AVIGNON, France (AFP) — Astana have watered down pre-race predictions that their team leader for the Dauphine Libere, Levi Leipheimer, will emerge triumphant after a week of tough racing in the Alps.
Traditionally a warm-up for July's Tour de France, the hilly week-long race kicks off Sunday with a short time trial and by next Sunday should reveal who's hot and who's not for the upcoming battle for the yellow jersey.
With Astana not invited to this year's Tour, they will be keen this week to stay on a victory high following Alberto Contador's recent Giro d'Italia triumph.
After three weeks of toil helping Contador win the pink jersey in Italy, Leipheimer, 34, will be looking for teammates Janez Brajkovic of Slovenia, Spaniard Daniel Navarro and fellow American Chris Horner to turn in the favours.
However Astana's co-team manager Alain Gallopin believes the American, a winner here two years ago, could see his chances compromised by his recent efforts, not to mention the aims of his rivals.
"He's an experienced rider, he did his job well for Contador at the Giro without having to go too much into the red," said the Frenchman.
"But he might still pay for his efforts. For a favourite, the Dauphine perhaps comes a little too soon after the Giro.
"Normally, Levi should go well in the first part of the week. But he might struggle a bit more after that. You need to be fresh to do well in this race. The Giro was especially difficult and the Dauphine will be hard too."
Gallopin added: "He (Leipheimer) will be trying to win. He's among the favourites. But we have to also see how the other favourites, notably Evans and Valverde, go."
On paper, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Carlos Sastre (CSC), Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and Leipheimer are the big names to look out for in the Dauphine, which kicks off with a 5.6km prologue Sunday from Le Pontet to Avignon.
All four men will be keen to test their individual form, and the commitment of their respective helpers, in the final four days, most of which is climbing, and in particular the penultimate stage which goes over the difficult Croix-de-Fer alpine climb before finishing at La Toussuire.
While Valverde has rested recently following his stunning win in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic in April, Evans will be anxious to see just how serious the tendinitis on his knee is under racing conditions.
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