During its previous 60 editions, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré has never travelled far from its roots. The headquarters of the daily newspaper of the same name emanating from the French Alps is in Grenoble, where the race will once again end on June 14; the event's start is dictated by commercial reasons, however.
The start in Nancy arises from the fact that the publication now belongs to a group that owns almost all the regional newspapers from the north to the south east part of France. This city, the capital of the Lorraine region close to Germany, will host an unusual prologue - a 'long', opening 12-kilometre test against the clock on an undulating course.
From the start, the favourites will provide an indication of their condition, despite the fact that the Dauphiné can often be a topsy-turvy race. As a pre-Tour de France event, it combines riders who are ready for the main period of the season with others who are preparing but who don't give their all or refuse to show all their cards and their real form.
Alberto Contador is the first name on the lips of those selecting the favourites. "The Dauphiné is a very important test for me," said the Spaniard, who has been on site earlier than his rivals. He went to reconnoitre the Alpine stages of the Tour de France and could already feel the 'heat' of the Dauphiné a week before the race.
As usual the event features the biggest climbs in the second half of the week. Stage two to Dijon in another regional capital known for the wine and the food of Burgundy is designed for the sprinters. That's where everybody will be curious to see Tom Boonen in action. The Belgian is on a mission to convince the organisers of the Tour de France to let him race this year despite another out-of-competition drug offence.
He might have two chances to score as stage three takes the bunch to Saint-Etienne via smoother terrain than usual. It will be the 25th visit of the Dauphiné to the town that used to be the home of the French bicycle manufacturers. Local rider Cyril Dessel will do his best to restore the good image of his AG2R-La Mondiale team, which has only one win this year - Rinaldo Nocentini's stage at the Tour of California.
The fourth day follows the Dauphiné formula with a reasonably long individual time trial - race organisers Thierry Cazeneuve and Charly Mottet want to concentrate all the ingredients of the Tour de France in one week. A 42km course in Valence will not only be a test for Contador, who will have the 40 km ITT in Annecy at the Tour de France in mind, but it may provide Linus Gerdemann with the chance of shaking up cycling's current hierarchy.
While Contador is making his return to competition after a seven-week break that followed his Tour of Basque Country win, Gerdemann has the rhythm of racing in his legs and the feeling of success. He recently won the Bayern Rundfahrt as Alejandro Valverde claimed the overall win at the Tour of Catalunya. Valverde is the defending champion at the Dauphiné, having beaten Cadel Evans last year.
He appears at the top of his game but awaits a decision from the UCI relating to an extension of the ban he faces in Italy to other nations; with this in mind he is in doubt to start the Tour de France. He'll be happy to have the constantly-efficient support of Oscar Pereiro, who is making his return to the Alps after his dramatic crash on the col d’Agnel during last year's Tour de France.
With Contador, Valverde, Pereiro and Evans, the fifth big name for overall honours at the Dauphiné is Ivan Basso. Frustrated over his performance at the Giro d’Italia where he rode well and finished fifth but didn't collect the success he expected, the Italian wants to profit from the condition he has after his national Tour before taking a break in July. The Tour de France is not in the picture for him this year. He is looking at the Vuelta and the world championship at the end of the season.
The Dauphiné offers this quintet enough climbs to express itself and makes for great racing. On Thursday, the race will return to the Mont Ventoux after a year's absence, which is another warm up for the Tour de France. La Grande Boucle is also returning to the Giant of Provence on the penultimate day this year.
Stage six includes the Izoard prior to the uphill spectacular finish in the 'gargouille' of Briançon's old town. Stage seven is even more gruelling, with the Galibier (on the easiest side), the Télégraphe and the Croix-de-Fer before the finish - never done before - in the station of St-François-Longchamp, five kilometres from the top of the col de la Madeleine.
The is a fabulous occasion for the young climbers to challenge the established champions: Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Dan Martin (Garmin-Slipstream) who was the runner up at the Tour of Catalunya, Jacob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank), Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux), Amaël Moinard (Cofidis) and Pierre Rolland (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) - who was the king of the mountains at the Dauphiné last year - all have the chance to stamp their mark on the world of cycling. Their time has come....