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Mont Ventoux
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59th Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré - PT

France, June 10-17, 2007

Sixty years and many mysteries

By Jean-François Quénet

2006 Dauphiné Libéré winner Levi Leipheimer.
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The Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, named after the daily newspaper of the French Alps just after World War II, celebrates 60 years of existence this year. It's a family affair; created and run for a long time by Georges Cazeneuve, the event has been under the guidance of his nephew, Thierry, a respected cycling journalist, for the past 20 years.

As a result of this long tradition, all the great champions of modern history have used the Dauphiné as a rehearsal for the Tour de France: same venue in the Alps, same mix of prologue, sprint, breakaway, long time trial, uphill finish and high mountain stages, but all grouped into one week, from Sunday to Sunday.

Nowadays, probably even more than in the past, the Dauphiné remains a Tour contender's favoured preparation race, alongside the Tour de Suisse (Tour of Switzerland). It's highly prestigious, the standard of the race has been significantly reinforced by the concept of the ProTour, but so close to the Tour, less than one month before the start, every move is interpreted in relation to the Tour, with top favourites hiding their strength or potential Tour contenders spending too much energy to win.

"This is probably what happened to me last year," admitted defending champion Levi Leipheimer. "I really wanted to win the Dauphiné because I grew up with this race when I heard of Greg LeMond going for it. I thought it was really nice to put my name in the record books but I might have missed some strength because of that at the Tour. This time, I'm hoping to have delayed my peak form a little bit."

The Californian, now riding for Discovery Channel, isn't a man to hold back during races. It's very unlikely that he'll be hiding himself the same way Floyd Landis did last year. As in the past two years, he could well find himself in the yellow jersey following the demanding 43km individual time trial scheduled for Wednesday in Anneyron.

It's a lonely road to Mont Ventoux
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There will be plenty of other big names lining up this year again. Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreï Kashechkin, Alejandro Valverde, Oscar Pereiro, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans are among the stars on the start list. But do they want to win the Dauphiné as badly as Christophe Moreau and his Ag2r team? Are they as motivated as Rabobank's Denis Menchov? The Russian has indeed become the Dauphiné man, and has always put a lot of energy into the Alpine race. For two years in a row he has been the winner of the uphill finish to Mont Ventoux, a summit on the race map again this year.

As usual, the race will start with a prologue, to be held on Sunday on a dead flat 5km course in Grenoble, the capital of the Dauphiné area. Last year's winner of the equivalent exercise in Annecy - where the race will end up this time after one week of hard battles - David Zabriskie was a late inclusion in the CSC line-up this week. The rouleur from Utah missed the stage win in the final time trial of the Giro after facing wet conditions, different to those of the Astana brothers in arms, Paolo Savoldelli and Eddy Mazzoleni. Following three weeks of racing in Italy, he will not suffer the lack of competition that many riders usually talk about at the Dauphiné after taking part in training camps rather than racing.

The other American specialist George Hincapie will not be as tired as Zabriskie, since the US road champ stopped the Giro after half distance. Hincapie is another hot favourite for the much anticipated prologue - the first real duel between Brits David Millar and Bradley Wiggins prior to the race of their lives, the prologue of the Tour de France on July 7 in London.

Who will take a psychological boost over the other? Millar won the prologue of Paris-Nice in March while Wiggins won the short time trial at the Four Days of Dunkirk in early May. The Saunier Duval rider must verify that he has done good work in his lead up to the Tour, although the Olympic and world individual pursuit champion has yet to formally qualify for the Cofidis Tour team; he's one of three men in contention for two remaining spots - the other two contenders being Belgian Rik Verbrugghe and Colombian Leonardo Duque.

The Alps await
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With so many mountains on the menu, the Dauphiné isn't usually a race that sprinters particularly enjoy. However, this year will see an interesting duel between Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen, most likely on Stage 1 to Roanne. The Norwegian is still chasing his first win of the year (he twice finished second at the Giro and pulled out one day after Hincapie, also with the intention of building form for the Tour) but is a prolific winner at the Dauphiné. In fact, Credit Agricole's Thunder God he has won a stage in each of the four previous editions of the race. Boonen has only taken part once before, in 2004, and his boss Patrick Lefévère is adamant that his Quick.Step superstar just needs to finish the race. Working hard in the mountains is probably what the former world champion needs if he wants to compete for the green jersey at the Tour de France.

Many teams have actually been training in the French mountains prior to the Dauphiné in recent days. Ag2r was based in Chambéry and Française des Jeux in l'Alpe d'Huez. They both have a French climber in the making, both of whom are supposed to start the Tour de France for the first time next month. The two in question are Ag2r's cyclo-crosser John Gadret, who managed two top 10s in mountain stages of the Giro last year, and FdJeux's Rémy Di Gregorio, a flamboyant attacker at the recent Tour of Catalunya who is being billed in France as the new Richard Virenque. Perhaps also for his origins in the south of France and his abilities for talking.

Not all the teams have publicised their locations so openly. Astana refused to tell the local media where they were training. That's the first mystery of the 2007 Dauphiné: what are Vino and Kash up to? With their team-mate Andreas Klöden they are more and more the hot favourites for the Tour de France, but seem intent on maintaining a low profile during their build-up. "I'll maybe test myself on the Mont Ventoux," Vino announced in March.

And in the troubled period following Operacion Puerto and other doping controversies, the Dauphiné is expected to be hot in terms of pre-Tour de France speculation as well.