Six questions we want the Dauphiné to answer

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It took us about two months longer than usual to arrive at this point, but the Critérium du Dauphiné is here, and it’s hard to overstate just how spectacular a show this year’s race is lining up to be.

Take a quick look at the start list and you’ll see almost all of the top favorites for the upcoming Tour de France with most of their lieutenants in attendance for five days of WorldTour racing in the mountains. As if that wasn’t enough of a reason to watch, for most of the big names on the start list this is the first WorldTour stage racing appearance since at least March. Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas, Tom Dumoulin, Mikel Landa, and several others haven’t even made one WorldTour appearance yet this year.

In other words, most of the big Tour stars are set to do battle in a big-time race in France, and yet two weeks before the Tour we still don’t really have a good sense of which riders are flying right now and which riders are lagging behind. There will be no shortage of storylines to follow at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Here are six we’ll be watching particularly closely …

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

You probably didn’t need me to tell you that this is a big storyline, given it’s making headlines everywhere.

The four-time Tour champ has spent months working his way back from a serious injury with the all-important goal of contending again at La Grande Boucle top of mind. That he was racing as early as February (at the UAE Tour) was a big achievement, but riding at a level high enough to earn selection on the Ineos Tour roster is something else altogether. If the rumors are to be believed, Froome is fighting for a spot with less than three weeks to go until the start of the race.

Chris Froome putting in a turn at La Route d’Occitanie. Photo: Cor Vos © 2020

After Froome’s relatively quiet appearances at La Route d’Occitanie and the Tour de l’Ain, the Critérium du Dauphiné is his chance to prove that he belongs at the Tour de France. And what a race to be that proving ground. Froome has won the Dauphiné a whopping three times in his career, tying him with a few other riders for the most victories in the event’s history. Of course, the Dauphiné was also the site of the crash that put him in this position to begin with. If he can use this year’s edition of the race to prove that he is well and truly back, what a story it would be.

Of course, it’s up to Ineos to determine what kind of performance is enough to get Froome onto the Tour team. Would he make the cut just by serving as a solid lieutenant in the mountains? Will he need to do more and actually nab a stage win or a respectable GC result? I guess we’ll have to find out, and we won’t have long to wait. The long slog to the top of the Col de Porte on the Dauphiné’s second stage and a third stage featuring the Col de la Madeleine ahead of a climb to Saint-Martin-de-Belleville will give us (and Ineos manager Dave Brailsford) a better idea of where Froome is ahead of the Tour.

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

Speaking of Ineos, the other storyline everyone has been talking about recently is the battle between the British WorldTour squad and the upstart Jumbo-Visma team, which looked to have the upper hand at the recent Tour de l’Ain.

Primoz Roglic celebrates his Tour de l’Ain victory. Photo: Tim van Wichelen/Cor Vos © 2020

Jumbo-Visma’s stable of stars sure was effective at the smaller French race, with Primoz Roglic winning the overall title and Steven Kruijswijk, Bennett, and Tom Dumoulin all finishing within the top 11 riders on the general classification. The Dauphiné, though, is a much bigger event, the sport’s premier pre-Tour tune-up, and a race that the former Sky team has a long history of winning.

This year’s race features quite a few long power climbs where team tactics should come into play (as opposed to shorter, very steep climbs where drafting doesn’t play as big of a role), so we should have ample opportunity to see where things stand for both squads.

I would expect almost the entire Ineos lineup, and particularly Geraint Thomas, to step it up compared to last week. And even if they aren’t quite at the level we’ve seen in the past, Egan Bernal himself looks great already, and containing him will be a challenge in and of itself for Jumbo-Visma. We should be in for a show.

Is Nairo Quintana a bona fide Tour contender again?

Way back at the start of the season, before bike racing was halted around the world, Nairo Quintana was absolutely flying, putting in rides that reminded people of why they were so excited about him when he first emerged as a star years ago. But nearly five months have passed since he won the final stage of Paris-Nice.

He has appeared in two races since the resumption of competition, riding to a respectable eighth at the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge and looking great at the Tour de l’Ain, where he finished on the same time as Roglic on one mountain stage (stage 2) and six seconds back on the other (stage 3). The Dauphiné will offer a fuller picture of where Quintana is form-wise, with mountains to climb every single day.

