Any time previous to, oh, say, 2012, my job would be impossible to do. You simply couldn't tell which domestique would be selected to go for GC, usually with the help of their team leader, a favourite for the upcoming Tour de France. That leader would play the domestique for a loyal team mate, be it Iñigo Landaluze, or Janez Brajkovic, who would be given his chance at glory, at what is actually a big and important race. Why? The winner of the Dauphiné had wasted his form, and would have peaked too early to challenge for le maillot jaune in July. Or so we thought until a certain Mr. Wiggins took the Dauphiné in 2012, courtesy of a 53.5 kilometre time trial and no stages finishing on anything more challenging than a category 3 climb. No one was ever going to beat Sir Wiggins in July, so the Curse of the Dauphine stayed intact, until Froome smashed the somewhat harder edition in 2013, and went on to win the also more mountainous Tour by over four minutes.
Last year, the race was contested more than ever, with two of the most exciting race days of the year occurring that week. Who could forget the sprint up the Col du Béal last year, where Contador and Froome, rather than calmly turn over their cards, threw them on the table. And then the chaos of stage eight, with the break containing strength of epic proportions propelling Andrew Talansky to a surprise GC victory while Contador sprinted in pursuit and Froome cracked completely. In the middle of the sandwich were surprise attacks on a barely medium mountains stage, unzipped jerseys at a stage finish, the Col du Manse, a big mountain top finish where Froome got dropped, the world's weakest sprint and tons of breakaways. It was a brilliant race, okay? The best one-weeker I can remember, but can this year's live up to it?
(LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Critérium du Dauphiné is in a perpetual war with the Tour de Suisse for riders. In terms of GC it usually wins, but doesn't attract sprinters, typically. This year has been no different. Of the (and I loath to use this term) "Big Four", Nibali and Froome are both riding the French race, while Quintana is going to Suisse, and Contador isn't going to either, preferring the Route du Sud, later on in June, as he is recovering from his exploits in Italy. Of other Tour de France hopefuls, this race again gets the best part of them, with the defending champion Andrew Talansky, Daniel Martin, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquím Rodríguez, Tejay Van Garderen, Bauke Mollema, Wilco Kelderman, Simon Yates, Adam Yates, Romain Bardet, Jean-Christophe Peraud and even Tour de Suisse expert Ruí Costa all flocking to the race, most likely as it's route is more representative of the Tour de France, with no individual time trial, preferring a TTT, and several summit finishes. Aside from Quintana and Contador, the only notables missing are French favourite Thibaut Pinot, Rafał Majka, Michał Kwiatkowski, Simon Spilak and Warren Barguil. However, as sprinters go, only Nacer Bouhanni, he-of-the-world's-most-ineffectual-sprint-train and Sacha Modolo, with a somewhat better functioning outfit, are going, unless you count Kris Boeckmans.
To Business! Who's Going to take Yellow? (And Blue)
It is difficult to preview a stage race this close to the Tour de France without mentioning Christopher Froome. While he hasn't had the best of seasons, taking first blood on Contador in the Ruta del Sol was his only victory so far, while Quintana took Tirreno, Nibali looked threatening in the Ardennes, Contador trained for and won the Giro away from any of them and his team mate Porte won almost everything else, even while Froome was struggling behind him. In the Tour de Romandie, another weakness became known, and proved critical: His lack of descending skills. With the final climb to come, the peloton, still large, crested the not-insignificant penultimate mountain with a tough descent in the rain to come, and Froome slipped back. And back. And yet further back. By the start of the climb he was all but last wheel, and fighting to get to the front, as people in front of him lost wheels. When he did get to the front, the attacks had already started, and it was all he could do to take a few pulls to keep them within sight. With "the most dangerous descent in cycling" on stage 5, Froome could be in trouble. And yet I think he might win. Despite the lack of a time trial, Froome, when on form is capable of stunning climbing on his day, and there are several mountain stages where he could make his mark, and Sky are proving excellent at the TTT this year, they'll target that. He's also the only TDF contender who you can count on to definitely be going for it. Look, if he's on form, he can win it, and won't be tested as last year without Contador here. It depends utterly on form. An on-form, confident Chris Froome will win this race.
Hands up if you think Alejandro Valverde will sit quietly and let Nairo Quintana boss him around all Tour. No one? I thought not. Valverde is not going to lie down and let the Colombian lead the team, especially if he gets ahead of him, or takes yellow. We sort of expected him to do Giro-Vuelta, but surprise surprise, here he is to annoy his better positioned team mate. But Quintana isn't here, and Valverde, as usual, is one of the favourites. He certainly has won things this year: Liège (again), Flèche (again), some small Spanish races, and three stages of the Volta a Catalunya. He'll win some stages here, as well, I'd wager. Stage 6 would be a case in point. Will he win it? Well, I'm not sure. My first instinct is no, despite his excellent record here, winning twice. I can't see him beating a fit Froome, but why not? One yellow jersey looks much like another...
