With the Tour de France just five weeks away, Cyclingnews takes a closer look at who some of the main contenders might be at this year's Critérium du Dauphiné, which runs from June 3 to June 10, starting in Valence and finishing in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, in the shadow of the mighty Mont Blanc.
The Dauphiné has always been a key indicator of who might be coming into form for the Tour – the other big preparation race being the Tour de Suisse – and as the days tick away, now is the time for these riders to reassure their team managers, their teammates, their fans, and, indeed, themselves that everything is falling into place for a strong, confident start to the Tour de France when it kicks off in Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile on July 7.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
Chris Froome ticked off the first half of his Giro-Tour double attempt in spectacular fashion last week and he is, naturally, Sky's main man for July, but his salbutamol case continues to hang above him like the Sword of Damocles. The indications are that it's unlikely it will be resolved ahead of the Tour, but should he be hit with a ban, Geraint Thomas is waiting in the wings.
The Welshman, in his own words, has been trying to approach this Tour de France as if he were an outright leader. While Froome was riding across Italy, he was on Mount Teide in Tenerife, following a well-trodden path to July. He will want to be considered not just a Plan B but a protected rider in his own right, ready to lead the line should Froome's challenge take a hit – whether that's due to a ban or the accumulated fatigue of the Giro-Tour attempt. In that context, the Dauphiné represents an important opportunity for Thomas to make a statement of intent.
There'll be one eye on July, but Thomas is an outright contender for the Dauphiné title. While his Grand Tour credentials are yet to be fully tested, he's a bona fide week-long stage racer, especially when there are stages involving a clock.
Second at the Volta ao Algarve and third at Tirreno-Adriatico have marked a continuation of that trend in 2018, but he faltered at the Tour de Romandie in April due to a poor mountain time trial. The Dauphiné is therefore a chance to get back on track after a stint of altitude training. The mountains in the final week are better suited to someone like Romain Bardet, but Thomas is likely to give himself a solid foundation thanks to the prologue and team time trial.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
Vincenzo Nibali returns to the Tour. The Italian gave the all-new Bahrain-Merida team plenty of bang for their buck last year as he finished on the podium of both the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España. Now they're taking their most prized asset and showing him off on the biggest stage, even if it means he missed the Giro and its visit to his native Sicily.
Nibali's class and racing instinct were proven to be untamed, despite his 33 years of age, when he pulled off a spectacular victory at Milan-San Remo in March. It's been a pretty unassuming season apart from that, even if he did play cameo roles in the Tour of Flanders and La Flèche Wallonne. Now, though, he needs to stretch his stage-racing legs again.
Like Thomas, he's coming down off Teide, and the week ahead will be about finding his rhythm again. "I am coming to ride a good race, but to win it will be very hard. I would like to get a good result on a few of the stages, but my main objective is to prepare for the Tour," he said.
He should be believed: when he won the Tour in 2014, Nibali had just finished seventh at the Dauphiné, while he was 12th the following year ahead of his fourth place at the Tour.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)
Can Romain Bardet win the Tour de France? It's a question that was first whispered a few years ago, and one which has grown in urgency ever since. After finishing sixth in 2014 and winning a stage in 2015, the expectation of a home nation took off when he made the podium in 2016 and then again in 2017. Returning from the obscurity of his annual altitude camp in Sierra Nevada, the Dauphiné marks the start of a period in which France will go into overdrive with expectation.
Bardet has traditionally gone well at the Dauphiné, his sixth-place finish last year being his lowest in four editions. "It's a superb race, which is more than a launchpad for the Tour," Bardet said in AG2R's pre-race press release, no doubt pleasing the race organisers.
Time trialling has been the glaring weakness in recent years, and the absence of an individual TT this year should help him improve his performance. The prologue shouldn't do too much damage and he has a decent team – pretty much the Tour squad – for the TTT. The surfeit of mountains in the second half of the race tip the balance in Bardet's favour. The short and explosive nature of those final four stages should suit his aggressive style, and there's a notable return to Saint-Gervais and the summit finish on Le Bettex to finish the race – scene of his stage triumph at the 2016 Tour.
It's no stretch to envisage Bardet winning this Dauphiné. If he did, it'd be only his second stage-race victory, and France would surely go into overdrive.
Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates)
Dan Martin finished third at the Dauphiné last year and returns in new colours and with renewed hopes of Tour de France success. The Irishman has finished in the top 10 at the past two Tours and has since left Quick-Step Floors for a greater leadership role. Though he'll still have to share a team with a sprinter – Alexander Kristoff instead of Marcel Kittel – he should have enhanced status at UAE and greater support at key moments.
On paper, Martin should do well again at the Dauphiné, with the compact mountain stages suiting his aggressive style. He often cuts a frustrated figure during the stifled, defensive days at the Tour, which can lead to impatient, speculative attacks that don't go anywhere. The open racing promised by this route should play to his strengths.
