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60th Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré - ProT

France, June 8-15, 2008

It's Astana vs Tour de France contenders

By Jean-François Quénet

The beauty of the Tour de France will be previewed in the Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: AFP
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If one above all of the cycling events has benefited from the UCI's ProTour it has to be the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. The French stage race, running this year from June 8 to 15, surely must be close to the top of the list of events that have changed for the good since the inception of the new series in 2005. When questioned about what the ProTour is worth for him, race organiser Thierry Cazeneuve answered, "It's the condition for getting the TV [coverage]."

Before 2005, there was a maximum of two days of live coverage of the Dauphiné, now it's seven days with the prologue broadcasted in the late evening by Eurosport after the final of the French Open of tennis. From an audience of 35 million viewers in 2005, the event has extended its impact to 59 million last year. In addition, there are more and more countries eager to get the rights for the pre-Tour de France race held in the French Alps.

There will be something different this year with the Tour de France being at odds with the International Cycling Union (UCI). The Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré is clearly in the camp of the UCI, while Cazeneuve is also the president of the French league of professional cycling that includes all the races organised by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) -- there's also no harmony these days inside the French cycling community.

Defending Champion Christophe Moreau not invited
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Therefore, the defending champion will not be on the start line in Avignon since Christophe Moreau now belongs to the Professional Continental outfit Agritubel. The Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré sticks with the 18 ProTour teams and doesn't invite any other teams this year. It means Astana is welcome in the Alpine event although they are sidelined by ASO.

"Before getting their last minute invitation to the Giro d'Italia, Astana wanted to bring its best team, including Alberto Contador, to the Dauphiné," Cazeneuve explained. "Now, I understand that it was impossible for them to stop him after one week in the Giro as he was so close to the pink jersey."

Contador will not ride the Dauphiné, a race he had initially targeted as his main goal of the first half of the season but Astana will be there with the winner of the 2006 edition Levi Leipheimer. The Californian has been a great help for Contador in Italy. From now through the Olympics, all he has in mind is to win the Dauphiné. Astana will have a strong line up with Janez Brajkovic, Chris Horner and José Luis Rubiera to lead Leipheimer to his second win in Grenoble after one week of competitive racing. This time, the winner of the Dauphiné might not be questioned if he's in good form too early with the Tour de France coming up.

USA's Levi Leipheimer of Team Astana is a hot favourite
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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It will be interesting to see who from the Tour de France favourites dares to show his current condition. Cadel Evans will be watched closely after a five-week break, but he suffered a tendonitis at the end of his training camp in Sierra Nevada and he doesn't know the current state of his form. Alejandro Valverde has also reduced his number of racing days prior to the Tour de France. "I'm hungry racing," he announced. Last year, he was forced to pull out the day of the Mont Ventoux due to sickness.

Euskaltel's Haimar Zubeldia and Samuel Sánchez will also take their marks before the Tour as well as AG2R La Mondiale's Vladimir Efimkin in the backyard of his new team. It's a change of program for CSC's Carlos Sastre to take part in the Dauphiné rather than the Tour de Suisse, but it will be an interesting contention with most of the Tour de France favourites watching each others while Damiano Cunego and the Schleck brothers are the main ones who have chosen the Swiss event for a warm up instead.

At Rabobank, Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema are considered too young for riding the Tour de France this year, but they will also try to shine in the Alps and take position in the hierarchy of the climbers for the future.

"The natural difficulties will only appear after five days of racing," Cazeneuve warned. Before the Mont Salève and the stage finish in Annemasse, there will be a significant pass daily, with Joux-Plane arriving before the finish in Morzine. Saturday's stage will be a gruelling one with the col de la Croix-de-Fer before returning to La Toussuire where Floyd Landis had his memorable blow during the 2006 Tour de France. The last stage will also be very hard with the Granier, Cucheron and Porte, which is the famous trilogy of the Chartreuse.

The time trial events prior to the mountains, starting with a 5.6-kilometre prologue in the historical city of Avignon, will deliver crucial pre-Tour de France information, even though we are only considering the UCI ProTour teams.