The Critérium du Dauphiné (formerly the Dauphiné Libéré) is generally touted as being the biggest and best warm-up race for the Tour de France. But with the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de Luxembourg also taking place in the first half of June, does it really warrant that tag? Let’s take a quick look.
The big picture
The Dauphiné has an in-built advantage insofar that, like the Tour, it is organised by ASO and is run in the Dauphiné region of south-eastern France which includes a large swathe of the French Alps. This means that the parcours for the two races can be designed to overlap, providing useful training for what is to come in July. (For instance, this year’s Tour features Alpe d’Huez and so the Dauphiné’s course also includes the Alpe, while last year’s time trial-heavy Tour parcours was mirrored by a Dauphiné itinerary which also included two time trials.)
By virtue of this and also its storied history the Dauphiné tends to be favoured by the majority of the Tour contenders, who see it as the perfect crucible in which to measure their form against most of their rivals, resulting in racing which is that little bit more intense – and therefore ultimately more useful. That gives the eight-day Dauphiné an edge over the nine-day Tour de Suisse, whose Alpine parcours is generally of a similar level of difficulty, and a distinct advantage over the Tour de Luxembourg, which is both shorter (a prologue plus four stages) and nowhere near as mountainous.
In recent years, the winner of the Tour has usually raced – and raced well – at the Dauphiné. In 2012 Bradley Wiggins did the Dauphiné-Tour double. In the previous two years, Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador were both runner-up at the Dauphiné (although the latter, of course, had his ‘win’ taken away from him due to his doping violation – eventual champion Andy Schleck raced the Tour de Suisse that year). Contador also raced the Dauphiné in his official Tour-winning years of 2007 and 2009, finishing sixth and third respectively. 2008 champion Carlos Sastre is the exception: he did not complete any of the June races. But, by and large, the Tour champion-in-waiting can be found running at the sharp end of the Dauphiné.
Using last year as an example, let’s look more closely at the correlation between success at the Dauphiné and success at the Tour. Here’s the Dauphiné top ten from 2012, mapped against their respective Tour result.
Six of the top ten at the Dauphiné – including the double-winning Wiggins – went on to place in the top ten at the Tour. Of the four who didn’t, Wilco Kelderman didn’t race the Tour at all while the others rode in the service of others: Michael Rogers and Richie Porte were key members of Sky’s overpowering mountain train, while Vasil Kiryienka was a domestique for Movistar. A simple conclusion: ride well at the Dauphiné, and you’ll ride well at the Tour.
Equally, if you flip it the other way and look at the final Tour top ten, nine of those men rode in the Dauphiné. Podium finisher Vincenzo Nibali was 28th, while Tejay van Garderen and Pierre Rolland were 14th and 21st. All three were either coming into form a bit later than their rivals or deliberately chose to keep a lower profile to conceal their condition, but clearly benefitted from having participated in the race. Only tenth-placed Thibaut Pinot focussed his preparation elsewhere, withdrawing from the Tour de Suisse before the final stage while lying tenth overall.
When looking at the top tens from Switzerland and Luxembourg, the gulf in competition becomes even more obvious. None of the top ten at either race finished in the top ten at the Tour and the two races combined to supply just four of the top 20: Ag2r La Mondiale’s Nicolas Roche (12th), Movistar’s Rui Costa (18th) and Alejandro Valverde (20th) raced in Switzerland, while RadioShack-Nissan’s Maxime Monfort (16th) was the sole representative of Luxembourg’s top ten.
I’ve only looked at 2012 in detail here, but the pattern in other years is similar. It’s true: the ultimate form guide for the Tour de France is the Critérium du Dauphiné. By virtue of being the best all-round preparation for the Tour it tends to attract most of the major players, and consequently a strong ride at the Dauphiné is generally the best indicator of those who will ride well a month later in La Grande Boucle.