Plenty of riders with plenty to prove. That seems to be the theme of this year's Critérium du Dauphiné, which will pit pretty much every Tour de France GC hopeful against one another in an all-important dress rehearsal for the big event.
Just three weeks separate the end of the eight-day French race and the Tour's Grand Départ in Dusseldoorf, and the defending champion of both races, Chris Froome (Team Sky), is chief among a whole host of protagonists who have question marks hanging over their form.
Froome normally wins in the opening portion of the season – he had won stage races before the Dauphiné in each of his campaigns since becoming Team Sky leader in 2013 – but this year his best result has been 6th at the Herald Sun Tour. Ambushed at the Volta a Catalunya à la Vuelta 2015, he then rode to a pedestrian 18th at the Tour de Romandie, a display that might not have been cause for much concern had Richie Porte (BMC Racing) not stormed to overall victory. Such is Froome's calibre, the absence of results hasn't directly translated into genuine concerns over his Tour de France chances, but there's no getting away from the fact that the Dauphiné is a mightily important week for him. With a flat 23.5km time trial on the course, along with some serious mountains on the final three days, it's a route that suits him down to the ground.
It's also a mightily important week for Froome's runner-up at last year's Dauphiné and Tour. Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) has been training at Sierra Nevada this month, hitting the re-set button after a start to the season he's keen to forget about, the nadir being his disqualification from Paris-Nice. The Dauphiné represents a chance – or an imperative – to get things back on track.
If Alberto Contador has something to prove it is that he still has his winning touch. The Spaniard has raced impressively and aggressively in his debut season with Trek-Segafredo but has finished runner-up in four of the five races he's entered so far - three of those behind Alejandro Valverde. Contador might secretly curse his compatriot's presence on the start line on Sunday, and the Movistar man, who is, nominally at least, working for Nairo Quintana at the Tour, will be a threat for both stages and the overall as he resumes what has been a phenomenal season so far.
Then you have the injury question marks. Esteban Chaves hasn't raced since February having suffered with a knee injury, and the doubts over his Tour preparations were severe enough for Orica-Scott to parachute in Simon Yates for July to ride as co-leader. Both will be at the Dauphiné, which should give an indication as to how things might play out in July. Fabio Aru also suffered a knee injury, forcing him to skip the Giro d'Italia, and Astana have leadership issues of their own as the Italian moves through the gears en route to the Tour, with the promise made to Jakub Fuglsang looking increasingly flaky.
Can Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) once again be a threat at the Tour? After finishing fifth at last year's Vuelta, the American was on the podium at the Tour of California in May, with his career seemingly back on track, though the Dauphiné represents a huge step up.
Valverde aside, Porte is the man with least to prove, having won two of the three WorldTour stage races he's entered so far this year. The BMC rider had a strong Dauphiné last year and went on to shine at the Tour – albeit with some unnecessary time loss. As with Froome, the stage 4 time trial puts him at an immediate advantage.
With the exception of Quintana, and Bora-Hansgrohe's Rafal Majka, every probable top 10 contender for the Tour will line up in Saint-Etienne on Sunday, with Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), Louis Meintjes (UAE Team Emirates), and Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb), who fractured his pelvis at Romandie, all continuing their build-ups.
While pretty much every GC contender for the Tour will line up at the Dauphiné, it's a different story for the sprinters. Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will both race the Tour de Suisse, while Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is still side-lined with glandular fever.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) will be back, and will be up against a strong contingent of Frenchmen in Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Arnaud Démare (FDJ) and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie). Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) is also likely to be in the mix after seemingly stepping up in class this season.
There are three opportunities for the sprinters at this Dauphiné, or four for those who can absorb the punchy climbs. The race kicks off with a demanding stage starting and finishing in the centre of Saint-Etienne, with three laps of a finishing circuit that includes the third-category Côte de Rochetaillée climb.
