Chris Froome delivered when he had to over the weekend to secure a third career Critérium du Dauphiné victory, which sent mixed messages to his Tour de France rivals.
Froome’s 12-second margin of victory was economical and efficient, and it simultaneously gave his rivals a sliver of hope. At the same time, however, it reconfirmed his status as the favorite for a third yellow jersey next month.
The Sky rider effectively neutralized archrival Alberto Contador of Tinkoff, and he was able to deftly manage several moving pieces that included a newly aggressive Romain Bardet of Ag2r La Mondiale and former teammate-turned-rival Richie Porte of BMC Racing.
After winning the Dauphiné in 2013 and 2015, both years he later won the Tour de France, Froome leaves the Alps with a sense of relief and a feeling of mission accomplished.
“I’m not at my best yet,” Froome said almost as a warning. “I hope to reach that by the start of the Tour. I’ve not raced much this year in order to be at my best during the third week of the Tour.”
It’s hard to compare victories, and those 12 precious seconds that delivered Sky’s fourth Dauphiné crown in five years should be considered through the lens of 2016. There were several key factors:
Froome remains hard to shake in the mountains
The Dauphiné reconfirmed that Froome is very hard to drop one-on-one on the decisive climbs.
Apart from ceding seconds in the opening climbing time trial, Froome matched or took time on all his key rivals in every decisive climb when he was taking them on directly.
The exception was Bardet, who uncorked a long-range sortie in Saturday’s queen stage to Meribel that nearly tipped over Sky’s game plan. When Bardet moved (at 1:34 back), Froome decided to wait, forcing his teammates to work hard to limit the damage. Bardet was probably cursing the 45 seconds he lost in a pileup in stage 2, but had he been closer on GC, Froome would have never let him go.
The Dauphiné course this year didn’t provide ideal terrain for Froome, either, and that was reflected in the tight GC. Had there been a longer individual time trial, as their usually is as part of this race, or an even more challenging uphill finish, Froome likely would have won by a larger margin.
It doesn’t matter if the margin was 12 seconds or two minutes. Froome was the strongest on the week and he managed the tactics perfectly.
No one was more consistent all week than Froome.
Bardet took big gains to Meribel, but that was after he lost time in the stage 2 pileup as well 25 seconds to Froome, the winner at stage 6 to Vaujany. Contador, too, was hot-and-cold all week. He might have been suffering from allergies, and admitted he didn’t have speed in his legs to counter Froome’s high-end accelerations. After he came hot out of the gate to win the prologue, Contador went cold at Vaujany, ceding valuable seconds that are all but impossible to take back against Froome.
Porte also couldn’t back up his strong performance at Vaujany the following day at Meribel, where 14 seconds took him out as a real threat in a race that was going to be won by seconds. A controversial time cut in stage 4, when commissaires didn’t impose the 3km rule when Contador and Porte were caught behind a crash that cost them both 9 seconds, proved yet again that Froome is always well positioned and where he needs to be in just about every scenario.
Froome also repeated what appears to be his winning formula: take decisive gains in the first mountaintop finish, and then ride defensively. Just like he did in last year’s Tour de France at La Pierre-Saint-Martin, Froome pounced at Vaujany. Porte could follow, but Froome took decisive gains on everyone else. After that, the GC was all about controlling his rivals.
Getting to Froome remains difficult
Sky is clearly rebuilding “Fortress Froome,” which showed itself vulnerable in a few moments at the Dauphiné. This is where his rivals might take some positives out of the race.
With Porte now at rival BMC, Froome loses one of his most consistent workers. Sky has incredible depth to fill this hole, however. (One wonders if Froome and Porte might find common interests late in the game during the Tour — the win for me, the podium for you, come on, mate! — effectively neutralizing what could be one of Froome’s most serious rivals.)
Wout Poels, Sergio Henao, and Mikel Landa provide a formidable frontline, with Geraint Thomas slotting in after racing this week at Tour de Suisse, so it won’t be easy to attack Froome during the Tour even with Porte in different colors.
Tinkoff gave it a gallant try, first by sending riders up the road and then having Contador attack from behind. That tactic will only work if Contador has the legs to go over the top of the earlier attacks. He clearly didn’t at the Dauphiné, but if he does in a month’s time, there could be an opening for others to pile on as well.
Bardet also revealed some newfound aggression that holds promise for July, but it will also mean that Sky will be putting a target firmly on his back next month as well. Thibaut Pinot of FDJ was wildly inconsistent, although he delivered a stage win, and he will need to step up in July if he’s going to be a serious threat. And Fabio Aru? The hyped Astana rider was never in the frame, setting off alarm bells for July.
The Dauphiné reconfirmed what Dave Brailsford and the Sky brain trust already know: If the team can protect Froome until the final decisive climbs, almost no one can drop him. Add the time trials from this year’s Tour, and Froome’s third Tour looks for his to lose, at least on paper.
The Nairo factor
The one rider that no one saw at the Dauphiné is Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, who will race at Route du Sud this week.
Perhaps Quintana is the only rival strong enough to take on Froome in the mountains and seriously pose a genuine threat for yellow next month.
Last year, the fearless Colombian effectively cracked through the walls of “Fortress Froome,” isolated him, and took major gains — 1:20 — on the Alpe d’Huez summit. That’s the first time anyone’s seriously took a run at Froome since his emergence as the Tour’s top rider.
With such a brutal final week of the Tour, perhaps that’s why Froome said he was coming in a touch off top form for the Dauphiné. He knows he’s shown weakness in the final week of the Tour in both of his winning rides (including a minor chest cold last year), but each time, he’s held such a large enough margin that it didn’t matter.
“It is great timing to have a win under the belt,” Froome said Sunday. “It does help build the morale a bit and build the team around me. There’s still a lot of work to do before July but all the right signs are there now.
“If we can take anything away from this week, it’s not to be complacent,” he concluded.
In today’s peloton built on marginal gains, there’s no margin for error. Last week, Froome was impeccable and took a well-deserved victory. With the peloton raising its collective game, his rivals are inching ever closer. Consistency and clutch performances have delivered Froome two yellow jerseys in three years. All signs point toward a third, but one mistake by the Englishman could mean the 2016 Tour has a very different ending.