Tour de France 2020

Critérium du Dauphiné 2020: The decisive pre-Tour test

With every team's Tour de France leader set to line up at this week's mountainous Dauphiné, there will be plenty to look out for.

The final test for riders headed to the Tour de France beckons this week with the five-stage Critérium du Dauphiné set to start Wednesday.

Set in the heart of the French Alps, the Dauphiné has long held the prestige of being one of the go-to pre-Tour testing grounds thanks to its mid-June start slot. The race, organized by Tour owners ASO, has retained its prime position in this year’s reshuffled post-COVID calendar, rolling out just 17 days before the Tour’s Grand Départ.

Packed with climbs and boasting a bumper start-sheet, the race, Wednesday through Sunday, should offer plenty of insight into how the Tour could play out later this month.

Who’s racing?  The easier question to answer would be who isn’t, as every team captain hoping to contest for GC at the Tour will be lining up. Alongside Jumbo-Visma and Team Ineos’ trios of leaders, Tadej Pogačar, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot, Richie Porte, Mikel Landa, Emanuel Buchmann, Rigoberto Urán, Romain Bardet, and Julian Alaphilippe are all slated to be starting the race out of Clermont Ferrand tomorrow.

Jumbo-Visma and Team Ineos are both going into the Dauphiné all-guns-blazing, and it’s likely their faces will dominate the week’s podiums.

After sending powerful squads to the Tour de l’Ain, both teams are bringing in yet-more heavy hitters this week, with the Dutch squad adding classics hero Wout van Aert and young American prodigy Sepp Kuss to their team, and Ineos bringing in rapidly-rising Pavel Sivakov and superdomestique Michał Kwiatkowski.

Having crushed the Tour de l’Ain, Jumbo-Visma is looking to again turn the screw at the Dauphiné.

“After the Tour de l’Ain, the Dauphiné is the next race in our preparation towards the Tour de France, but that does not mean that we will approach it as a training competition,” said Jumbo-Visma’s Tom Dumoulin. “We are going to try to win again. If that opportunity presents itself, we will make use of it.”

This year's Dauphiné rolls from the Massif Central to a series of stages in the northern Alps. Image: Critérium du Dauphiné
This year’s Dauphiné rolls from the Massif Central to a series of stages in the northern Alps. Image: Critérium du Dauphiné

As always, the Dauphiné is one for the climbers, with the majority of the major sprinters staying home. This year’s edition – truncated from its typical eight-day format – is as intense as ever.

“Dauphiné will be a very hard race, maybe one of the toughest of this season: five stages, five uphill finishes, and with four of these stages being quite short, it means it will be full gas from the start,” said Deceuninck-Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels.

Every stage this coming week includes at least three categorized climbs and finishes with an upward tilt. However, stage 2, Thursday, and the weekend’s closing pair of stages will be the ones to be sure to tune in for. Thursday’s stage throws the peloton into a short, sharp 135-kilometer parcours capped by an Hors Catégorie climb, while the final two days are up and down all day long,

“The weekend will be particularly hard, with each of the two days packing some 4,000 vertical meters, which could lead to some big gaps in the standings,” Steels forecasted.

 

The first major mountaintop battle plays out on the long grind to Col de Porte on stage 2. Image: Critérium du Dauphiné

 

The closing stage around Megeve contains a long menu of short sharp climbs packed into just 150km. Image Critérium du Dauphiné
The closing stage around Megève contains a long menu of short sharp climbs packed into just over 150km. Image: Critérium du Dauphiné

Storylines to follow:

A pre-Tour COVID compliance test

Just as riders use the Dauphiné to test their Tour legs, ASO, organizers of both events, will be using this week’s race to test and tweak their COVID protocols.

Last month, Tour officials sketched out their plans for fan and media access, along with their visions of off-limits finish line areas and a stripped-back publicity caravan for this year’s Grande Boucle. Restrictions will also be imposed on teams, with controls over travel, hotels, and, of course, a battery of mandatory COVID checks.

The next week could give an insight into how well ASO’s plans play out in the real world. Racing so far has seen drastically different roadside scenes, with fans lining the roads at Strade Bianche and Tour of Poland, while at Spain’s Burgos Tour, the public stayed home. Will the Tour be “behind closed doors” later this month? Maybe watch the Dauphiné to find out.

Froome’s last chance saloon

Chris Froome (Ineos) may want to win his fifth Tour de France this summer, but he’s got to make it onto the Ineos team first.

With the grand tour star looking far from his best at both Route d’Occitanie and Tour de l’Ain, Froome is fighting for a slot at this summer’s Tour. Reports both before and after last week’s l’Ain Tour suggest all but one of the British team’s Tour slots are filled, and Froome is not one of the riders indelibly marked on the start sheet.

Whether he competes for GC at the Dauphiné or not, Froome will need to show some sparkle this week, or he may be left riding the Giro d’Italia alongside Richard Carapaz, or bumped further back to the late-fall Vuelta a España.

With it confirmed that Froome will be leaving Ineos at the end of the year, David Brailsford’s ever-ruthless selection policy will be sharpened further if Froome looks off the back.

Will the Tour’s contenders show their cards? 

While we gained an in-depth preview of the form of Team Ineos and Jumbo-Visma’s leaders at the Tour de l’Ain last week, a few five-star contenders were absent, or hid in plain view.

The Dauphiné should give an insight into just how much of a challenge the host of non-Jumbo-Visma and Ineos contenders put up at the Tour – if they choose to play their cards.

Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) has yet to get a stage race in his legs since placing second at February’s UAE Tour, instead netting a solid 12th and 13th place at Milano-Sanremo and Strade Bianche respectively earlier this month. He’s not promising fireworks this week.

“I am happy with my condition,” said the 21-year-old star. “Some of the stages here at the Dauphiné could suit me, but the principal aim is building up for the Tour de France.”

Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) also sat out the l’Ain Tour. Like Pogačar, the Frenchman is cagey about talking-up his chances for the Dauphiné, insisting the European heatwave will prove problematic given his famed struggles when the mercury tilts upward.

“The Critérium du Dauphiné will be important to build up pressure for the Tour de France,” he said. “I will probably not be 100 percent, but I take [the Dauphiné] as a mandatory and essential step for my preparation for the Tour de France.”

While Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) did race at Tour de l’Ain, his third-place overall came off the back of a largely anonymous race marking the wheels of the Ineos and Jumbo-Visma trains. Having sparkled at the start of the season with aggressive racing, the Colombian claims he’s still struggling to come back from his recent training crash.

“Little by little, I see that I am recovering from my fall in Colombia, ” he said after looking off the pace at last week’s Ventoux Challenge. “The Ventoux was my first race after confinement, it was not easy on these slopes, but little by little I hope to be better and better.”

Placed just two weeks before the Tour, the Dauphiné marks an opportunity to either strike a psychological blow with a powerful performance or suffer a late nosedive in confidence if the legs aren’t there. While Jumbo-Visma is swaggering in its hunt for success, many others may choose to keep their form close to their chest until they know their legs are back after lockdown.