The Giro d'Italia may be still edging towards its denouement, but already the first build-up race to the Tour de France is around the corner, with the Critérium du Dauphiné kicking off on Sunday.
With the Tokyo Olympics necessitating a slightly condensed summer schedule, the Dauphiné begins in late May rather than the usual spot in early June, with the Tour also moving up to accommodate the late July events.
Only one-third of last year's Tour podium will be taking part in the race – with Tadej Pogačar heading to the Tour of Slovenia and Primož Roglič forgoing June's racing altogether – but there will still be plenty of notable names lining up in Issoire on May 30.
And while the form of the two Slovenians won't be tested against any of their main rivals until the Tour begins in Brest on June 26, there will still be plenty to learn over the course of eight days of racing in south-west France.
With that in mind, here are our eight riders to watch at the 2021 Critérium du Dauphiné.
A Dauphiné winner in 2018 when he went on to win the Tour de France, Thomas heads up an Ineos squad at this year's race that can count three plausible overall winners among their ranks.
Now 35, the Welshman would be forgiven for showing signs of losing some of the stage racing ability that has seen him rack up nine GC wins during his career, but as he showed at the Tour de Romandie – his first stage race victory since that 2018 Tour – a decline isn't coming anytime soon.
He headed up an Ineos one-two at the race with Richie Porte taking second place after Rohan Dennis had taken the prologue. Both he and Porte will be back in action at the Dauphiné, with 2020 Giro champion Tao Geoghegan Hart also riding.
All three will be joined by Richard Carapaz (in action at the Tour de Suisse) at the Tour, in what will surely be the strongest squad at the Grand Départ. Who will lead though? The Dauphiné might just provide a few answers about the team's hierarchy.
With three wins under his belt, Froome holds the record for most Dauphiné victories alongside Nello Lauredi, Luis Ocaña, Bernard Hinault, and Charly Mottet. Adding win number four this year seems an unlikely prospect for the 36-year-old, though, with Froome showing few signs of returning to his pre-crash best.
Nevertheless, he remains among the biggest names in the sport with seven Grand Tour victories to his name and so plenty of onlookers will be watching Froome for signs of improvement. For his part, he has maintained that he can reach his past level and will ride the Tour de France with his new team regardless of his progress at the Dauphiné.
What he does during the eight days of racing remains to be seen, with Froome saying he has been carrying extra weight after an off-season of muscle-based strength and recovery training. Even though it's hard to imagine him challenging at the pointy end of the race, Froome is impossible to ignore.
At the Dauphiné last year, Quintana had looked to continue his top form from earlier in the season – wins at the Tour de la Provence, Tour du Var, a summit finish at Paris-Nice, and later third at the Tour de l'Ain.
That all went downhill at the race, when knee pain sustained as a result of being hit by a driver while out training in July saw him leave early, with the same injury ruining his Tour de France. He's back this year and looks to be improving as the season has gone on, with seventh at the Tour of the Alps and the overall win at the Vuelta Asturias his latest results.
It has been some time since the 31-year-old was last on a Grand Tour podium – second at the 2017 Giro d'Italia was his last one – and since then we've witnessed the emergence of Roglič and Pogačar. Can he get back to his old level? We'll have to wait to find out, but the Dauphiné should give an indication over which version of Quintana to expect.
Primož Roglič may – barring misfortune – be Jumbo-Visma's main man for the Tour de France, but with the Slovenian missing the Dauphiné this time, his right-hand man and domestique de-luxe will take the spotlight for the Dutch team.
Labelling Kruijswijk a super-domestique might be doing him a disservice considering he stood on the podium just two years ago, but the 33-year-old hasn't had the best run of races since then. He crashed out of last year's Dauphiné and missed the Tour with a fractured shoulder before heading to the Giro, where he caught COVID-19 mid-race.
This year, Kruijswijk has yet to crack the top 20 in a race, having taken part in Paris-Nice, the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Romandie. A better showing should come next week, with three mountain stages waiting as well as Sepp Kuss and Jonas Vingegaard alongside him to show what they can do ahead of Le Grand Boucle.
Gaudu, 24, looks set to share the title of summer's 'great French hope' alongside Julian Alaphilippe this year in the absence of teammate Thibaut Pinot and Giro contender Romain Bardet. He has developed in the shadow of Pinot, and both endured a Tour to forget after Pinot's promising second place at this race last year, but Gaudu then went on to win two Vuelta stages en route to his first career Grand Tour top 10 placing.
He's carried that strong form into 2021, too. He was sixth in the Tour du Var, fifth in Itzulia Basque Country, and has wins in the latter and the Faun-Ardèche Classic to his name, plus he took third at his last race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
He's the highest-profile Frenchman at the Dauphiné and he'll be closely watched during the closing trio of mountain stages. If he continues his impressive campaign with another top result then expectations will only rise at the big one.
Mikel Landa and Nairo Quintana may have been gone for over a season now, but still the Movistar 'trident' persists. New recruit Miguel Ángel López is the head this summer, with the Colombian joined by Enric Mas and veteran Alejandro Valverde for the first time all season at the Dauphiné.
The former Astana man started his year late at the Tour de Romandie after catching COVID-19 earlier in the year. He's on the upswing though, having won the Vuelta a Andalucía last week. López didn't face the toughest competition at the race, though did win comfortably. At the Dauphiné we'll get a more realistic picture of how he's running ahead of his second Tour appearance, following last year's debut where he won on the Col de la Loze and finished sixth.
Teammate Mas might well be a co-leader going forward, having finished an impressive fifth at both the Tour and Vuelta last year. Valverde, meanwhile, is his usual consistent self even at the age of 41 – he has 10 top-five placings in 2021.
The Australian is a new face at AG2R this year and is so far ticking off his season goals one by one. Romandie was his spring goal, and he duly took second on the queen stage and finished sixth overall, now he's set for the Tour de France and – after the departures of Romain Bardet and Pierre Latour over the winter – is in prime position to lead the team this summer.
O'Connor said at the start of the year that he's torn between targeting stage race general classifications or stage wins going forward, especially in light of his Giro stage win last year. With free rein as the sole leader of the squad in the mountains, and after stepping up at Romandie, he could be a real force in the Alps next week.
The Dutchman is still on the comeback trail from his awful injuries and extended layoff following his and Dylan Groenewegen's crash at the Tour de Pologne last year. He made his return at last month's Tour of Turkey and has since raced the Volta ao Algarve too.
The 24-year-old finished both races and has looked comfortable back in the peloton. Mark Cavendish's claim in Turkey that Jakobsen could well win a stage there proved wide of the mark, but he has said himself that he gives himself a 50 per cent chance to win a race in 2021.
The Dauphiné – Jakobsen's first WorldTour race since Poland – offers up two, perhaps three, sprint opportunities though he's not expected to be fighting for wins just yet. Instead, the race offers a chance to track his progress and gauge his continuing recovery.
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