Dauphine: make or break time for Evans
Cadel Evans in the yellow jersey in the 2011 Tour de France (Courtesy BMC - Tim de Waele)
When Australia’s Cadel Evans rides down the ramp at the start of the prologue time trial at next week’s Critérium du Dauphiné, he may feel a tinge of sentimentality.
The 5.7km race against the clock takes place in the university town of Grenoble, the same place where Evans secured victory in last July’s Tour de France with a stellar ride in the decisive ITT on the penultimate day of the race.
Evans will see some familiar faces, too: Andy Schleck, the Tour runner-up whose yellow jersey Evans snatched on that dramatic day, will be present. So too will Bradley Wiggins, who beat Evans in the Dauphiné last year and who is currently in the form of his life.
Held this year between third and 10th of June, the Critérium du Dauphiné is an eight-day stage race in the French Alps that is usually billed as a dress rehearsal for the Tour one month later.
Not only is the race now run by ASO, the Tour organisers, it also features the same familiar classification jerseys and the same 22 teams while some of the Grande Boucle’s most famous names through the years – the likes of Lance Armstrong, Miguel Indurain, Greg Lemond, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx – have all won the Dauphiné in the past.
Given the location of the race, it’s no surprise that the route is a mountainous one. But the presence of a long 53km test against the clock as well as the opening prologue means it’s a route that specifically favours time trial specialists with the ability to cope with the climbs.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that last year’s winner was Wiggins – the British Team Sky rider who is emerging as one of the out-and-out favourites for the 2012 Tour de France, which features less summit finishes than recent years, plus more than 100 kilometres of time trials.
Wiggins’ victory in the Dauphiné last year saw him elevated to one of the danger men in the 2011 Tour – only for an unfortunate collarbone break to bring his chances crashing down to earth after barely a week.
On paper, Evans is also a rider who should excel in the Dauphiné – although it’s worth pointing out that the last man to do the Dauphiné-Tour double was Armstrong, back in 2003. Since then the Dauphiné’s win sheet features names like Inigo Landaluze, Christophe Moreau, Alejandro Valverde and Janez Brajkovic – that’s to say, men who have had limited impact on the Tour GC.
But the Dauphiné will carry extra significance this year simply because the form of both Evans and Schleck is so suspect.
While Wiggins has gone from strength to strength, winning both Paris-Nice and the Tour of Romandie while also picking up stage scalps, neither Evans nor the man he pipped for yellow last July have come anywhere near to showing even a mere veneer of their capabilities.
Schleck has experienced an entirely fruitless campaign riddled with injury; the RadioShack Nissan rider has no UCI points to his name – although this week he was finally awarded the yellow jersey for his ‘victory’ in the 2010 Tour following Alberto Contador’s belated disqualification.
For his part, Evans’s time trial and overall victory in March’s Critérium International event in Corsica are the only positives to come from a season hampered by poor form and illness.
Winner of both Tirreno-Adriatico and Romandie in 2011, Evans finished 32nd and 29th in both stage races this spring; in between he failed to complete April’s Amstel Gold because of a sinus infection.
Should Evans fail to sniff out some form next week, alarm bells would be ringing – and rightly so.
Speaking recently to Eurosport about the Tour, Wiggins was very diplomatic in stressing that “Cadel grinds it out, year-in, year-out, and last year’s winner has got to go in as the favourite”.
But what Wiggins then said seemed to question the drive of the 35-year-old BMC rider while also underlining Evans’s particular problems this season.
“He’s perhaps not had the same run as he did last year, but obviously things are different because he won the Tour last year and perhaps his motivation has changed a little bit,” Wiggins said with candour. “He’s going down a different path about it and hasn’t has the success as he did last year, but you never discount these people.”
Bjarne Riis, the directeur sportif of the Saxo Bank team of the banned Contador, certainly has not discounted Evans. Speaking to me in an exclusive TV interview for Eurosport at the launch of his autobiography ‘Riis: Stages of Light and Dark’ in London this week, the Danish 1996 Tour winner suggested that the Australian still had time to turn things round.
“If we look back over the season so far then Wiggins is the favourite,” Riis said. “Cadel has not been that strong but of course we also know that Cadel will put everything into the Tour and probably will be ready. If Cadel is up to his top standard then he might beat him. I would say Cadel is still the first favourite with Wiggins a close second.”
A lot will ride on the Dauphiné, a race Evans finished in second place last year behind Wiggins. As I said earlier, the Dauphiné is always seen as a curtain-raiser to France’s biggest stage race one month down the line, but this year the similarities between the two events are huge.
Not only does the Dauphiné’s long 53km ITT reflect the increase in time trial kilometres in this year’s Tour, stage five of the race is pretty much a copycat of stage 10 of the Tour – with roughly two-thirds of the route passing over the same roads, including the climb of the Grand Colombier, an ascent new to the Tour de France.
Another Australian taking part in the race, Lampre’s Matthew Lloyd, told Cyclingnews this week that this year’s Dauphiné was ” probably one of the most violent parcours I have ever seen”. Lloyd’s right: with just one flat stage that could incite a bunch finish, it’s certainly not a race for the sprinters.
Wiggins will certainly try to build on his season’s success and make history in becoming the first man to win Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie and the Dauphiné in one season – but for the likes of Evans and Schleck, the race will be a very different test.
Given their stuttering starts to the season, their aim will be to build up their form, fine tune their preparations and avoid any setbacks. But with so little time left before the Tour’s opening time trial in Liege on 30th June, a poor performance in the Dauphiné GC will be a hammer blow to the men that occupied the top two spots in the podium in Paris last July.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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