It's a couple of weeks to go to the Yorkshire start of this years Tour de France and the big players for the overall victory have recently completed what will be their final race preparations at the Criterium de Dauphine. The situation report for the three main characters which I've called the three bears: Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, is looking much clearer.
Bear one: Chris Froome
Chris Froome started in the usual manner employed by Team Sky: win the time trial, dominate the first mountain stage and then control the rest of the race. However that plan was upset by two things. Firstly the other teams have had enough of being dragged around races by Team Sky and so continually attacked the race leader until he was isolated or with his teammates worn out. Secondly, Froome crashed hard and hurt himself. Just how much damage was done only Team Sky knows and they're not saying. But there must have been some consequences as he didn't look as strong on the last two days when Contador attacked and mugged him.
There is also a possibility that Team Sky told Froome to back off in order to lull his rivals into a false sense of hope at the Tour de France, so that Froome can come out and wipe the floor with them on the first crucial mountain stage. It's not unknown for teams to be that sneaky and though you might think it's the Dauphine and it's an important race, it's no where near as important as the Tour de France.
There several good points for Froome at the Dauphine. His time trialing was way better than either that of Contador or Nibali. Significantly so compared to the Italian. Froome's climbing skills, before his crash, was also excellent.
Team Sky was under pressure to perform and control the race but Richie Porte improved as the race went on and Nieve, Thomas and Kiryienka were solid throughout. At the Tour de France Team Sky can expect other teams with separate interests to get involved in controlling the race. So while they may have seemed vulnerable in certain moments, the Dauphine was a very harder situation to control.
Good points: There are still some unanswered questions on Froome's condition after his crash and his confidence may well be smarting from Contador's return to top form but he must be happy. Things could have been fare worse as he recovers and prepares his yellow jersey defence at home in Monaco.
Bear two: Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador showed he is ready to race and is in great shape. He might have messed up his final result at the Dauphine by staying with Froome too long on the final day and allowing Andrew Talansky too much of a head start but his confidence will be high nevertheless.
The impressive thing about the Spaniard is his willingness to attack whenever an opportunity arises, be it uphill or downhill. Contador is smart and raced accordingly.
The first two stages were probably his worst days, losing three seconds per kilometre to Froome on the flatter part of the time trial in Lyon will worry him slightly as will not being able to out sprint his main rival on the mountain top finish the next day. But after those two poor days, he looked mean and seemed to be recovering perfectly as the race progressed. Maybe Froome came to the start of the Dauphine in slightly sharper form but Contador finished his race in significantly better condition.
Good points: Contador's overall race was aggressive, confident and tactically astute. His climbing was excellent and he wasn't afraid of testing Team Sky when given the chance, though he'll need to fine tune his flat time trialing ability. However overall, the Spaniard moved up a notch in the stakes with his Dauphine performance.
Bear three: Vincenzo Nibali
Vincenzo Nibali was in all the right places at the right time during the Dauphine but he never seemed a true contender.
He lost just over twenty seconds in the opening time trial. That seemed a reasonable start to his race until you looked closely at his performance and realised he lost that amount in the last five kilometres. He certainly can't afford to do that in the longer time trials at the Tour de France.
His climbing ability was also average and the Sicilian is certainly not in the form we expected, given all the hype over his preparation at altitude on Mount Teide. Fortunately he hasn't lost his ability to read a race and knows when to attack. But he just didn't have the legs to make an attack and so when Froome and Contador opened up, the Italian was quickly found wanting. He was not isolated because he had Astana teammates around him and they won the team prize. I think he looked tired, dare I say jaded, perhaps over-trained.
I don't know what he has changed this year in terms of his preparation but it isn't working for him yet and with three weeks to go he must be slightly worried.
Good points: Nibali is tactically smart and knows when to attack, he is an excellent descender and also has a strong team that is dedicated to his cause. However he's looking frayed at the edges.