Five stories to watch in the Dauphiné

Critérium du Dauphiné is key to Tour de France preparation. What will the top riders show us in this week-long race through France?

Every stage race has multiple story lines. With 200 riders at the start line, each one brings their unique ambition and backstory to the race. These plot lines ultimately weave together to make up the final GC. This year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, starting Sunday in Saint Étienne, packs plenty of narrative punch.

Sometimes it’s a shame the Critérium du Dauphiné is overshadowed by July’s Tour de France. The Dauphiné is one of France’s most prestigious races, and a quick glance down the winner’s list reveals that the big names want to win here at least once.

Inevitably, everyone will also have one eye on July. After all, the Dauphiné is the last chance for all the top riders to square off before the Tour. With most of the Tour de France favorites lining up for the 69th edition starting Sunday, next week’s race across the French Alps is just as much about winning the Dauphiné as it is aligning forces for the Tour de France.

Here are five threads to follow next week:

1. Chris Froome’s legs

All eyes will be on defending champion Chris Froome. He’s been the absolute ruler of the roost since 2013, winning three of the past four Tours. He’s the odds-on favorite to win a fourth. Yet this year seems different. First off, he hasn’t won a race. Granted, a few things haven’t gone his way, but it is the first year since he emerged as Sky’s go-to man that he hasn’t won prior to the Tour. And second, riders will be pressing him in key moments of the race to test his form. This year’s Tour route is different, so it’s likely Team Sky has something up its sleeve for July. Froome may approach this season very differently than he did in 2016. The pressure will be on Froome to remind the peloton he’s still the boss. Riders and sport directors see things that mere mortals cannot. If they sense that Froome isn’t looking sharp next week, the knives will be out come July.
Dauphiné record: 2012 – 4th; 2013 – 1st + stage win; 2014 – 12th + 2 stage wins; 2015 – 1st + 2 stage wins; 2016 – 1st + stage win

2. Richie Porte’s TT

This year’s Dauphiné features an interesting 23.5km time trial that should tell us a lot about who can challenge Froome in July. Time trials win grand tours — look no further than last month’s Giro d’Italia. This year’s Tour is book-ended with two relatively short, but ultimately decisive time trials. If Richie Porte, whom Froome knows can stay close to him in the mountains, hopes to have any chance of winning the Tour, he’ll need to take it to Froome against the clock. Porte had a great TT at Romandie, taking 38 seconds out of Froome in 18.3km. If Porte can repeat a similar performance against a Tour-bound Froome on the Dauphiné’s 23.5km route, that would elevate Porte as his most dangerous rival.
Dauphiné record: 2012 – 9th; 2013 – 2nd; 2014 – 22nd; 2016 – 4th

3. On their knees

Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) and Fabio Aru (Astana) both return to racing at the Dauphiné after nursing knee injuries that sidelined them this spring. Chaves has only raced 12 days, and Aru was forced to miss the Giro. The Dauphiné will reveal just how far along they are in their respective recoveries, whether or not they will be legitimate GC contenders in July. It’s probably too early to expect either of them to seriously challenge for the Dauphiné, but if they get blown out the back early in the climbing stages, that means they likely won’t be at the front of the climbing stages in July. That doesn’t mean they can’t impact the Tour. Both are proven stage-hunters and grand tour favorites. But if they’re still gimpy in June, they won’t be jumpy in July.
Chaves – Dauphiné record: debut
Aru – Dauphiné record: 2016 – 45th + stage win

4. Contador’s climbing

Tactical coups aside, the only way Alberto Contador is going to beat Froome in July is by dropping him in the mountains. Long gone are the days when the Pistolero was beating the likes of now-retired Fabian Cancellara in Tour time trials. Contador needs to be flying in the mountains to have any real chance of winning the Tour. So this Dauphiné should provide some telling clues if he’s on Tour-winning form. Contador is already downplaying his overall ambitions for the Dauphiné. In fact, he’s never won the race. Instead, he is saying he’s completely focused on the Tour, but he’ll need to be looking ready to challenge Froome even if he’s keeping his cards close to his chest. There’s less than three weeks after the end of the Dauphiné to the start of the Tour. That isn’t enough time to make up for lost ground.
Dauphiné record: 2005 – DNF; 2007 – 6th; 2009 – 3rd; 2010 – 2nd + 2 stage wins; 2013 – 10th; 2014 – 2nd; 2-16 – 5th + stage win

5. Bardet redux

Last year, Romain Bardet was riding a wave of emotional and exceptional form, finishing second to Froome at both the Dauphiné and Tour. One more mountain and a few more seconds in breakaways, and those results just might have been switched. Much like Contador, Bardet will need to be flying in the mountains to have any real chance of beating Froome in July. It will be interesting to see how Bardet handles the pressure and expectations that come with being France’s new favorite son. So far, he seems mature and ambitious enough not to let it overwhelm him. Will Bardet risk going too deep to win the Dauphiné at the expense of July? Or is Bardet going to be even better than he was last summer? That will be one of the most interesting story lines of next week, and next month.
Dauphiné record: 2014 – 5th; 2015 – 6th + stage win; 2016 – 2nd