The spin cycle went into overdrive Monday in the wake of a wild and unpredictable Critérium du Dauphiné.
Depending on who you asked, what happened in June wasn’t really important, especially with the Tour de France still three weeks away, or, based on what was plain to see for everyone, the eight-day race across the French Alps said everything we needed to know.
Of the Tour’s “big three,” this much can be said with clarity: Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) looks stronger than ever, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) remains an enigma, and Chris Froome (Sky) appears human after all.
Contador chose to look at the bright side of things, downplaying Andrew Talansky’s dramatic coup to steal away the leader’s jersey in Sunday’s finale, and instead looked at the bigger picture.
“In no circumstances am I disappointed,” Contador said after losing the yellow jersey to Garmin-Sharp’s Talansky. “I am very happy with how I rode. I knew the riders up the road were very strong, and that the GC was all but lost, but on the other hand, the legs responded very well, and I felt stronger each day. Even though I didn’t win the overall, I believe how I raced was much more important than the victory.”
Contador may have lost the battle — the Dauphiné remains one of the few major stage races that has so far eluded him — but he claims he won the larger, psychological war that the Dauphiné often represents.
Throughout the eight days of racing, Contador was able to mark his archrival Froome, and when the Sky rider crashed heavily in stage 6, Contador rode away with the leader’s jersey. That’s in sharp contrast to last year’s Dauphiné, when Contador was shelled in every major stage, signaling that he would not be up to a serious challenge in the 2013 Tour.
A year later, Contador has stepped up from his inconsistencies in 2013 and comes out of the Dauphiné with his confidence sky high.
Contador also downplayed how he was isolated without teammates in the decisive final climb in Sunday’s duel, allowing the attacking Talansky to snatch away the leader’s jersey.
“[Sunday] was complicated, and I knew that I was here without my Tour-level team, and that other teams were. That’s why I was isolated so soon,” Contador continued. “I wanted to stay focused on Froome, and they started to attack on the flats, and I couldn’t follow every move. So I decided to wait until the final climb. … I raced here with tranquility, and didn’t come here with pressure to win, but rather to roll miles and put myself in form for the Tour, yet I nearly won anyway. If this had been the Tour, believe me, things would have been different.”
Talansky reconfirms … again
The other rider to emerge from the Dauphiné with his stock on the rise was the tenacious figure of Talansky. The 25-year-old confirmed once again he has the legs to match his drive, and thanks to a sublime tactical play by Garmin in Sunday’s final stage, he was able to claim the most important victory of his career.
Talansky has been quietly building all spring toward the Tour, with eyes on improving his already impressive 10th in his Tour debut last year. His improving consistency in the deep mountains will bode well for July.
The past two Dauphiné winners have gone on to win the Tour, with Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Froome in 2013, but Talansky was quick to downplay the significance of his Dauphiné victory, at least in terms of what it means on how things will play out in July.
“I am going to the Tour and do my ride. Those two riders are a bit different,” a jubilant Talansky said Sunday. “Wiggins and Froome are incredible riders, and I hope to be someday at that level.”
After finishing second to Nairo Quintana in the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir, Talansky has made tremendous progress each season since turning pro in 2011, winning the Tour de l’Ain in 2012, and then punching into the top 10 in his Tour debut last year.
He wasn’t on the radar to win the Dauphiné, especially with all eyes on the season’s first showdown between the Tour’s “big three,” but in typical Talansky style, he keep slugging away, and on Sunday, with key help from teammate Ryder Hesjedal, he was able to deliver the knockout blow.
“I didn’t touch the wind until the last 15km when I had to. I owe a lot to Ryder, because without him, we would have never made it,” Talansky said. “It’s an incredible feeling. All the hard work, the years of sacrifices, for moments like this, this is why we do it. I am very happy. To finish as the winner of the Dauphiné is even more than I could have hoped for.”
Nibali … the enigma
On the other end of the buzz chart lies Nibali, the 2013 Giro d’Italia champion who continues to shrug off growing hysteria that he will not be ready to seriously challenge for the yellow jersey in July.
Much like he has been all season, Nibali impressed by being largely unimpressive. He wasn’t bad during the Dauphiné, finishing seventh, but hardly made any suggestion that he is going to be wearing the maillot jaune in Paris.
And, much like he has done all spring, Nibali shrugged off suggestions that he won’t be ready.
“I’m not worried,” Nibali told VeloNews’ Gregor Brown. “Two years ago at the Dauphiné, I went slow and easy. I lost nine minutes that Quintana won. At the Tour, though, I was third.”
Whether that “slow and easy” tactic will work this year remains to be seen. Over the past two or three years, riders have been able to hit top form early, and hold it, while anyone stuck in second gear remains there, unable to regain lost ground.
Perhaps Nibali is holding everything in check until the Tour, but his stock has dropped since the beginning of the season, when he was viewed as Froome’s top rival, not Contador. The Spaniard has since won or finished second in every stage race he’s started in 2014, while Nibali remains winless going into the Tour.
That lack of success provoked, at least according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, a scathing internal memo from Astana general manager Alexander Vinokourov bemoaning Nibali’s lack of results. Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli insists that Nibali “still has time” to sharpen his form ahead of the Tour, but as the Dauphiné revealed, Nibali will have to be watching his heels for attacks from the likes of Talansky and a host of others, including riders racing this week at the Tour de Suisse, for the fight for a spot on the Tour podium.
Froome’s rocky Tour prep
And then there is Froome, who weathered a brutal week marked by a nasty crash in stage 6 that knocked him off what looked to be a winning performance.
Froome’s ride toward the 2014 Tour is night and day compared to the relatively smooth sailing he enjoyed last year. In 2013, he won every stage race he started, except Tirreno-Adriatico, and then dominated the Tour with relative ease.
After coming out gangbusters in the Tour of Oman, Froome has suffered through a string of relatively minor setbacks that could cost him in July. His crash, and a brewing controversy about asthma and his use of corticosteroids during the Tour de Romandie, will only compound things with just three weeks to go to the Tour.
“I was completely blocked in my quads since my crash, and it definitely affected my race [Sunday],” Froome said. “While it’s frustrating, we can take a lot of things away from this race. We won three stages, the points jersey, and produced a dominant team performance. Alberto’s shown he is in great form ahead of the Tour, and we’re definitely going to have a battle on our hands in July.”
Nearly everyone agrees that winning a second Tour is nearly as difficult as the first. Despite some external hiccups beyond his control, Froome has certainly remained focused on the task, and although he could not defend his Dauphiné title, there is still the underlying sensation that he will defend his Tour title.
Froome was able to win two stages, and defended his lead going into the final weekend. Without the crash, he very likely would have won.
Even more important about this Dauphiné is something the race didn’t have: a long individual time trial. Froome remains a step ahead of his rivals against the clock, and even managed to take nearly one second per kilometer on Contador en route to winning the 10.4km TT that opened the Dauphiné.
This year’s climb-heavy Tour will likely be decided in the mountains, but looming like a guillotine is the penultimate stage time trial. At 54km over rolling country around Bergerac, Froome could still hope to regain minutes on the skinny climbers who will be trying to attack him from all sides in the mountains. Late-race time trials are rarely as decisive as ones that come earlier in grand tours, but with this year’s Tour featuring only one long time trial, the 20th stage is one that will be in Froome’s favor.
The Dauphiné mirrored what’s been an exhilarating, unpredictable season since February. And it underlined the growing sensation that this summer’s Tour de France could be an epic battle unseen in years.
As one Belgian journalist said, sometimes the appetizer is much better than the main course, but this Dauphiné was so tasty, one can only hope the rest is just as good.