The eight-day Dauphine Libere, which starts this Sunday, is set to fulfill its usual role of warm-up event for the Tour de France. In a year where fans are having a tough job predicting who will be in form come July and who won’t, the race results will be subject to even greater scrutiny than usual.

For British fans, the most interesting day will almost certainly be this Sunday and the 4.2 kilometre opening prologue in Grenoble. Run-off on a pancake-flat, dead-straight course, it will be the one opportunity prior to London to see the two British candidates for July?s Tour prologue, David Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis), in a head-to-head duel.

For those looking for a form-guide for the Tour de France overall, the prologue is far from being the only opportunity. Following two sprint stages, the 40.7 kilometre hilly time trial on Wednesday will shed some light on how the major Tour specialists in the race against the clock are going.

The highlight of the race, though, will be the ascent of the Mont Ventoux on Thursday. But whoever takes control of gc will then have to defend the yellow and blue leader?s jersey on Saturday?s 198 kilometre trek through the high Alps from Gap – featuring an ascent of the Croix de Fer, Mollard and Telegraphe. In total over 4000 metres of climbing.

Amongst the long list of top foreign names taking part are Caisse D?Epargne?s duo Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Pereiro, CSC?s Dave Zabriskie, Discovery Channel?s Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador, Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin (Astana), Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), and Magnus Backstedt (Liquigas). For the sprints Tom Boonen (Quick Step) will have Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) as his main opponent.

How likely is it that one of these big riders actually wins the Dauphine rather than playing the Tour favourites usual poker game this June?

In a year where the Tour will be even more open than in 2006, all of them will be looking to put in a strong ride at some point – both to reassure themselves and their teams that they are on track for July. However, at the same time, no big name wants to force themselves and go into the red – as Leipheimer did in 2006, winning the race and then blowing the Tour completely.

One top American rider who recently climbed the Ventoux, a week before the Dauphine, has no such worries. American Lance Armstrong was spotted ascending the Giant of Provence on his bike on Thursday in the company of Jim Ochowicz, American Cycling Federation president, apparently to celebrate a friend?s birthday. Armstrong, who returned to the US shortly afterwards, took two hours to do the climb, a long way off the 57-49 he recorded for the Ventoux in the 2004 time trial of the Dauphine.

Stage Date From – To Length
Prologue Sunday June 10 Grenoble ? Grenoble 5km
Stage 1 Monday June 11 Grenoble ? Roanne 219km
Stage 2 Tuesday June 12 Saint-Paul-en-Jarez ? Saint-Etienne 157km
Stage 3 Wednesday June 13 Anneyron ? Anneyron ITT 40.7km
Stage 4 Thursday June 14 Hauterives ? Le Mont Ventoux 197km
Stage 5 Friday June 15 Nyons ? Digne-les-Bains 195km
Stage 6 Saturday June 16 Gap ? Valloire 198km
Stage 7 Sunday June 17 Valloire ? Annecy 129km

Overall length – 1140.7km

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