The Tour de France favourites have chosen quite different routes to the big race this year, preferring different races to each other in the weeks leading up to the Tour.
Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali chose the French Alps at the Critérium du Dauphiné, Thibaut Pinot is among those riding the Tour de Suisse, while Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana are riding the Route du Sud in the Pyrenees.
But which one provides the best preparation for the three-week assault they’ll face on the roads of France (and the Netherlands and Belgium)?
With the help of some statistical digging, speculation and a lot of unscientific guesswork, we’ve taken a look at the benefits and drawbacks of each race.
The key thing with each of the three races is that there are a few mountains included in the respective routes.
The Tour de Suisse features two summit finishes, including the Rettenbachgletscher, which is as hard to say as it is to ride. Pinot showed his form there on stage five by powering to a solo victory.
Contador and Quintana only face one really mountainous stage at the Route du Sud, although that stage does take in three Cat.1 climbs, including the Port de Balès en route to Bagneres-de-Luchon.
The Dauphiné, however, has the reputation of being a bit of a test event for some of the Alpine Tour de France stages, with this year’s stage between Digne-les-Bains and Pra-Loup is virtually a carbon copy of a stage we’ll see in July.
It’s tough to find much flat land in the Dauphiné region of France, as such the final four stages featured summit finishes, with Froome winning two of them.
While both the Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse are both staged over the course of a week – eight stages in France, nine in Switzerland – the Route du Sud only features four stages. A relative walk in the park.
While a rider’s schedule is determined by himself and his coaches, going head-to-head with the strongest of your rivals is a good way to see how your form stacks up.
Froome is a habitual visitor to the Dauphiné, riding each year since 2012, as is Nibali, who has ridden the race before each of his Tour de France appearances – except 2008 when he rode the Giro/Tour double.
Contador usually also visits the Dauphiné, but having won the Giro d’Italia in May it’s likely he needed a bit more rest before making his return to the road.
Quintana is the anomaly in this situation, with his early summers often spent in Colombia, training in the high mountains. Before his last Tour appearance in 2013, the Movistar rider came off a nine-week break.
In 2012 he rode both the Dauphiné and the Route du Sud, but then only raced one day before the Vuelta a España two months later.
Froome’s rival at the Dauphiné this year, Tejay van Garderen seems undecided on his favourite warmup race, interchanging between the Tour de Suisse and the Dauphiné in recent years.
Here’s where we get a conclusive answer to an unanswerable and subjective question.
Without a doubt, the race you have to ride if you want to win the Tour de France is the Critérium du Dauphiné – and history proves it.
Every rider who has won the Tour de France (medically assisted or not) since 2006 has raced the Dauphiné in the same year. Nibali did it, Froome and Bradley Wiggins won both, Cadel Evans did it in 2011.
Contador rode it in 2010 but was subsequently stripped of his title, which was awarded to the Tour de Suisse-riding Andy Schleck, but that’s a minor blip in our list.
The Spaniard rode it before his 2007 and 2009 victories as well, as did Carlos Sastre in 2008 and both the disgraced Floyd Landis and his successor Oscar Pereiro rode the French race in 2006.
Indeed the list goes back to 2002, but remember, no-one won the Tour between 1999 and 2005.
The last Tour de Suisse winner to seriously contend at the Tour de France was Jan Ullrich when the later disgraced German came fourth in the latter race.
There you have it. The facts speak for themselves – if you want to win the Tour you need to race the Dauphiné.
Unless you’ve ridden the Giro, in which case the Route du Sud is probably better for you to keep the exertions down and keep your race fitness.
At the same time the route at the Tour de Suisse may suit your training needs more than the other two and therefore you should probably race that.
There’s one thing for sure, though, the riders will be in top shape when the Tour rolls out of Utrecht on July 4 no matter which race they’ve completed ahead of it.
And the dispersion of the talent among the three races provides us spectators with a lot of great racing before the big one rolls around.
Cycling Weekly looks at the Tour de France contenders