Unless they ride May’s Giro d’Italia, Tour de France contenders choose between June’s Critérium du Dauphiné in France and Tour of Switzerland (Tour de Suisse) to hone their form for La Grande Boucle. This year, the choice is going to be a difficult one.One of the principal Tour candidates, Dutch climber Robert Gesink of Rabobank, said earlier this year when he saw the ultra-mountainous nature of the Swiss race, with its three challenging mountaintop stage finishes (plus one other stiff mountain stage) and two time trials, that it was too tough to race just two weeks before the Tour. So he marked down the Dauphiné on his 2011 season schedule.
So what does Gesink do now?
The just-announced route for the 63rd Dauphiné has all four of its mountain stages finishing on summits, along with one hilltop finish, just one sprinters’ stage and two time trials. Looks even tougher than Switzerland!
But Gesink, like many other Tour contenders, will be intrigued that the stage 3 time trial is identical to the only individual TT in this year’s Tour: a hilly 42.5km circuit at Grenoble (see profile). Although the stage in July will come at the end of three weeks of racing on the eve of the Paris finish, when riders are tired and those still with some zip in their legs will come out on top, just riding at race speeds on the course a month earlier will be of great benefit.
It’s not an easy TT course. Besides its solid distance and more than 1,600 feet (500 meters) of climbing, the circuit features a variety of roads (both wide and narrow) and some tricky descents. It’s a course on which Gesink could actually do well at the Tour, possibly better than rivals Andy and Fränk Schleck (who have again chosen the Tour de Suisse as their last pre-Tour stage race).
The Grenoble TT comes early on, following a brief prologue TT at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, a valley town in the French Alps; a first mountain stage with a Cat. 2 finishing climb up a spectacular canyon road to Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse; and the flattish stage 2 to Lyon that features the steep uphill finish.
2011 CRITÉRIUM DU DAUPHINÉ
June 5 – Prologue: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 5.5km
June 6 – Stage 1: Albertville to Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, 144km
June 7 – Stage 2: Voiron to Lyon, 179km
June 8 – Stage 3: Grenoble TT, 42.5km
June 9 – Stage 4: La Motte-Servolex to Mâcon, 172km
June 10 – Stage 5: Villars-les-Dombes (Parc des Oiseaux) to Les Gets, 207.5km
June 11 – Stage 6: Les Gets to Le Collet d’Allevard, 185km
June 12 – Stage 7: Pontcharra to La Toussuire, 117.5km
Total distance: 1,053km
The only sprint stage, to the Burgundy wine town of Mâcon, follows the TT; and then comes a decidedly rugged finale of three alpine stage with mountaintop finishes at Les Gets, Collet d’Allevard and La Toussuire.
Stage 5 to Les Gets is the longest but features just three Cat. 2 climbs, at Corlier (45.5km), Mont des Princes (109km) and the finish (207.5km). The climb to Les Gets is 11km long, but only has 5-percent grades, with the last part winding up a deep gorge.
This is followed by the Dauphiné’s toughest stage, featuring seven categorized climbs (three Cat. 4s, a Cat. 3, a Cat. 2, a Cat. 1 and an hors-cat to finish). The two toughest climbs come at the end. First is the little-used eastern side of the Cat. 1 Col du Grand Cucheron, which is 10km long on narrow, switchback roads that feature a few double-digit gradients. After some 20km of mainly downhill, the course starts climbing again before the ultimate 13km-long, hors-cat ascent from Allevard-les-Bains to the finish at Collet d’Allevard on a mountain road that has a dozen Alpe d’Huez-like hairpin turns.
If the race isn’t decided by that point, the climbers like defending champion Jani Brajkovic of Team RadioShack have one more summit finish to fight for the final victory. Stage 7 is not long, only 117.5km, but it has more than 40km of climbing in its second half.
First up is the interminable hors-cat slopes of the Col du Glandon — with a 2km extension to the Croix-de-Fer summit at 6,781 feet (2,067 meters), the highest point of the week; and then, after 20km of mostly descending roads, comes the familiar Cat. 1 climb to La Toussuire, where Floyd Landis famously bonked and lost the Tour yellow jersey to Oscar Pereiro in 2006.
No doubt, this final Dauphiné stage will also produce some dramatic racing; but we’ll have to wait and see whether men like Gesink and Brajkovic choose to fight for the win or merely use the race as final (very tough!) preparation for the Tour.