Thomas back to his best and looking for overall victory
Geraint Thomas has a mixed recent history at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Three years ago he arrived at the peak of his powers, dominating the opposition to take overall victory in much the same way as his triumph at the Tour de France a month later.
Last year, by contrast, he was still desperately trying to get into racing shape following the long lockdown-enforced break from racing; his performance was so under par that Ineos Grenadiers chose not to select him in their Tour de France line-up.
Based on his form so far this season, we should see the Thomas of 2018 rather than of 2021 at this year’s edition. The Welshman has improved as the year has gone on, building upon a top-25 finish at Tirreno-Adriatico in March to finish on the podium at Volta a Catalunya, and then win the Tour de Romandie.
The Dauphiné will be a huge race for Thomas, as he hopes to lay down a marker ahead of the Tour de France. With neither of the Slovenian superstars riding, he’s favourite to take overall victory, and doing so would make a big statement that he’s ready to compete with Primoź Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) next month.
It’s also a huge race for the Ineos Grenadiers team as a whole, given how disastrously last year’s edition went. As well as Thomas, Chris Froome was also drastically off-form, while the back problems that continue to bother Egan Bernal first emerged and forced him to abandon.
This year Thomas will have Richie Porte (who was second behind him at the Tour de Romandie) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (who needs to find some form to seal a place on the Tour line-up) in support, as well as ever-dependable super-domestique Michał Kwiatkowski. That should be a strong enough line-up to control the race, and exorcise the painful memories of last year.
Jumbo-Visma fine tune Tour preparations
Roglič might not be riding, but the racing this week at Dauphiné could still have a significant influence regarding his Tour de France chances.
That’s because his Jumbo-Visma team is using the Dauphine to fine tune his line-ups for the Tour, and for their crucial domestiques to get into top shape ahead of the role they will play next month.
The Dauphiné is a continuation of what has been months of planning towards the Tour, for which the line-up was named as early as the offseason. Five of those riders will be here at the Dauphine: experienced domestiques Tony Martin and Robert Gesink, recent revelation Jonas Vingegaard, climbing super-domestique Sep Kuss (who won a stage last year), and Steven Kruijswijk, who is set to lead.
Even without Roglič and Wout van Aert, that’s an extremely strong team, but one that still has some question marks hanging over it — neither Kruijswijk, or to a lesser extent Kuss, have quite reached their best form yet this year, and will need to do so quickly to be ready for the Tour.
A repeat of the success they enjoyed at last year’s Dauphiné, where the team won three of the five stages and held the overall lead throughout until Roglič’s precautionary abandonment, might be unlikely, but if Kruijswijk, Kuss and Vingegaard climb well and can get up there on GC, they’d look in very good shape for the Tour.
Top GC stars in Tour dress rehearsal
The Dauphiné is always billed as being a dress rehearsal for the Tour de France, and the stats back up its status.
The Tour-Dauphine double has been achieved five times in the last ten years, and on three of the five times it hasn’t, the eventual winner of the Tour still finished as high as the top four on GC at the Dauphine.
Plenty of Tour de France hopefuls will therefore be riding in the hope of perfecting their preparations, knowing that a high finish on GC is a strong indication of a possible victory at the Grande Boucle.
One team in particular to look out for is Movistar. Undeterred by past failures at Grand Tours in recent years, they’ve gone for another leadership trident, this time featuring Miguel Ángel López, Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde. The wisdom of having so many leaders in one team is questionable given how things have gone wrong for them in the past, but given the resurgence of Valverde this year, the way López rode into form to win Ruta del Sol recently, and how Mas always tends to hit form at just the right time, they could provide some real excitement at the Dauphiné.
In the absence of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step), hopes for a home winner lie with last year’s podium finisher Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) and David Gaudu (Grouapam-FDJ), whose performances during the spring and at the Vuelta a España last year suggests he’s on the cusp of becoming France’s new stage race star.
Nairo Quintana will be representing a French team, Arkéa Samsic, and will hope for better luck than last year when knee pain forced him to abandon. He’s an outside contender for overall victory, as are the likes of Ion Izagirre (Astana-Premier Tech), Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates), Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the Bahrain-Victorious duo of Jack Haig and Wout Poels.
Last chance saloon for Chris Froome
In every race he has entered this season, Chris Froome’s form has been a big talking point at the beginning, and in every one so far the conclusion has been that he remains far from where he needs to be to fulfil his ambition of competing for GC at the Tour de France.
As he enters the Dauphiné, the question is less whether he’ll still be a contender for the yellow jersey, but rather whether he is riding well enough to even merit selection in Israel Start-Up Nation’s Tour line-up.
The four-time Tour winner and three-time Dauphiné winner is still yet to make the top forty of any stage race this season, and has shown no signs of improvement as the season has gone on.
If Froome is once again off the pace, Israel Start-Up Nation will have to rethink their approach, and focus more on other aspects of their team. Michael Woods, for instance, could certainly animate the climbs and potentially chase a high GC finish, while Daryl Impey could be a contender should any stage finish in a large group sprint.
It might not be the glory of chasing overall victories the team must have dreamt of when they signed Froome on a multi-year contract starting this season, but these riders provide more modest potential the team are still capable of achieving.
Stage opportunities for the puncheurs rather than the sprinters
Prior to the final weekend’s mountainous stages, and with the exception of Wednesday’s time trials, this year’s Dauphine presents multiple chances for puncheurs and breakaway specialists to go for stage wins.
There’s a distinct lack of sprinter stages, with only stage three likely to produce a bunch sprint. Stages one and five might feature flat finishes, but have rolling terrain that will encourage attacks and likely be too hard for the pure sprinters. If they do end in sprints, all-rounders like Jasper Stuyven, Mads Pedersen (both Trek-Segafredo), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) might be among the few capable of staying in the lead group.
Other puncheurs are likely to attack on these stages in the hope of preventing a sprint, including Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Alex Aranburu, Alexey Lutsenko (both Astana-Premier Tech), Oliver Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet (both Ag2r Citroen).
And these same riders might also have opportunities on stages two and six. Although both parcours are hilly, the climbing might not quite be severe enough for the purer climber and GC candidates to ride away from everyone else, meaning the heavier puncheurs may be able to stay in contention for stage wins here too.
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