan Bakelants. In case the GC riders end up fighting for the stage, I’m sure Vincenzo Nibali will try to get away on the final descent. If a sprint, look to Dani Moreno, Simon Gerrans and Tony Gallopin. The last 1500 meters of the stage are the same as in the Tour de France last year with three roundabouts to overcome.  

Stage 5

This is another typical stage for a breakaway. The final 100 km are very tough, constantly going up and down. There are numerous short and steep climbs, which will favor a breakaway’s chances of succeeding. The final climb, Côte de Laffrey, is 6.3 km long and has an average gradient of 6.2 %. However, the climb is actually a bit longer seeing how the road continues uphill after a short part of flat.

The run-in is technical with a couple of difficult corners. After the riders pass under la flame rouge and turn left, the road kicks up a little towards a roundabout where the riders turn right. There is a tricky left-right s-bend with just 200 meters to go. The first rider into this turn will win the stage.

Tinkoff-Saxo and Astana might try to thin out Team Sky on the many steep hills during day. However, since they didn’t try to do so on stage 4, they will most likely wait until the weekend before attacking. Therefore, I think a break will stay away and fight for the win. My prime pick is Thomas Voeckler. The Frenchman was too close in the GC to join the morning breakaway on stage 4. He tried a late attack on the final climb but was caught and dropped off the peloton. Voeckler lost almost five minutes and is now no longer a threat in the GC. Look out for him today! The French champion, Arthur Vichot, is another very strong candidate for the stage win.

Winner picks: Thomas Voeckler & Arthur Vichot
Jokers: Lieuwe Westra & Christophe Le Mével

Stage 6

On paper, this may look like a stage for the sprinters. Don’t be fooled! The final 25 km are very hard with numerous short and steep climbs. FDJ may want to try to set up Arnaud Démare but it will be very difficult for the Frenchman to win today.

Côte de Marcellaz-Albanais is the longest climb of the day. Its 4.6 km have an average gradient of 4.1 %. This will be a good place to test your fellow escapees up front. The final categorized climb today is Côte de Ronzy. However, the steepest hill is still to come. With around 2.5 km to, the riders turn onto the narrow Côte de la Route des Vignes. The following kilometer is very demanding with a maximum gradient of 20 % just as the riders pass the 2-km-to-banner. A strong puncheur can really blow the race apart here. The final kilometer is slightly downhill all the way towards the finishing line, meaning just a small gap on the top of the hill might be enough to keep your chasers at bay. It will be interesting to see if the GC riders will take advantage of his steep climb.

My two personal favorites are Tony Gallopin and Dani Moreno. Gallopin is out of the GC. He can both win from a morning breakaway and in a sprint within a reduced peloton. Moreno is too close in the GC. He has to wait and hope to be within striking distance on the steep part of Côte de la Route des Vignes. If so, he will be very hard to control. Don’t be surprised if Katusha makes it three in a row!

Winner picks: Tony Gallopin & Dani Moreno
Jokers: Romain Bardet & Marco Marcato

Stage 7

This is the Queen Stage of the race. It’s a short stage, which means the pace will be very high. Add to this no less than 5 difficult climbs and you know it will be a very tough day in the saddle. The final two climbs are both HC. Col de la Forclaz is 12.6 km long and has a steady average gradient of 8.2 %. Most likely Team Sky will set a furious pace already at this point to tire out the competition.

The final climb of the day, Finhaut - Emosson, is very difficult. There are numerous long parts with gradients in double digits. The maximum part of 17 % is right at the beginning. I doubt there will be many riders left in the peloton after just a couple of kilometers. We can expect Richie Porte and Mikel Nieve to make sure of that.

Alberto Contador has promised attacks and it will be very interesting to see if he has what it takes to drop Chris Froome. Personally, I doubt it. However, it all depends on how well Froome has recovered after his crash on stage 6. If he’s not feeling well, Contador might have a chance to steal the show and take both the stage win and the overall lead. Remember, there are 10 bonus seconds to the winner. It’s also possible that Alberto Contador will try to put in an attack on the descent of Col de la Forclaz. Team Sky didn’t have any problems bringing him back the last time though.

Froome and Contador are one or two levels about the rest of the climbers. I can’t see anyone else winning this stage. Wilco Kelderman will most likely finish 3rd and consolidate his spot on the overall podium

Stage 8

Alberto Contador managed to rip the yellow jersey off the shoulders of Chris Froome after an impressive attack on stage 7. Luckily for Froome and Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo didn’t put much energy into catching the break and winning the stage. Therefore, Chris Froome is still within striking distance of the overall win today. Only 8 seconds separate the two top candidates.

Today, Tinkoff-Saxo and Contador will be happy to see a breakaway make it and thereby take the bonus seconds on the line. However, Team Sky’s agenda should be the right opposite. Unless he feels much better, Chris Froome probably won’t be able to take back 8 seconds on Contador without winning the stage and taking the 10 bonus seconds. Therefore, I expect Team Sky to do whatever they can to make sure the break doesn’t get too far away.

The final ascent up to Courchevel isn’t very steep. About 6 km of 6.2 %. Andrew Talansky always gets better as the race evolves and the others get tired. I expect him to be fighting for the win today as well. My personal joker is Adam Yates. He didn’t have a great day on stage 7, but the climbs were also very tough. Courchevel suits the young Brit very well and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make a top result if the other favorites start looking at each other.

Winner pick: Chris Froome
Joker: Adam Yates