Tour de France hopefuls Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) are among the top riders to line up at the Dauphine Libere, starting this Sunday.

The week-long Alpine stage race comprises of Sunday’s (June 8) opening prologue followed by six road stages and one time trial.

Traditionally the Dauphine Libere is viewed as a mini-Tour de France, with its structure (prologue followed by flat stages, a time trial, and showdown in the mountains) similar in format to July’s more important race. It’s also just far enough away time-wise from the Tour for last minute changes to be made to the contenders approach road to the Tour.

The Dauphine’s unwritten role of dress rehearsal for the Tour makes it the main contenders first opportunity to see how their rivals are going prior to July. With seven out of the top ten finishers in Paris present in the Dauphine Libere, there’s certainly going to be plenty to look at.

On top of that a year when the Tour is so wide open, the top riders will almost certainly want to start the mind-games early. Getting in a good Dauphine is the perfect way of intimidating your enemies before the Tour.

Last year’s Dauphine winner Christophe Moreau will not be taking part. His Agritubel team have not been invited. That makes the race even more wide open, with French hopes of success largely based on how climber David Moncoutie (Cofidis), back after a long period fighting injuries, can cope with the four Alpine stages.

The action will really hot up from Wednesday’s individual time trial – when you can expect to see Evans attempt to stamp his authority on the race – and Thursday’s stage four, when the riders hit the Alps proper and the climbers will be testing their form.

The Col du Joux-Plane on Friday will be one high point of the race, but the really decisive stage is on Saturday, with the summit finish up to the Toussuire ski station (last seen in the 2006 Tour) in the northern Alps.

There are two unusual ingredients in this year’s Dauphine. Firstly the race will not tackle the climbs used in the Tour – the Dauphine is largely based in the northern Alps this year, and the Tour mainly in the south. Secondly, Astana are racing in the Dauphine, led by American Levi Leipheimer (a winner of the race back in 2006), and as is well known the Kazakh squad won’t be taking part in the Tour.

Having had barely a week’s rest from the Giro d’Italia, Charly Wegelius (Liquigas) is the sole British representative on the official start list, and will be there to provide support in the mountains for his team.

Bradley Wiggins (High Road) won the prologue at last year’s event, but has elected to miss the race this year to have a well-earned break after riding the Giro. Seeing how his team-mate and triple World Time Trial champion Mick Rogers gets on after barely racing because of illness this spring will be another interesting feature of this year’s Dauphine.

The race ends on Sunday, June 15, in Grenoble.

We’ll be covering the Dauphine Libere here on www.cyclingweekly.com with daily reports, comment, analysis, blogs and exclusive photography from Sunday.

DAUPHINE LIBERE 2008: STAGES

Sunday June 8, Prologue, Le Pontet-Avignon, 5.6km

Monday June 9, Stage one, Avignon-Privas, 194km

Tuesday June 10, Stage two, Bourg Saint Andeol-Vienne

Wednesday June 11, Stage three ITT, Saint Paul en Jarez, 31km

Thursday June 12, Stage four, Vienne-Annemasse, 193km

Friday June 13, Stage five, Ville la Grand-Morzine

Saturday June 14, Morzine-La Toussuire, 233km

Sunday June 15, Saint Jean De Maurienne-Grenoble, 128km

TEAMS AND LEADERS

Ag2r (Cyril Dessel)

Astana (Levi Leipheimer)

Bouygues Telecom (Thomas Voeckler)

Caisse d’Epargne (Alejandro Valverde)

Cofidis (David Moncoutie)

Credit Agricole (Thor Hushovd)

CSC (Carlos Sastre)

Euskaltel-Euskadi (Haimar Zubeldia, Samuel Sanchez)

Francaise des Jeux (Sandy Casar)

Gerolsteiner (Heinrich Haussler)

High Road (Michael Rogers)

Lampre (Emanuele Bindi)

Liquigas (Manuel Beltran)

Milram (Sergio Ghisalberti)

Quick Step (Carlos Barredo)

Rabobank (Robert Gesink)

Saunier Duval-Scott (Jose Angel Gomez Marchante)

Silence-Lotto (Cadel Evans)

LAST TEN WINNERS

2007 Christophe Moreau (Fra)

2006 Levi Leipheimer (USA)

2005 Inigo Landaluze (Spa)

2004 Iban Mayo (Spa)

2003 Lance Armstrong (USA)

2002 Lance Armstrong (USA)

2001 Christophe Moreau (Fra)

2000 Tyler Hamilton (USA)

1999 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz)

1998 Armand De Las Cuevas (Fra)

DAUPHINE ON BRITISH EUROSPORT

Sunday June 8, 17:45-18:45

Monday June 9, 19:30-20:15

Tuesday June 10, 19:30-20:30

Wednesday June 11, 14:15-15:45

Thursday June 12, 19:15-20:30

Friday June 13, 19:30-20:30

Saturday June 14, 14:45-16:00

Sunday June 15, 15:15-16:15

Times subject to change. British Eurosport is available on Sky (Channel 410) and Virgin Media (Channel 521). Also available on Top Up TV (Channel 33) from 7:30am to 11:00am.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Dauphine Libere official website: www.ledauphine.com.