While that could culminate in a solo victory or reduced group sprint, the following two stages look more like proper bunch sprints, another of which comes on stage 5 as an interruption to what is otherwise a GC-focused second half.
Stage 1: Saint-Etienne - Saint-Etienne, 170 km
An intense start to the race with a punchy stage in Saint-Etienne. There are eight categorised climbs on the menu but the race will burst into life on the first passage of the finish line as the riders embark on three local laps that head out to the Côte de Rochetaillée and back. 3.4km at 5.3 per cent, it will sap the sprinters' legs if not take them out of the picture completely, while the opportunists could thrive on a stage that will be as hard to control as it is to predict.
CN pick: Colbrelli can roll with the punches and has improved his finishing kick this season.
Stage 2: Saint-Chamond - Arlanc, 171 km
The sprinters should be battling it out as the race heads west on day two. There are a trio of climbs in the middle of the stage but 70km should give the sprinters' teams a chance to regain a grip on proceedings. The road pitches up in the final 500 metres, giving the lighter sprinters an edge.
CN pick: The diminutive Coquard will fancy this draggy sprint.
Stage 3: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon - Tullins, 184 km
Another one for the sprinters. Two short climbs appear with around 50km to go but they should be of little concern to the fast men in this race.
CN pick: Bouhanni has thrived at the Dauphiné in the last two years and Cofidis have probably the strongest lead-out train.
Stage 4: La Tour-du-Pin - Bourgoin-Jallieu, 23,5 km (ITT)
The GC battle begins in earnest with a time trial. Unlike last year's prologue up Mont Chéry, this one is mercifully flat and, at 23.5km, will make for a considerable time gaps and a clear structuring of the overall classification. A stage that tips the balance of the race firmly in favour of Froome.
CN pick: On his day the world time trial champion Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) is as good as unbeatable on a flat course.
Stage 5: La Tour-de-Salvagny - Mâcon, 175 km
A final offering for the sprinters in Mâcon. Again, there are plenty of categorised climbs but nothing that's realistically going to trouble the sprinters – not with the final 100km pretty much flat.
CN pick: In theory, this should be another clear-cut chance for Bouhanni.
Stage 6: Parc des Oiseaux Villars-les-Dombes - La Motte-Servolex, 145,5 km
As important as a recon ahead of the Tour de France as it is for the outcome of the Dauphiné, stage 6 is a dress rehearsal of the finale of stage 9 of the Tour de France, from Nantua to Chambéry. The final 50km are pretty much identical, taking the riders over the gruelling Mont du Chat, an 8.7km ascent with an average gradient of over 10 per cent, and down towards Lac du Bourget, though the finale here cuts 7km of flat from the Tour stage.
CN pick: A tough final climb with the finish at the foot of a descent? This has Romain Bardet written all over it.
Stage 7: Aoste - Alpe d'Huez, 167,5 km
The most eye-catching stage of the race and certainly the pride of the organisers when they unveiled the route. Alpe d'Huez will make just its second appearance in the race, hosting the summit finish for the penultimate stage. But this isn't Alpe d'Huez as we know it. The riders will make their way up the Col de Sarenne, still a hors-categorie ascent, before a plateau takes them round to join the last four kilometres of the traditional Alpe d'Huez ascent.
CN pick: With a climb called the Col de Porte earlier in the day it seems perhaps prophetic. Porte has been on song this season and a win here would stamp his authority ahead of the Tour de France.
Stage 8: Albertville - Plateau de Solaison, 115 km
More famous Tour de France climbs await on the final day, where four major climbs are packed into a potentially explosive 115km of racing. The Col de Saisies, Col des Aravis, and Col de la Colombière are all preludes to the hors-categorie summit finish at the Plateau de Solaison, an 11.3km ascent with an average gradient of 9.2 per cent. Even if there are sizeable gaps on GC, this finale has the potential to turn the race on its head.
CN pick: It is a brutish day with a dastardly final ascent. A Froome on form can excel on a day such as this.
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