The finish line picture on stage 2 of the Critérium du Dauphiné told you all you needed to know about rider form 19 days away from the start of the Tour de France. Jumbo-Visma's Primož Roglič had space and time to lift both arms aloft and savor the moment, as behind him – still out of shot – his principal Tour rivals gasped for air and painfully trudged towards the line.
Four weeks out from the first proper summit finish of the Tour, and the Slovenian is in a league of his own and not even last year’s Tour champion, Team Ineos leader Egan Bernal can get close to him.
But four weeks is a long time, and while the Dauphiné might be heading one way, it's still too early to anoint Roglič as the man in waiting to win back-to-back Grand Tours.
There are deeper concerns at Team Ineos, however. They arrived here with their A-Team – minus Luke Rowe – and after a bruising but not-too-damaging ride at the Tour de l’Ain, had the chance to string together a set of five consistent performances.
Stage 1 started well enough. They may have missed out on the stage win to Wout van Aert and Jumbo-Visma, but Bernal took a couple of bonus seconds and the scene was set for a battle royale on stage 2. With Jumbo-Visma defending the yellow jersey, the scales were tipped in Ineos' favour.
Robert Gesink, Tony Martin and Van Aert were burned up before the final climb as the Dutch team took the responsibility for controlling the stage, leaving Ineos with a full quota of seven riders against Jumbo's four. Then, with 12km to go on the Col de Porte, the defending Tour champions duly took their position at the front of the race. They had a 7:4 advantage in terms of riders at that point and, for a brief few moments, it looked like business as usual.
Dylan Van Baarle set the pace early on, with the ever-important Jonathan Castroviejo next up. The peloton lined out, riders were shelled out the back, and for the first time in a very long time, Ineos looked dominant.
It didn’t last. While the pace was too hot to handle for the likes of Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Pro Cycling), the true race favourites held firm. Michal Kwiatkowski put in a huge turn but Chris Froome, while still looking better, was unable to contribute and swung over with 4km go.
By the time Geraint Thomas took over, the balance between Jumbo-Visma and Ineos had swung from 7:4 to 3:4 – although Steve Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin were both struggling at that point.
The Welshman’s turn lasted a little over half a kilometre but Ineos still had Pavel Sivakov waiting in the wings. The Russian's initial pace-setting looked impressive as he rose from the saddle with Bernal glued to his wheel, but when he began shaking his head just a few hundred metres later the Colombian was left exposed for the final 2km.
Unlike in the past, when the pace set by Ineos would have narrowed down the field to just handful of riders, the front group still contained over a dozen riders. To put it simply, they were ineffective.
Sepp Kuss, who wasn’t even in the Jumbo-Visma Tour team 12 months ago, moved up and although Kruijswijk was clearly on a bad day, the American stepped in to steady the Jumbo ship. As for Dumoulin, he looks fit but is clearly missing the endurance after such a long spell without competition.
When the final selection was made, Bernal flattered to deceive. His acceleration was telegraphed and easily swept up by Kuss before a few more probing attacks followed and Roglič flew clear. The fact that Bernal was unable to hold the Slovenian's wheel was telling.
Still too soon to panic
Just as with the results from the Tour de l’Ain, it's far too early for panic to set in at Ineos. The first proper summit finishes at the Tour are over a month away and one could argue that all Roglič is doing is building up pressure on his own shoulders.
Cast your mind back to just before last year's Giro d'Italia and the situation was similar. The Slovenian won the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie before heading to Italy looking unbeatable. He was found out at the Giro where sickness, bad luck, questionable tactics, and fading legs all cost him.
He's just as strong – if not stronger – this time around but he also comes into the new season after a relatively loose lockdown in Slovenia, while a number of his rivals were forced to remain indoors for weeks and survive off a diet of online racing.
The French hope
Deceuninck-QuickStep's Julian Alphilippe may have been an early victim on the final ascent but the form of Thibaut Pinot and the eye-catching Guillaume Martin will please Groupama-FDJ and Cofidis respectively.
Pinot was poorly positioned when Roglič accelerated but, along with Martin and Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), looked a cut above the rest of the chasers. Arkéa-Samsic leader Nairo Quintana is in the mix, while Astana's Miguel Ángel López has shown signs of improvement ahead of his Tour debut.
Elsewhere, Mikel Landa, Richie Porte and surprise package Daniel Martinez appear on track but Enric Mas, Alejandro Valverde, Romain Bardet and Tadej Pogačar fell short.
This has been an extraordinary year, for all sorts of reasons, and while the margins might appear significant right now, the only time form will truly count is still weeks away.
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