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Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Sepp Kuss race toward Tour de France at Critérium du Dauphiné

Brandon McNulty also to take center stage at key Tour de France tuneup race starting Sunday.

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It will be all eyes on Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome at the Critérium du Dauphiné next week.

The two former teammates have far-contrasting ambitions for the season, and each will be racing to very different ends at the eight-day Dauphiné, starting Sunday.

Falling just four weeks before the Tour de France, the mountainous Dauphiné makes for a key final tester – one last tune-up of an engine tuned all season with the maillot jaune in mind.

For the many years of Team Sky / Ineos rule over the Tour, victory at the Dauphiné has been the final finesse of its leader’s march into the yellow jersey. And that’s why the next week is so important for Thomas.

The Welshman headlines a fully-stacked Ineos Grenadiers team that also boasts 2020 Giro champion Tao Geoghegan Hart and domestique-de-luxe Richie Porte. And behind them is an all-out assault crew including Michal Kwiatkowski and Dylan van Baarle.

Ineos is making a bold statement with its A-list squad for the Dauphiné – victory or nothing.

With the exception of Ecuadorian ace Richard Carapaz and Aussie powerhouse Rohan Dennis, the Ineos seven set for the Dauphiné makes for a dry-run of what’s to come for three weeks at the Tour.

Also read: Ineos Grenadiers is set to dominate the grand tours

After Thomas topped the podium at the Tour de Romandie last month, the Welshman will be looking for one further affirmation he’s in the form needed to take his second Tour title. Although Egan Bernal has ruled himself out of this summer’s Tour, Thomas will be looking to stamp his authority at the top of Ineos’ all-star squad.

Anything less than a podium next weekend will be a disappointment for Thomas and team boss Dave Brailsford.

Contrastingly, Froome will take whatever he can get in the tough eight days of the Dauphiné, where he will be supporting Israel Start-Up Nation teammate Ben Hermans.  Speaking earlier this week, Froome tamped down the prospect of him being in contention for a fifth yellow jersey this summer, feathering the brakes on the season-long speculation over his form.

“I feel better with every week of training. I’m not at the level to be there with the best yet, but I’m getting there slowly,” Froome told Italian broadcaster RAI.

“After my accident, my number one goal is to get back to the form I had before. I know it won’t be easy and I’ll have to push myself even harder. But I’m optimistic that if I do all the work, I can get there in the future.”

So what will Froome be looking to do at the Dauphiné?

Any sign of strength will be as good for him as a podium will be for Thomas.

All through the season, the Israel Start-Up Nation captain has been playing for time, saying that he needs more racing miles in his legs to refind the top-end. If Froome is going to play a factor – or even get a start – at this year’s Tour, the Dauphiné is his last chance to prove himself.

Also read: Froome hits back at critics 

Other riders whose pathway to the Tour de France runs through the Dauphiné include Michael Woods, David Gaudu, Steven Kruijswijk, Miguel Ángel López, and Nairo Quintana.

There are two very big names associated with the Tour that will not be at the Dauphiné next week however – Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič.

The two Slovenians are bypassing the Dauphiné this year, choosing alternative pathways for their return to France. Pogačar is opting for the home roads and lower hype of the Tour of Slovenia next month, while Roglič is taking the bold move to forgo racing altogether before rolling out for the grand départ late June.

Kuss, McNulty, Dombrowski: American aces return to action

Kuss climbed with the best in 2020 and will be called on to repeat the feat this summer. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The Dauphiné marks the start of a big summer for Sepp Kuss and Brandon McNulty.

The two young aces will both occupy similar roles for their Jumbo-Visma and UAE Emirates squads at the Tour, with Kuss set to act as right-hand man to Roglič while McNulty aims to add horsepower to Pogačar’s title defense in what will be his tour debut.

Also read: Kuss a must-have for Tour de France, says DS

Kuss will lead his squad alongside Kruijswijk at the Dauphiné in the next week. The Coloradan won a stage at last year’s Dauphiné and is hoping for another strong showing this year.

“I am really looking forward to the Dauphiné,” Kuss said. “We have just had a good altitude camp with the team. I felt very good there and I am looking forward to this race.

“In addition to being a preparation race for the Tour de France, the Critérium du Dauphiné is simply a very tough race. I hope to show myself again because I have good memories of this race.”

McNulty will also see his freedom at the Dauphiné. After forgoing leadership at this month’s Giro to instead start the Tour, the 23-year-old will use the eight days to finesse his GC skills in anticipation of big grand tour goals in the near future.

Joe Dombrowski will partner McNulty at UAE-Emirates next week in what will be his first race since abandoning the Giro d’Italia earlier this month. After winning stage 4 in Italy before being ruled out with concussion, Dombrowski may be eyeing opportunities for himself when not put to work guarding his countryman’s wheel.

Could we see a Dombrowski vs Kuss climbing battle on the high-altitude summit finish to La Plagne on stage 7 next Saturday? It’s a prospect to savor.