LEON, Spain -- Many of the Tour de France favorites head to Corsica this weekend in the two-day Criterium International that also serves as a preview of what awaits them this summer.
With the 2013 Tour's grand depart set for the Mediterranean island of Corsica, this weekend's race provides many of the Tour favorites a chance to scout the stages they will face during the first three stages of the 100th Tour.
Headlining the field is defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing). Along with his stage win at the Criterium du Dauphine, Criterium International was among Evans' few trips last year to the winner's podium.
The two-day, three-stage race is also the only time Evans will line up alongside teammate Tejay van Garderen this season before the Tour.
"It's really important for both of us, as it is important to race with everyone whom you ride with at the Tour before the Tour," Evans said in a team release. "I look forward to racing with him and getting to know him a bit better in our steps toward a good performance at the Tour."
Evans and van Garderen have split their racing schedule approaching the Tour, in part to give the team GC cards to play across the calendar.
After Criterium, van Garderen's next major goals will be the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse ahead of a return to Corsica in late June, while Evans will head to the Tour de Romandie and the Dauphine.
The race is often a called "mini Tour de France," and for this year's edition, that's more the case than ever.
Criterium returns to Corsica, as it has over the past three editions. The Tour stages are different than what they pack will see Saturday and Sunday, but many riders are taking advantage of the trip to check out the terrain.
"It has a special feeling this year because we'll be back for the grand depart at the Tour," Europcar's Pierre Rolland said on the race website. "The Criterium doesn't use the same roads, so it's more about soaking up the atmosphere than about testing the courses."
The caliber of the 16-team field this weekend is certainly on par with the Tour.
Joining Evans and van Garderen, who finished seventh and fifth in last year's Tour, respectively, are Tour runner-up Chris Froome and Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte (Sky); Andy Schleck and five-time Criterium winner Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard); and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), who will make his Tour debut this summer.
A planned start by Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) was scuttled due to the flu. Leading the team will be Michael Rogers, who was second to Evans last year by just 0.3 seconds in the time trial stage.
Among the American starters are neo-pros Joe Dombrowski and Ian Boswell (Sky) as well as Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Ben King (RadioShack-Leopard) and Caleb Fairly (Garmin-Sharp).
Top French riders include Thomas Voeckler and Rolland (Europcar), Jean Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and 2011 winner Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ). Sprinter Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), who crashed out of Paris-Nice after winning the first stage and snagging the leader's jersey, is also expected to start.
The route for the 82nd Criterium includes three stages over two days, with a time trial, a road stage and a mountaintop finale for a total distance of 272 kilometers.
The race opens Saturday with a morning road stage that loops around Porte Vecchio on the southern part of the island. The 89km course features a small climb midway through the stage, but it typically comes down to a mass gallop.
The pack reconvenes for an afternoon time trial that proves decisive in the battle for the overall. The 7km course is fairly technical in the first half, but features some long flats that tip the balance toward the specialists.
Sunday's 176km climbing stage features five rated climbs before hitting the 950-meter ascent up Col de l'Ospedale. The final climb is 14km long with an average grade of 6 percent, enough terrain to see attacks.
The move from northern France to Corsica in 2010 tipped the balance in favor of climbers. Riders like Voigt, who won three straight editions when it was held in the French Ardennes, don't stand a chance up the Ospedale climb.