The big Tour warm-up race is just around the corner
Sky seek to dominate despite Froome’s absence
The Critérium du Dauphiné is a race that Team Sky are in the habit of dominating. Almost all of Chris Froome’s yellow jersey wins at the Tour de France have been preceded by overall victory in this race (the only exception being last year, when he finished fourth), while Bradley Wiggins won successive editions between 2011-2012.
This year, however, the circumstances are different. Froome is taking a much-needed break after his exploits at the Giro d’Italia, meaning that for the first time in Sky’s history, their Dauphiné roster will be missing their leader for the Tour de France.
Nonetheless, it remains strong enough to challenge for the overall. Geraint Thomas will deputise for Froome, and should have the form to do so having built up his season to peak at this point.
While there’s still a chance that Froome may be barred from riding the Tour depending on the outcome of the ongoing salbutamol case, Sky will be hoping that Thomas can prove himself a worthy alternative.
Then there’s the matter of Egan Bernal. The 21-year old has already show maturity way beyond his years to winning the Tour of California and making star turns at stage races like the Tour de Romandie and Volta a Catalunya. Competing for the tougher Dauphiné would be another step up, but right now the Colombian looks capable of almost anything.
Vincenzo Nibali returns
In anticipation of his first Tour de France bid since 2015, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will make his first appearance at the Dauphiné since then.
So far this season Nibali has been quiet, but came to life on one of the biggest days of the year to win Milan-San Remo.
Historically, it has been difficult to deduce much about Nibali’s form based on his performances at the Dauphiné. Despite going on to win the Tour a month later, he looked flat here in 2014 to finish seventh overall, and was a model of inconsistency the following year, allowing himself to be dropped one day before bouncing back spectacularly on the next.
His potential for overall victory is therefore unpredictable, but, knowing Nibali, he’s likely to intrigue and entertain whatever the circumstances.
Romain Bardet seeking biggest win of his career
Despite his considerable talent and success, Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) is surprisingly without a WorldTour-ranked stage race overall victory on his palmares.
Whenever he has gotten close, it has been invariably been Chris Froome who has thwarted him – three times the Frenchman has finished on the podium behind him, at both the last two Tours de France as well as the 2016 Dauphiné.
With Froome absent from the Dauphiné this year, this might be his chance – although his team do not look well equipped the handle the lengthy team time trial on stage three.
Bardet leads what is an impressive line-up of home French riders, including puncheur Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) – who always looks good for a stage win – and Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic), who is in desperate need of some form.
Adam Yates and other potential contenders
Although many Tour hopefuls have either opted to ride the Tour de Suisse (like Nairo Quintana and Richie Porte), or to take a much-needed rest following the Giro (like Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin), the Dauphiné has still attracted plenty of big name riders building towards the Grand Boucle.
One such rider is Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), who may feel the bar has been raised following his brother Simon’s performance at the Giro. After recovering from injuries sustained in a crash earlier in the season, he returned to racing with fourth overall at the Tour of California a few weeks ago, and looks ready to challenge for the overall at the Dauphiné.
Two riders lining up hoping to finally find some pre-Tour form are Dan Martin (UAE Emirates) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), who both are currently winless in 2018, while Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) switches his attention to stage racing again after his superb victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April.
And, finally, Movistar have selected Marc Soler as their team leader in the absence of their three major Tour de France contenders – the last time that happened, the Spaniard won the yellow jersey at Paris-Nice.
Few chances for the sprinters
The only chances offered to the sprinters occur on the two days immediately following the opening prologue, and even those stages are complicated by rolling terrain that might play into the hands of any riders who opt to get into a breakaway.
The lack of opportunities is reflected in a lineup notably short on big name sprinters. The bunch sprint kings Quick-Step Floors have called upon their fourth choice fastman Fabio Jakobsen to compete in the possible bunch finishes, while the best of the rest include Team Sunweb’s Phil Bauhaus (who won a stage at last year’s race), 2016 points classification winner Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie).
With so few sprinters competing, however, the stage might be set for escape specialists to succeed in these opening stages. That’s what happened last year when won stage one from a lone attack, and went on to hold the yellow jersey for the following five days. The Belgian has been his usual indomitable self this season, and will be hard to bring back if he does indeed get into a break.
A chance to recon some Tour de France stages
The Dauphiné is commonly referred to as the main warm-up event for the Tour de France, and for good reason. It’s like a mini version of the Grand Boucle, usually designed to have a similar balance of climbing and time trialling, and often featuring some of the same roads that will be tackled a month before the big event.
That’s again the case this year, with a 35km team time trial included on stage three to function as an ideal preparation for the equal distance stage in Cholet come July.
Similarly, stage six is virtually identical to stage eleven of the Tour, giving the riders a chance to learn about the little-known climb of La Rosière that will be the finishing point of both stages.
As the penultimate stage of the Dauphiné, it should provide some thrilling GC action, too.
A mountainous final few days
Perhaps to counterbalance the considerable effect the long team time trial will have on the GC, the organisers have included summit finishes on each of the final four stages.
Stage four’s category two-ranked finish in Lans-en-Vercors is the easiest of the four, although that day the riders must first take on the punishingly long Col de Mont Noir. The following day is the inverse of this pattern, with about 80km of flat followed a huge hors-categorie climb to Valmorel.
Stage six will be the queen stage, with two hors-categorie climbs tackled before the finish atop La Rosière, but, recent stage races suggest that the four category one climbs crammed into the short 129km final stage will be the scene of lots of attacking racing and potential last-minute changes in the overall classification.