More questions than answers: What we learned from the Critérium du Dauphiné

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The Critérium du Dauphiné has a long and cherished history of offering an illuminating look at cycling’s biggest names just before its biggest race. The Dauphiné’s spot on the calendar, its route, and its prestige make it a great source of insight into where things stand for riders across the peloton as the Tour de France looms. With that in mind, we catalogued six specific queries we were hoping the race would answer just before things got underway.

Well, here we are one week later … and we may have more questions than we did before.

This year’s edition of the Dauphiné was full of compelling storylines. It was also full of abandons. Instead of providing clarity on what we might expect from the Tour to come, the Dauphiné mostly made that picture a whole lot cloudier, with big question marks now facing numerous big names who find themselves recovering from injuries uncomfortably close to the start of the Tour.

With that in mind, we figured it would be worthwhile revisiting our pre-race questions to see where things stand after cycling’s marquee tune-up race. Let’s take it one at a time.

Question 1: Can Chris Froome earn a spot in the Ineos Tour team?

In five days of racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné, Chris Froome gave little indication that he was anywhere near the form required to win a fifth Tour de France. At this point, his inclusion in the team seems contingent on whether Ineos wants to bring him along as a support rider. He did appear content to try to play that role for Bernal before Bernal — the reigning Tour champ — pulled out of the Dauphiné. The results were not especially promising though.

Simply put, Froome just did not seem like a big factor for Ineos in this race, and it will now be up to Dave Brailsford and the rest of Ineos brass to determine whether his potential support contributions – if he can continue to improve his form in the coming weeks – are worth a spot that could go to someone else. At this point, it would hardly be a surprise to see Froome miss out on Tour selection.

That said, a more in-form Froome would obviously be a huge asset, so if Brailsford feels there is a chance Froome will be in better shape come early September, it would make sense to consider taking him anyway. In other words, the Dauphiné did offer some clarity on Froome’s form as so many were seeking, but it still remains unclear whether he will be worthy of a spot on the Tour roster in the eyes of the decision-makers.

Question 2: Ineos vs. Jumbo-Visma: Who is stronger right now?

Three days into the race, it seemed like this one had a straightforward answer. Jumbo-Visma took both of the first two stages of the Dauphiné, putting Primoz Roglic into a strong overall lead. Ineos’ best efforts to control the race, meanwhile, came up short. Things were particularly bad on stage 2, when the team pulled hard at the front on the lower slopes of a finishing summit only to see the entire support squad lose touch before the finale, leaving Bernal isolated.

Bernal’s abandonment of the Dauphiné before the start of stage 4 due to back pain further emphasized the sudden plight of the Ineos team. Not only did it seem like the collective strength of the lineup was severely diminished compared to previous seasons; now, the squad’s extremely talented GC leader was dealing with a health issue two weeks from the start of the Tour.

With the Dauphiné now in the rearview mirror, all those concerns loom large for Ineos. Jumbo-Visma’s fortunes have taken a significant hit too though, with both Steven Kruijswijk and Primoz Roglic both abandoning the race following bad crashes.

Kruijswijk after crashing out of the Dauphine.

At this point, there are question marks as to whether Kruijswijk, who suffered a dislocated shoulder and bad road rash in his stage 4 crash, will start the Tour at all. Last year’s third-place finisher is obviously a key part of the team’s plans so that situation is one to monitor. There seems to be less concern from the squad, at least publicly, over the status of Primoz Roglic, but taking a hard fall this close to the Tour is certainly not ideal.

All things considered, Jumbo-Visma did stamp its authority on the race, and the performances of both the team’s leaders and support riders like Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert proved that the squad will be very hard to beat at the upcoming Tour.

That said, the race did leave us with some big questions about Jumbo-Visma’s Tour plans. Will Steven Kruijswijk race? If so, will he contribute? Will Primoz Roglic feel any lasting effects from his crash? If so, how much effort will the team put into protecting him with Tom Dumoulin now healthy and ready to contend? We’ll have to wait until the Tour to find out.

Question 3: Is Nairo Quintana a bona fide Tour contender again?

After four days of racing at the Dauphiné, Nairo Quintana was sitting seventh overall and within 35 seconds of the race lead. He hadn’t exactly put on an emphatic show of strength, but he was perfectly solid in a handful of finishes where no GC rider was able to make huge differences in the overall standings. If he had finished the race in similar fashion, I would have come out of the weekend thinking, “Yes, Quintana is a bona fide (outside) Tour contender.”

But Quintana didn’t finish the race in that fashion. He abandoned the Dauphiné before stage 5, citing knee pain as he joined Bernal, Roglic, Kruijswijk, and so many others on the long list of riders pulling out of the race before its conclusion.

Quintana was hit by a car last month and the incident left him with a knee injury, but when he got back to training in relatively short order, it seemed that the injury was not going to be a lasting issue. Now, that doesn’t seem so clear cut. Quintana described it as a “strong pain” in his knee in the post-abandonment quotes his team provided. If that pain bothered him over five days at the Dauphiné, how much will it affect him over the course of three weeks?

