Contador cranks up TDF prep
Paris - Yellow jersey champion Alberto Contador will aim to step his preparations for this year's Tour de France up a gear in a climb-fest at the Dauphine Libere stage race from Sunday.
In the absence of several rivals, inclusing Lance Armstrong, Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans, Contador becomes the automatic favourite - especially as two-time defending champion Alejandro Valverde will not be racing.
Valverde has won the week-long stage race the past two years however the Spaniard will not defend his crown after an Italy-wide doping ban was extended worldwide by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) last week.
Two-time Tour de France champion Contador claims he is competing in the June 6-13 event, held around the French Alps, simply to tweak his preparations for the Tour which is held July 3-25.
"I'll be racing the Dauphine without any pressure, looking to perfect my set-up," the Astana team leader said.
But the fact he said that after spending four days reconnoitring the Pyreneean stages of the Tour suggests the Spaniard will get his racing head on in a bid to win yet another stage race.
Taking in a 49km time trial and a first ever ride up the 21 hairpin bends of the legendary Alpe d'Huez, it promises to be a thrilling week of racing.
At least on paper, there are few riders Contador should have to fear.
Russian Denis Menchov, who won the 2009 Giro d'Italia, is a handy climber and French veteran Christophe Moreau is a former two-time Dauphine winner, albeit in 2001 and 2007.
Euskaltel's Samuel Sanchez, while not a pure climber, is an intelligent and gritty rider and won the Olympic title in 2008 on a very tough course in Beijing.
At first glance the opening prologue, held over just 6km, doesn't look that challenging.
But the fact it features a 2.4km climb is testament to what the new race organisers ASO (Amaury Sports Organisation) - who also own the Tour de France - have in store for the coming days,
Stage one from Evian-les-Bains to Saint-Laurent-du-Pont features four small climbs, prompting most of the peloton into using the smaller chainring and getting up out of the saddle.
The second stage from Annonay to Bourg-Saint-Andeol features four climbs, and with the Col du Moulin-a-Vent (10.5km) and Col du Benas (10.6km) is a stage the overall contenders can't afford to miss.
One of Contador's master strokes at last year's Tour de France was his victory in the penultimate stage time trial around Lake Annecy, a win which confirmed what had already become a formality.
Having, like most Tour candidates, spent time in a wind tunnel recently perfecting his time trial position Contador will get a chance to test it for real in stage three's 49km race against the clock from Monteux to Sorgues.
Although climbing is on the menu every other day, including the 12.8km ascension to Risoul on stage four, the main event is the climb to Alpe d'Huez two days later.
Beginning with two warm-up climbs, stage six will drag the peloton for 19.5km up towards the Col du Glandon, with a 25km descent dropping them off at the foot of the Alpe.
Having featured on the Tour dozens of times, Contador - arguably the best climber in world cycling - may be more eager than most to make history by winning the stage on its maiden appearance on the Dauphine.