Nairo Quintana rode to a solid third overall at the Tour de l’Ain. Photo: Tim van Wichelen/Cor Vos © 2020

If Quintana proves that he has the form he was showing in February and March, the Tour talk could take on a whole new dynamic. It may seem like a long time ago now, but remember that Quintana was second only to a peak Chris Froome at the 2013 and 2015 Tours, and he’s still only 30 years old. With nary a flat day on offer at the Dauphiné this year, the whole race looks like prime Quintana territory.

Can Mikel Landa thrive with Bahrain-McLaren?

Bahrain-McLaren’s roster overhaul was a big storyline of this past transfer season, but we still haven’t had a chance to see the team’s marquee GC acquisition, Mikel Landa, in WorldTour-level action. We finally have the opportunity this week.

Landa’s decision to sign with Bahrain-McLaren certainly seemed like a good move at the time. In Bahrain-McLaren, the Spaniard finally found a team where he would be the clearcut Tour leader, and what’s more, the move reconnected him with former Sky performance director Rod Ellingworth, who is one of the sport’s very best developers of talent.

Landa looked very good at the Vuelta a Burgos, his first race back since the hiatus. The level of competition at the Dauphiné will be higher, but with so many climbs on tap, he will have his chance to put his skillset on display. He will also have some strong talents around him, making this a prime opportunity to prove that he is ready to be the clear leader of a Tour de France team.

Whither French hopes for yellow?

Regardless of how it played out in the end, last year’s Tour de France actually gave French fans reason to hope for a French winner. One year later, where do things stand for French yellow jersey hopes? Well, there are some question marks. Hopefully, the Dauphiné will provide some answers.

Thibaut Pinot was, for a brief time during last year’s Tour, the bookies’ top favorite to win the whole thing. Obviously, that’s not how it played out, but Groupama-FDJ clearly still believes in Pinot’s chances moving forward, having signed him to a lengthy extension last month. He has looked good in four stage racing appearances so far this year. With the form he had at last year’s Tour, you’d think he’d be fighting for the win this week. We’ll see.

Then there’s Julian Alaphilippe, who looked great en route to runner-up honors at Milan-San Remo on Sunday after a flurry of punctures derailed his Strade Bianche hopes. For Alaphilippe, however, it’s not so much a question of form as it is focus. The rider who took yellow into the third week of last year’s Tour, ultimately finishing fifth overall, has said that he is not targeting the GC this year. He has said that his team is not built for it. Then again, he gains nothing by telling us that he is actually harboring dreams of Tour GC glory. Keep an eye out for the versatile Frenchman at the Dauphiné.

Julian Alaphilippe heads into the Critérium du Dauphiné after returning to racing at Strade Bianche and then finishing second at Milan-San Remo. Photo: ©kramon

And what about Romain Bardet? At this point, expectations feel a bit lower for the two-time Tour podium finisher than they were, say, two years ago. But he still counts two Tour podium finishes on his palmares and he still just 29. I’ll be watching to see how he performs in a race he has started every year since 2014 – and so too will Sunweb, who just signed him to be the squad’s new GC leader.

Where do things really stand for bike racing in France?

I’d love to close out this list with something a little more cheery, and sure, there are plenty of other storylines to watch (e.g. Tadej Pogacar prepping for his first Tour) but there’s no way around it. All of these pre-Tour storylines won’t matter much unless the Tour actually goes ahead as planned, and the Dauphiné really needs to run smoothly for that to happen.

For now, the French government is greenlighting bike races but France has seen an uptick in coronavirus cases recently, and the government is weighing its options for measures to combat a second wave. The Dauphiné is always a dress rehearsal for the Tour’s GC contenders, but this year it will also be an extremely important one for the ASO and the cycling world in general.

It may be slightly reduced in length this year — five stages rather than eight — but the Dauphiné will be the longest stage race in France since competition resumed, and the first WorldTour event. Should the peloton make it through the week (and really, into the next) without any issues, it will bode well for the Tour’s chances. Otherwise, attitudes in France towards running a three-week race into September could change quickly. Let’s hope for the best.

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