Froome seeks season’s first win
This is a race he has dominated over the years, triumphing in three of the past four editions, and would break the record for most overall wins should he do so again next week.
But each of those previous three wins followed on from at least one stage win registered earlier in the year, whereas this season Froome has reached June without managing a single victory.
He has cut a calm figure in public and has expressed little concern for his lack of results on the road, citing his progress in training as evidence that he is on course for a successful Tour de France success.
But privately he must be itching to get back to winning ways as soon as possible.
How Sky’s squad is shaping up
For Team Sky, the Dauphiné is the race in which they finalise and refine the several months of work that has gone into preparing for the Tour de France, and consequently they tend to perform very well here.
Even before Froome became leader they enjoyed success in this race, having also won with Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and 2012.
It’s not just the form of the leader that is important to them, however – it is how well his back-up team perform.
The team’s extraordinary capacity to control the 2012 Tour de France, for instance, was foreshadowed by a Dauphiné the month before in which they placed three riders in the top four.
This year, Michal Kwiatkowski, Luke Rowe and Christian Knees all line at the Dauphiné ahead of expected starts at the Tour, and will have their performances monitored.
With Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa expected to join the team at the Grand Boucle once they’ve recovered and rested from the Giro, along with Wout Poels and Sergio Henao, others at the Dauphine will be riding for a limited place on the Tour line-up, including Peter Kennaugh, who was disappointed to miss out last year.
The season’s on-form stage racers
In the absence of an on-form Froome, other riders have dominated the major stage races this season, and will enter the Dauphiné fancying their chances of victory.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has been especially impressive, having won both the Volta a Catalunya and Tour of the Basque Country, and will enjoy the luxury of sole leadership in the absence of a resting Nairo Quintana.
In both those races Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) was runner-up, and has proven himself in the past to be one of the few riders capable of giving Sky and Froome serious headaches with his canny, resilient attacking.
And, finally, Richie Porte (BMC) is enjoying a stellar season following overall wins at the Tour Down Under and the Tour de Romandie, and will be confident heading into a race he once (in 2013) finished second behind Froome back when they were Sky teammates.
Other Tour de France contenders
Whereas Valverde, Contador and Porte all enter the Dauphiné with their preparations for the Tour de France very much on track, other yellow jersey hopefuls will be using this race to help get back on track seasons that have so far gone astray.
It will be fascinating to see how well Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) returns to racing following an injury-induced four-month absence, as an indication as to whether he can build the form necessary to mount a challenge for the maillot jaune at his debut Tour de France.
Whether Fabio Aru (Astana) can convincingly revise his goals from a scuppered Giro d’Italia bid towards a Tour de France GC ride should also become clearer based on how well he performs here.
And Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) will attract a lot of attention, as his home support wonders whether, as was the case in both 2015 and 2016, he can again ignite a quiet season with a star turn at the Dauphiné.
Rolling early stages
It’s not just GC riders who use the Dauphiné as a Tour warm-up – plenty of sprinters will be here to hone their racing legs, both in terms of sprinting form and preparing for all the climbing that awaits them.
Among the star sprinters on the start list are Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who has won three stages across the past two editions, fellow Frenchmen Arnaud Démare (FDJ) and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie), along with Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin).
There are chances for them to compete for wins in the opening days, although bunch sprints don’t look guaranteed – stage one looks too challenging, while the rolling terrain of stages two, three and five will complicate things.
As usual, the organisers have designed some stages to explicitly foreshadow stages at next month’s Tour de France.
It seems no coincidence that stage four’s individual time trial from La Tour-du-Pin to Bourgoin-Jallieu is, at 23.5km, virtually the same distance as the race against the clock in Marseille on the penultimate stage of the Tour.
And stage six (the race’s first day in the mountains) uses almost the same final 50km as stage 9 at the Tour – an ascent of the huge Mont du Chat, followed by a rapid descent.
It’s not just their legs that riders will be testing here – they will also be paying close attention to the climb to learn how to perfect it come July.
A mountainous final weekend
The time trial and first mountain stage will set the GC race alight, but it’s the final two stages that will likely prove most decisive.
On Saturday the riders will summit Alpe d’Huez no less, albeit from the less recognisable side of the Col de Sarenne. Then on Sunday the stage will finish atop the Plateau de Solaison, a seriously difficult climb which averages over 9 per cent.
None of these climbs feature at the Tour de France this year, but their difficulty help make the Dauphiné more than just a warm-up for that race, and one of the most prestigious stage races of the season in its own right.