Tour de France stars Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong will lock horns this weekend at the Critérium International, their first meeting since fractuously riding as Astana team-mates at last summer’s Tour de France.
The battleground has also moved to the rugged Mediterranean island of Corsica, promising spectacular scenery as well as a complete shift in terrain and atmosphere to the race’s recent editions in the Ardennes.
The route now favours the climbers more. The mountainous opening stage traverses the narrow roads and rugged southern stretches of the island before a finish on the 14-kilometre climb of the Col d’Ospedale, which rises 900-odd metres above tourist friendly Porto-Vecchio, the event’s hub for the weekend.
Meanwhile, Sunday sees a 77-kilometre flat stage in the morning before a short time-trial around Porto Vecchio a few hours later.
This is not only the first occasion that the Critérium International – perhaps cycling’s most nomadic race – has visited Corsica but also the first race to take place on the island since 1982. It is thought to be an ASO dry run before deciding whether to host the Tour de France there in 2012.
The race has itself long been considered a mini Tour de France due to its versatile offerings, so incumbent yellow jersey winner and recent Paris-Nice champion Contador is a fitting favourite.
His closest challenger may come not be RadioShack leader Lance Armstrong but world champion Cadel Evans instead, who showed strong form and attacking spirit at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia) will also be in-form men to watch.
Garmin pair David Millar and Daniel Martin are also both looking for a good performance here.
The race is assured of a new champion, with last year’s winner Jens Voigt absent from the race. Saxo Bank were unable to send a team here, committed to Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Catalonia instead.
Critérium International 2010: Stages
Saturday 27 March, Stage 1, Porto-Vecchio – Col de l’Ospedale, 175.5km
Sunday 28 March, Stage 2, Porto-Vecchio – Porto-Vecchio, 75km
Sunday 28 March, Stage 3, Porto-Vecchio – Porto-Vecchio individual time-trial, 7.7km
Critérium International 2010: Teams and Leaders
Ag2r-La Mondiale (Fra) – Hubert Dupont
Astana (Kaz) – Alberto Contador
BBox Bouygues Telecom (Fra) – Thomas Voeckler
BMC Racing Team (Swi) – Cadel Evans
Bretagne – Schuller (Fra) – Lilian Jegou
Caisse d’Epargne (Spa) – Juan Jose Cobo
Cofidis (Fra) – David Moncoutié
Euskaltel-Euskadi (Spa) – Samuel Sanchez
Francaise des Jeux (Fra) – Benoit Vaugrenard
Garmin-Transitions (Usa) – David Millar
HTC – Columbia (Usa) – Michael Rogers
RadioShack (Usa) – Lance Armstrong
Roubaix Lille Metropole (Fra) – Clement Lhotellerie
Saur Sojasun (Fra) – Jerome Coppel
Skil-Shimano (Ned) – Yann Huguet
Team Sky (GBr) – Thomas Lofkvist
Vacansoleil (Ned) – Brice Feillu
Critérium International: Recent winners
2009: Jens Voigt (Ger)
2008: Jens Voigt (Ger)
2007: Jens Voigt (Ger)
2006: Ivan Basso (Ita)
2005: Bobby Julich (Usa)
2004: Jens Voigt (Ger)
2003: Laurent Brochard (Fra)
2002: Jose Martinez Trinidad (Spa)
2001: Rik Verbrugghe (Bel)
2000: Abraham Olano (Spa0
Critérium International 2010: The Brits
David Millar (Garmin-Transitions)
Russell Downing (Team Sky)