The question is ? who wants to win?
Some of the best stage racers in the world breakfasted in Annemasse this morning, fuelling up for a potentially decisive climb up the Col de Joux-Plane today. But the evidence of the previous few days? racing is that there are two conflicting agendas at the Dauphine.
So far, the Tour favourites have been keeping their powder pretty dry. The old cycling saying that a good Dauphine leads to a bad Tour has frightened them into torpor. It happened last year, and apart from Alejandro Valverde?s two stage wins, race followers fear that it?s going to happen this year.
Mont Salève, which came just before the finish into Annemasse yesterday, was the kind of climb and descent which could easily translate into a 20 or 30 second gap for an aggressive rider. Instead, it saw a stalemate, with nobody willing to risk the energy expenditure.
For Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde and Carlos Sastre, the three most viable Tour contenders here, the yellow and blue leader?s jersey is a colourful distraction from the real business in July. Valverde has even admitted as much.
But two riders are lurking in the top 10 for whom such concerns are non-existent. Robert Gesink and Levi Leipheimer are not riding the Tour, Gesink because his management think he?s too young, Leipheimer because ASO think his team too tainted by former scandals.
Leipheimer is the logical favourite ? he?s won the race before, and it?s pretty clear that Astana are making a symbolic bid to win every major stage race they enter, and thereby thumb their noses at ASO. They?ve succeeded so far, as well, having won the Giro, Tour of Romandy and the Tour of the Basque Country. (Watch Andreas Klöden go for the Tour of Germany and Alberto Contador at the Vuelta). He didn?t look brilliant on Mont Salève yesterday, but Leipheimer?s a naturally conservative rider ? it suited him down to the ground that nobody else was interested in attacking. He?s now got the Joux-Plane, and La Toussuire tomorrow, to play with. If Valverde and company have to go into the red to follow him, they?ll let him go.
Gesink is 2-28 down overall, and that?s a big gap to close in a week-long stage race. However, pound-for-pound he?s one of the two or three best climbers in the world. He?s likely to ride faster up the steep Joux-Plane than anybody else, and will be a lot closer to the lead by this evening.
Ironically, Gesink could be Leipheimer?s best chance of victory. The whole race is waiting for Gesink to go on the Joux-Plane ? all Leipheimer has to do is follow, and the win is his. He can even afford to lose time to Gesink ? he?s got a two-minute cushion on the Dutchman.
ALEJANDRO VALVERDE ? FIRST OVERALL
Has won an uphill sprint and a surprising time trial victory. Had no trouble defending his lead on Mont Salève yesterday.
Will defend up to a point, but has openly stated he won?t go too deep so close to the Tour de France. However, he has a decent lead over all of his rivals, save Leipheimer and Evans.
Chances of overall victory: ****
LEVI LEIPHEIMER ? SECOND OVERALL AT 0-23
Disappointed in the time trial, then disappointed on Mont Salève. He?s got a naturally conservative racing style, but some observers reckoned he looked shaky on the climb, which bodes ominously for the Joux-Plane.
Astana specialise in the art of the bluff, however, and they are desperate to win this race. He?s their only viable winner. If he?s strong enough to attack today, Valverde and Evans may not risk their Tour hopes to go after him.
Chances of overall victory: *****
CADEL EVANS ? THIRD OVERALL at 0-37
Looks like a man who is getting in some high quality training miles. He started the season with some uncharacteristically aggressive racing, and we all loved it. Since then, he?s turned back into the Italian football team ? defend, defend, and defend.
Chances of overall victory: ***
ROBERT GESINK ? EIGHTH OVERALL AT 2-28
He?s the wild card. Gesink isn?t racing the Tour de France, so he?s free to do whatever he likes in this race. With two major days in the mountains to come, he?ll be in his element. He was awesome at Paris-Nice, and will only be stronger here.
The Joux-Plane suits him perfectly ? it?s relentlessly steep, and if the Dutchman turns on the afterburners, not many will be able to follow. His biggest problem ? at Paris-Nice, he got weaker in the final two days, and lost the race on a hilly stage not dissimilar to the last day here on Sunday.
Chances of overall victory: *****
Maxime Monfort, Mikel Astarloza and Oscar Pereiro all have Grand Tour top 12 places to their name, and all are lurking in the top 10 here. Pereiro is likely to have to work for Valverde, if he?s still interested in winning, but is a useful wild card for Caisse d?Epargne.
He?ll relieve the pressure on Valverde. Monfort and Astarloza are both hoping for top 10s at the Tour de France, but might find their market value more increased by a win here.
Chances of overall victory: **
DAUPHINE LIBERE 2008: STAGE REPORTS
Stage four: Daring descent nets Dessel the win
Stage three: Valverde takes control of Dauphine
Stage two: Hincapie outclasses bunch in Dauphine
Stage one: Valverde takes classy win
Prologue: Leipheimer soars to Dauphine prologue win
NEWS & FEATURES
Analysis: Is Valverde suddenly brilliant against the clock
Evans says Tour within his power
War weary Wegelius battles on in Dauphine
Hushovd: Boonen affair “not good for cycling”
Flat start for Dauphine Libere
Dauphine Libere 2008 preview
2008 Dauphine Libere photo gallery. New photos added daily>>