The question mark, however, is whether that theory can be applied in practice. Martin has had a disappointing start to life at UAE. He was 14th at Algarve, a DNF at Paris-Nice, and 38th at Catalunya.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin)
Fresh off the back of a breakthrough Grand Tour season, Ilnur Zakarin heads to the Tour de France. The Russian finished fifth at the Giro and third at the Vuelta last year, finally delivering on his promise, and expectations have now been raised once again.
The Russian can climb and time trial, and has proven week-long stage race pedigree, with overall victory at the 2015 Tour de Romandie and a number of other top 10s in WorldTour events.
Zakarin has had a quiet year so far, with no stand-out results or performances to speak of, so at the very least the Dauphiné will act as a yardstick to see if he can find the sort of form that might potentially carry him to the Tour podium.
Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors)
Bob Jungels continues his journey as a Grand Tour rider, and heads to the Dauphiné ahead of a first crack at the Tour de France.
Jungels, a rouleur by nature, is likely to gain time – albeit a small batch – over most of his rivals in the opening prologue, and should add more in the team time trial, even if Quick-Step aren't here with the sort of team they've won TTT world titles with in the past.
The mountains are where it will be interesting to watch Jungels. He has impressed with his climbing in the past two editions of the Giro – finishing in the top 10 and winning the white jersey on both occasions – and it has been a major focus of his training this season as he committed wholeheartedly to the Grand Tour regime.
The Dauphiné, with its four back-to-back mountain stages, should provide some evidence of how that's paying off, and some indication of how much of a role he could play in July.
Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)
Ever since they turned pro together in 2015 – before that, even – it seems like the Yates twins have been matching each other stride for stride. One produces a breakthrough performance in a week-long stage race, the other goes and does the same. One takes a big one-day scalp, the other does the same. One gets a Tour de France top 10 and white jersey…
After Simon's sensational ride at the Giro d'Italia, where he won three stages and came within two days of overall victory, the ball has been returned to Adam's court with added zip. Simon has shown he is ready to become a bona fide Grand Tour contender; can Adam step up and do the same?
He has been chosen by Mitchelton-Scott to lead the line at the Tour, and the Dauphiné will be a key testing ground. He's had a slightly different build-up to some of the riders on this list, though that might be explained by injury. Yates fractured his pelvis at the Volta a Catalunya in March, and so flew to America earlier this month to ride the Tour of California unsure of how well he would go. Although he couldn't match Egan Bernal on the climbs or Tejay van Garderen against the clock, his fourth-place overall showed he'd recovered well.
Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic)
Warren Barguil's move from Sunweb to Fortuneo-Samsic was one of the most surprising transfers of last season. Not only did he rip up the final year of his contract, he did so to move from the WorldTour to a second division team, shortly after winning two stages and the mountains classification at the Tour.
So far, it's been a disappointing start. The Frenchman didn't trouble the top 10 at Paris-Nice or Catalunya, and was anonymous in the Ardennes. Now it's time to turn things around. The Dauphiné and Tour represent the most important period of the year for Fortuneo-Samsic – a French Pro Conti team – and they signed Barguil precisely to help them shine on the biggest stage.
Barguil has stated his desire to ignore the general classification at the Tour and focus on panache-filled stage victories in the mountains once again. On the other hand, he is still keen to target week-long stage races such as the Dauphiné, and, if he can rediscover his form of 12 months ago, he'll be a contender.
Either way, we should get a glimpse of what to expect from Barguil at the Tour. The Fortuneo-Samsic team management will be watching with baited breath.
Marc Soler (Movistar)
Movistar will have the most star-studded line-up of this year's Tour de France, with the triumvirate of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa, and Alejandro Valverde. None of them, however, will be at the Dauphiné.
Instead, the line will be led by Marc Soler, who is touted to follow in the footsteps of those names and contest Grand Tour titles in the future. The beacon of promise is, of course, the Tour de l'Avenir victory from 2015, but Soler has announced himself at this top level already this year with overall victory at Paris-Nice. It wasn't just that; he finished on the podium at Ruta del Sol and fifth – behind two teammates in Valverde and Quintana – at Catalunya.
It's been a quality year so far for the 24-year-old Spaniard, who is set to make his Tour de France debut. After a Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta last year, the Giro was thought likely this year, but Movistar clearly consider him ready for the big one.
Of course, Soler will be used to ride in support of Movistar's leaders in July, but the Dauphiné is another week-long stage race where he could shine, and offer a glimpse of his Tour de France potential a little further down the line.
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors)
Alongside Jungels, Quick-Step have another option in Julian Alaphilippe. The Frenchman might be more of a Classics rider than a stage racer but he can turn in a strong performance over a week – as he proved at this very race two years ago, when he finished sixth as a 23-year-old.
If not in the overall mix, he could certainly take a stage win. Stage 2 features a string of short climbs – the last of which comes 4km from the finish – which should play to his punchy characteristics. Then on stage 4, provided he survives the HC Col du Mont Noir, he could find fertile ground at the category-2 finish at Lans-en-Vercors.
Injury prevented Alaphilippe from riding the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de France last year. This year he's had a strong season and won La Flèche Wallonne in April – his first major one-day scalp – so he should be as confident and hungry as ever.