June 6, 2010 Leave a comment
In the cycling world, the month of June is to the Tour de France what the pre-tournament international friendlies currently being played are to the FIFA World Cup. The point of the exercise is not to produce one’s best form now, but to maintain a positive progression and iron out any remaining issues before the main event starts.
For the major Tour de France contenders, most will be participating in one of two key races this month: the Tour de Suisse (which starts next weekend) and the Critérium du Dauphiné (formerly the Dauphiné Libéré), which kicked off earlier today.
Several top names have opted not to compete in the Dauphiné this year, presumably to avoid a head-to-head comparison with defending Tour champion Alberto Contador, who is present this week. To name but ten: Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, Bradley Wiggins, Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali, Alexandre Vinokourov, Frank and Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre are all absent; most, if not all, are likely to be present at the start line in Switzerland next weekend. Nonetheless, in addition to Contador the Dauphiné can still boast top GC contenders such as Denis Menchov and Samuel Sanchez.
The Dauphiné is a popular tune-up for Tour aspirants partly because of its proximity to July, but mainly because its eight-day route provides a concentrated test of a rider’s time trial and mountain climbing abilities, the two disciplines which are key to success in the bigger event next month. In particular, this year’s race – run for the first time by ASO, the organising body of the Tour de France – features the legendary Alpe d’Huez for the first time in its history.
Today’s 6.8km prologue time trial around Évian-les-Bains, won by Contador (with Britain’s Geraint Thomas a very creditable fourth), was just a taster for what is to come. After a couple of relatively straightforward medium mountain days, Wednesday’s stage is a 49km individual time trial with a tricky third category climb in the middle of it. From there, the action comes thick and fast. There is a challenging mountain-top finish at Risoul on Thursday, and the hors catégorie (HC) climb of the Chamrousse shortly before the finish in Grenoble on Friday. Then on Saturday comes the mother of all stages: first the HC Col du Glandon to soften up already weary legs, before the nightmare 21-hairpin climb to the top of Alpe d’Huez. And to top it all off, there is a relatively mild final stage taking the riders to the finish at Sallanches which only features six categorised climbs.
It would be premature to read too much into today’s result, in much the same way it would be unwise to judge a restaurant by your pre-dinner gin and tonic from the bar. But it is clear that Contador is already in decent shape. After his win, he was quick to stress that success in the Dauphiné was of secondary concern compared to his preparations for the Tour de France, and the would be happy to relinquish the leader’s yellow jersey tomorrow.
I don’t always win and my form is not as good now as it is usually in July. I had a good race today. This is my first competition since I took a break after Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I’m here to prepare for the Tour, it remains my main goal this week. Tomorrow, I’ll be happy to give the yellow jersey to another rider. I’ll ride more cautiously than at the Tour de France in three weeks time from now.
Whether Contador is yet in peak climbing form is something we will find out in the second half of the race. And even if he remains there or thereabouts at the end of the race, there is then the question of whether he has timed his peak correctly to coincide with the later stages of the Tour de France – the answer to which we will not know for sure until next month. Top form in cycling is an elusive thing which rarely lasts more than a few weeks: a great showing in one race may be the precursor for a slide back into lesser form soon after, while a mediocre but steadily improving performance is often spot on in terms of the training schedule. Hence it is important not to read too much into anyone’s finishing position at the end of this race. After all, in the seven consecutive years that Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, he raced in the Dauphiné five times but won only twice.
So while this week will tell individual cyclists much about whether or not they are on track for personal success in July, those of us watching at home will be reading between the lines trying to work out whether a strong performance on Alpe d’Huez is really a good sign or not. Frustrating, but fun.
General Classification after Prologue:
1. Alberto Contador 8m 34s
2. Tejay van Garderen @ 0:02 behind
3. Janez Brajkovic @ 0:05
4. Geraint Thomas @ 0:10
5. Dario Cataldo @ 0:12