(Jaime Reina, Getty)
Another candidate is Tour holder Vincenzo Nibali. The Shark of Messina started off - for some reason - in the Dubai Tour, finishing 39th, anonymously. Later, he went to the Tour of Oman, where he was touted as a potential victor, but only managed 20th, finishing 2:27 down on Green Mountain. His results continued to improve - just, in Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing 16th, his second-worst ever finishing position in the race. His previous worst was in 2007, when he was just 22. After that, he moved on to his annual humiliation in Milano-Sanremo, and lurked dangerously in the Ardennes, making a dangerous but ultimately useless attack in Amstel Gold, and the day after going to Romandie, taking his first top ten finish on the year, with ninth on the MTF at Champex-Lac, and 10th overall. You can see where his form pattern is taking him, right? Not necessarily to a win here however. You all saw him dancing around France last July, but he looked decidedly less comfortable in June, taking a traditional approach, and not going to the race in top form. It netted him a 7th last year, and that sounds plausible again. Makes sense for him to follow the plan that worked so well last year.
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)
It's too late for Joaquím Rodríguez, we said. Isn't it? Isn't it? Or is it? He certainly looked good enough in the Vuelta al País Vasco, winning two stages, coming second in a hilly TT and taking the overall classification. The Tour suits him, but so does the Queen Stage of the Dauphiné, with the shortish, steep finishing climb. There's no flat TT for him to lose time, and he might be going for this race, if he isn't so confident of July success. He's got a good-but-not-great record, winning stages, and managing a best of 5th, despite just riding twice. Not really sure of his priorities, but if you see a darting attack on one of the mountains watch out. But it's too late for Joaquím Rodriguez. Isn't it?
(Jose Jordan, AFP/Getty)
Andrew Talansky is the defending champion of this race, after Contador's weak team let a breakaway containing most of the top 10, and several super-domestiques get away. Talansky, under a minute down, saw a golden opportunity, and ground up the final climb of Courchevel as Froome and Contador engaged in a stalemate, until Contador began to chase. Too little, too late, and the American collapsed into tears at the finish line.
(LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)
It augurs well for Talansky to, if not repeat his win, come close, as he has shown form more recently than any of his rivals, winning a stars-and-stripes jersey to use in TTs, and coming 7th in the road race. While Talansky's Tour prospects are lessened by the lack of chances to wear his new jersey, a repeat win would have many putting his name forward.
To the Frenchmen, and young favourite Romain Bardet. Chris was talking about his compatriot Warren Barguil, and him riding his first Tour at 23, but Bardet is 24, and riding his second, after an almost immaculate 6th last year. I say almost immaculate: he cracked on the Port du Bales and lost his chance at 4th. And he rides for a French team. This is a French race, in the build-up to the Tour, and idiots like me are putting more pressure on him by mentioning him in previews. I really like Bardet, I love his riding style and I hope he manages all that people hope for. There goes my impartiality. His season started at the GP la Marsellaise and he moved on to the Ruta del Sol, finishing 3rd on Hazallanas, before an invisible Paris-Nice, then dropping out of Catalunya, doing well enough with a 6th in Liège and being second best promising French rider with 3rd in the mountain stage of Romandie. He was 5th last year, thanks to that breakaway on the last stage, and might just repeat or better that.
Those are probably the top 6 favourites. You could say Mollema, but, well, I said win it. He doesn't tend to do that, even after leaving Rabobank. Other guys are the fantastically inconsistent Tejay van Garderen, and the Yates', especially Adam. He's set to make his return to cycling in the race where he took a fantastic sixth last year after breaking his finger in April, and his brother Simon showed great ability in the Vuelta al País Vasco. Wilco Kelderman did well last year, carrying his Giro form, but he's been playing catch-up Péraud's going as well, but I expect him to work for Bardet. Tim Wellens might find the mountains a step too far. Cannondale-Garmin bring Daniel Martin, in the hope that he won't crash out, but Talansky may be expecting his help. Of course, I haven't mentioned Ruí Costa, who's always so strong at this time of year, in the Tour de Suisse, which he's won three times in three years, but choosing not to defend his title. Surely he'll be on form? Well, if he wants to ride GC at the Tour he might just realise that going for a June race as he has Suisse the past two years might just be detrimental. Also, he never beat Froome and Nibali in Suisse.
One of those six? Really though, Valverde, Bardet or Froome would be my guess. If Froome's on form, and he probably will be by this stage, he'll take this, so yeah. Froome.