July favorites chase confidence and confirmation in June

June is an odd month on the international racing calendar. It boasts some of the most prestigious events of the season, but there’s a lot more at stake than being first across the finish line.

Racing in June is cycling’s version of walking a slackline, trying to balance the pressure for results now with not leaving it all out on the road too soon.

There’s an odd dynamic in June. For many of the top stars in the peloton, racing this month is just as much about what happens next month as it is about results now. And for scores of others hoping to punch their ticket to July’s big dance, it’s put up or shut up.

“It’s always important to score results ahead of the Tour,” said Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde. “It shows you that you are on the right way.”

This month we saw top names across the peloton post big performances, but those wins were just as much about chasing elusive confidence and confirmation as padding their palmares.

Valverde, 38, won a stage and the overall at the re-branded Route du Sud (now called La Route d’Occitanie). With 11 wins this season, Valverde has nothing to prove to anyone except to himself. After crashing out of last year’s Tour in the first day, the Spanish veteran needed to convince himself he’s ready for July.

“A win like this gives you confidence,” Valverde said. “Sometimes you don’t have to win to know you’re feeling good. But if you’re not close now [to good form], it’s hard to be ready for the Tour.”

Very few riders put June as their season peak. It’s an interesting intersection on the international calendar. Protagonists are either coming off the Giro d’Italia before taking a break, or coming a break to put some race speed into their legs for July.

For those racing the Tour, however, what happens in June is critical. Decisions on Tour rosters are usually made on what happens in June. Tour favorites want to prove to themselves, their teammates and their rivals that they’ll be ready for July.

After a spring of close calls, Dan Martin took his first win of 2018 since moving to UAE-Emirates in a mountaintop finale at the Dauphiné. It was an important statement for his team and for his confidence.

“I didn’t expect to be in top form yet, but I’d rather be in this position than in difficulty for the Tour,” Martin said. “We had a period of adjustment of getting familiar with each other. This is payback for everyone’s hard work.”

For some riders, a big win in June can take the pressure off ahead of the Tour. In fact, victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse can often be the biggest win of a rider’s career. But for the major stars looking to perform in July, races in June take on a different kind of importance.

Winning in June can be a good indicator of where a rider stands. As Valverde said, it’s all about sensations and confirmation of where one measures up against their respective rivals.

Look no further than Jakob Fulgsang (Astana). The Dane didn’t win a stage or the overall at the Tour de Suisse — he was second to winner Richie Porte (BMC Racing) — but he confirmed his credentials as among the strongest riders among the Tour-bound favorites. Following a disastrous team time trial to open the race (Astana was second-to-last among 21 starters at 1:18 behind BMC), Fuglsang patiently rode himself back into contention. The Dane was second behind Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in stage 7 and was fastest among the GC riders in the final-day time trial, finishing the week second overall at 1:02 behind Porte.

“This is a great result that brings me a lot of confidence ahead of the Tour,” Fuglsang said. “I won the Dauphiné last year and now I am second at the Tour de Suisse. That says to me I am on the right way.”

Thanks to his big June performance, Fuglsang’s Tour stock is shooting through the roof back in his native Denmark and among his teammates.

Of course, June victories do not guarantee July success. That’s especially true with the Swiss tour. In fact, the last Tour de Suisse winner to back it up with victory in the Tour de France was Lance Armstrong in 2001 (results that were later disqualified).

BMC’s Porte hopes to change that narrative and called his Suisse victory the most important win of his career. But even as he said that, the Tasmanian added he still has room to improve before the Tour.

“It’s a very important race and I think it’s disrespectful to say it’s a ‘lead in’ race for the Tour de France as it means a lot to win it,” Porte said. “I’m ready for the Tour de France. I did a good race here. I’m not at the top of my form just yet so I am excited for July.”

In a peloton that’s always riding to the edge in terms of fitness and performance, timing is everything. Many riders skipped both the Dauphiné and the Suisse because they were too far from the July 7 start of the Tour. And even further away from the real decisive mountain stages looming in second half of July.

“You can train all you want, but it’s important to get results in a race,” said EF-Drapac’s Rigoberto Urán, who won a stage and finished second overall at the Tour of Slovenia. “If you come out of these races not feeling good in June, it’s very difficult to make up for lost time. More than anything, it gives you tranquility that you are working in the right way.”

Things were different at the Dauphiné. The French race across the Alps often is often a better predictor of who will be shining in the Tour.

Geraint Thomas (Sky) also claimed the biggest stage race win of his career there and emerged as Team Sky’s Plan B. And like Porte’s win at the Suisse, the victory was founded on a top team time trial performance by Sky in the 35km race against the clock. In both races, the team time trial proved decisive in the overall victories.

Team Sky has owned recent editions of the Dauphiné, winning six of the past eight races. In four of those occasions — in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 — Team Sky also went on to win the Tour de France. Thomas took that ever-elusive “confidence” out of the Dauphiné that he hopes will translate to success in July. With Chris Froome’s status remaining uncertain (though it is expected he will race the Tour), Thomas’s win comes at a good moment.

“This is a confidence booster for the Tour,” Thomas said. “[We were] always in control and not getting carried away. Riding well as a team, that’s our strength. We’ve done it for so many years now at the Tour.”

These June races are also critical to support players hoping to punch their ticket to the Tour. As we’ve seen already, with the surprise exclusion of sprinter Caleb Ewan at Mitchelton-Scott, the new eight-man roster rule is putting the pinch on teams when it comes to selecting their Tour lineups.

There’s pressure to perform and post good numbers in June in order to earn a spot to race in July. Most teams have 10 to 12 riders fighting to gain one of the eight Tour slots — BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter wrote about this in length in his recent VeloNews column.

Every team and every rider has their respective approach to the Tour during the month of June. Some riders like to race their way into top form, while others prefer a quieter approach. Chris Froome (Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) did not race this month after finishing one-two at the grueling Giro.

And then there’s Vincenzo Nibali. Despite a run of top results from many of the top Tour favorites this month, the Bahrain-Merida captain was nearly invisible during the Critérium du Dauphiné. The 2014 Tour champion never suggested any encouraging form en route to 24thoverall. Yet his team is not worried their man won’t be ready for July.

“There are no alarm bells at the moment,” said Bahrain-Merida manager Brent Copeland. “Vincenzo is doing well. Everything is going to plan. Vincenzo knows he needs to be strong in the second half of July, not early June.”

Riders like Valverde and Nibali have nothing to prove. Others do. Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) confirmed his Tour ambitions with an impressive run to the overall at the Tour of Slovenia that included a time trial win as well as one in the mountains. At 28, his June performances reassert his Tour credentials and earned him co-captain responsibilities for July.

“For me, the Tour of Slovenia has been an ideal race in the build-up to the Tour de France,” Roglic said. “The Tour begins in three weeks and this race was perfect to get the intensity back in the legs. The upcoming weeks will mainly consist of training and resting and hopefully I’m ready for the Tour. But for now, I’ll enjoy my victory.”

A wide variety of factors go into play on who wins the Tour next month. Crashes, illnesses, crosswinds or unexpected race dynamics can throw months of hard work and planning out the window.

The road to the Tour goes through June. Without a great June, almost no one will have a standout July. But if a rider blows it in July, almost no one will remember whether or not they had a great June. It’s an odd month for racing.