Question 4: Can Mikel Landa thrive with Bahrain-McLaren?

… Maybe? Landa finished a quiet 18th overall, apparently suffering some back soreness late in the race. That said, he was sitting as high as fourth overall on the penultimate stage and finished close to the very front of the GC group on every day except for the final day of the event.

In other words, he looked fine. He didn’t seem unfit, but he wasn’t dominant either. What does that mean for his Tour prospects? For now, I’d probably expect him to do what he has done at every Grand Tour he has started since the 2017 Tour de France, finishing respectably in the top 10 but not really being a top contender for the win.

Considering the high expectations he has for himself, that probably would not count as truly thriving, but he would not need to take a giant step forward in the form department to get to a level that might qualify.

Question 5: Whither French hopes for yellow?

We almost made it to publication time feeling like there was at least some clarity here given the consistently strong showings of Thibaut Pinot at the Dauphiné. He finished just behind a flying Roglic on the second and third stages and the fact that he was not able to pull off the overall victory was not really a knock on his form so much as it came down to tactics and Daniel Martínez’s brilliance on stage 5.

Pinot finished the Dauphiné in what seemed to be great shape, and considering how well an in-form Pinot performed at least year’s Tour before his late abandonment, he was looking like a true top Tour contender as of Sunday night.

So, complete, unblemished clarity for one Tour favorite at least, right?

Not so fast. Groupama-FDJ announced on Monday that Pinot was suffering from back pain due to his stage 4 crash and would thus miss French nationals. Of course.

Look, it’s probably nothing. It’s entirely possible that Pinot is feeling very close to 100% and his team is simply being extra cautious about something that will not have an impact on Pinot. But it must be said that we are talking about a rider who has consistently gone into Grand Tours in great form only to come up short time and time again, for one reason or another. The fact that Pinot has a stated health issue ahead of the Tour just isn’t ideal. The 30-year-old Frenchman will still start the race among the very top favorites for yellow, but just like everyone else, he is going in with question marks.

In other French racer news, Romain Bardet finished sixth at the Dauphiné. He still looks like the fringe contender he has been for the past few years but it would be a surprise to see him holding his own against Jumbo-Visma. As for Julian Alaphilippe, the former polka dot jersey winner looks to be in good form again this year but his comments about not targeting the Tour GC do at least seem to be genuine at this point.

Question 6: Where do things really stand for bike racing in France?

The Dauphiné came and went without seeing a team leave the race due to coronavirus. Start and finish areas seemed to be well managed. Going into the event, it was impossible to rule out the chance the race might abruptly end and throw plans for the Tour de France into chaos. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The ASO’s trial run went relatively smoothly, and for now, French attitudes towards running the Tour seem to remain positive.

That said, there were complaints from riders about fans along the road not wearing masks, and it’s hard to imagine the ASO being able to come up with an effective policing measure for that very real concern. And even if every roadside spectator did comply, there’s really no way to be completely certain that this Tour de France will go off without a hitch. That’s the reality of racing during a pandemic.

Things went pretty well this week in France. Hopefully that will be the case through September, but it’s hard to say much more than that.

Bonus question! What can we expect from Daniel Martínez?

Daniel Martínez powered to an impressive overall win with a terrific ride on Sunday’s fifth and final stage of the Dauphiné in an emphatic showing of realized potential. Martínez may have been a surprising winner, but he didn’t come out of left field; he’s a very promising young talent who took his first WorldTour victory (a stage at last year’s Paris-Nice) before his 23rd birthday.

His Dauphiné victory was a huge step forward, however. Martínez has already ridden in four Grand Tours and plenty of one-week stage races but he had yet to compile much of a track record in GC battles, with a second place at last year’s Tour of Guangxi and a third place overall finish at the 2018 Tour of California his best showings yet. Obviously, the Dauphiné is a pretty big step up from those races.

Martínez’s consistency over the first few stages of the race and the combination of tactical savvy and sheer strength he showed on the final stage are evidence that he can put his talents to work as a GC contender in big races.

Does that mean Martínez will be strong contender for yellow in this year’s Tour? Probably not. First of all, he’s only a member of EF’s long list for selection and not a confirmed starter yet. Plus, he has yet to deliver a Grand Tour top 10 in his young career and three-week racing is a different beast from one-week racing. But it will mean that the team might be thinking a bit harder how it will spend its resources in the next Grand Tour featuring Martínez, whether it’s the Tour de France or a different race. Martínez has earned a chance to at least see how things play out for himself at a Grand Tour some time very soon.

More importantly, Martínez’s Dauphiné performance is an excellent indicator for the future. We already knew he had very real potential based on his enviable balance of climbing and time trialing ability. Now we know he has the intangibles to win a big race. It seems reasonable to expect him to be that true Grand Tour contender at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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