The countdown to the Tour de France begins in Nancy on Sunday. The Dauphiné Libéré begins in previously uncharted territory, with a prologue in Nancy.

Traditionally the race takes place in and around the Alps, where the newspaper that gives the event its name is circulated. The newspaper company has been bought by a group based in Nancy, and so it’ll take the race a couple of days to get onto more familiar ground.

After the time trial and a flat stage for the sprinters, the Dauphiné will be back on ‘home’ soil.

There are four key stages. Wednesday’s 42-kilometre time trial is followed by a sneak preview of Mont Ventoux, which the Tour de France organisers hope will provide a thrilling denouement to their race next month. Then there are two further challenging stages in the Alps that will decide the general classification.

Alberto Contador is the big favourite, even though he hasn’t raced since winning the Tour of the Basque Country in April. However, with the Tour de France so close, whether Contador decides to race full-on for the general classification is another matter. But even a less-than-fully-motivated Contador is capable of riding his way onto the podium here.

OVERALL CONTENDERS

Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne)


Despite being banned from racing in Italy by CONI, and with the potential that the ban could prevent him from starting the Tour de France, Valverde will line up in Nancy to defend his Dauphiné Libéré title.

Alberto Contador (Astana)

The outstanding Tour de France favourite has the opportunity to demonstrate his credentials, if he can remember what a bike race is all about. His last competitive action was the Tour of the Basque Country two months ago.

Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne)

Continuing his return to form after breaking his leg in a crash during the Tour de France last year.

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto)

Last year’s runner-up was also second in the Tour de France. The Dauphiné will give some indication of what sort of challenge the Australian is likely to mount this summer.

Robert Gesink (Rabobank)

Did not ride the Tour last year, despite finishing fourth in the Dauphiné. Now 23 years old, he’ll ride his first Tour, most likely in support of Giro d’Italia champion Denis Menchov.

Ivan Basso (Liquigas)

Finished fifth in the Giro d’Italia and looked a long way off his amazing 2006 form. Isn’t riding the Tour de France, so he can give it everything here.

Dan Martin (Garmin-Slipstream)

The Birmingham-born Irish rider continues to negotiate the steep learning curve with skill and dexterity. Second place to Valverde at the Tour of Catalonia last month, the long time trial may be his undoing here, but it’ll be fascinating to see how he goes on Mont Ventoux.

Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas)

Unlike his team-mate Basso, Nibali will be riding the Tour de France.

Linus Gerdemann (Milram)

Will lead the Milram team, a squad which is thin on results this season.

OTHER NOTABLE RIDERS

Tom Boonen (Quick Step)


Back in action after his enforced rest following a second out-of-competition positive for cocaine. Whether top-level racing is what Boonen needs at the moment is debatable, but Quick Step know best.

David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream)

Rode a fortnight of the Giro d’Italia and is now on the way back into form. A good outsider for Sunday’s prologue time trial.

Gert Steegmans (Katusha)

Won the final stage of last year’s Tour on the Champs-Elysees, but has done precious little this season. Desperately needs a result.

THE STAGES

Stage one

Sunday, June 7: Nancy time trial, 12km

Rolling route with a fourth-category climb after three kilometres.

TV British Eurosport – 5pm-6pm

Stage two

Monday, June 8: Nancy – Dijon, 228km

A long day and most likely a stage for the sprinters. There are two fourth-category climbs back-to-back with 92 kilometres to go

TV Eurosport 2 – 2.15pm-3.30pm

Stage three

Tuesday, June 9: Tournus – Saint-Etienne, 182km

Back into more familiar Dauphiné Libére country, but with a less familiar approach to Saint-Etienne, from the north.

TV Eurosport 2 – 3pm-4.15pm

Stage four

Wednesday, June 10: Bourg-les-Valence – Valence time trial, 42km

This is the first critical stage in the race for the leader’s jersey. There’s a fourth-category climb at the halfway mark to upset the rhythm.

TV Eurosport 2 – 3pm-4.15pm

Stage five

Thursday, June 11: Valence – Le Mont Ventoux, 154km

The big warm-up for the Tour and a chance for the riders to reacquaint themselves with the Giant of Provence. The last time it featured on the Dauphiné route was in 2007, when Christophe Moreau won.

TV Eurosport 2 – 3pm-4.15pm

Stage six

Friday, June 12: Gap – Briançon, 106km

A short stage which is all about the Col d’Izoard and the descent to Briançon.

TV Eurosport 2 – 3.10pm-3.30pm

Stage seven

Saturday, June 13: Briançon – Saint-François-Longchamp, 157km

Two more big climbs on the route today. The Galibier and the Croix de Fer, with the first-category climb at Saint-Françoise-Longchamp at the end.

TV British Eurosport – 5pm-6pm

Stage eight

Sunday, June 14: Faverges – Grenoble, 146km

A relatively gentle conclusion to the race, with just the Saint-Bernard-du-Trouvet climb to trouble the riders.

TV British Eurosport – 3.05pm-4pm

DAUPHINE LIBERE 2008

The 2008 Dauphiné Libéré top 10 – and how the riders did at the Tour de France

1 Alejandro Valverde – 9th and two stage wins

2 Cadel Evans – 2nd

3 Levi Leipheimer – did not start (Astana were not invited)

4 Robert Gesink – did not start

5 Haimar Zubeldia – 45th

6 Cyril Dessel – 28th and a stage win

7 Mikel Astarloza – 16th

8 Sylvester Szmyd – 26th

9 Maxime Monfort – 23rd

10 Matteo Carrara – 36th

RECENT WINNERS

2007 Christophe Moreau (France)

2006 Levi Leipheimer (USA)

2005 Inigo Landaluze (Spain)

2004 Iban Mayo (Spain)

2003 Lance Armstrong (USA)

2002 Lance Armstrong (USA)

2001 Christophe Moreau (France)

2000 Tyler Hamilton (USA)

1999 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan)