Team Sky’s embarrassment of riches is there for everyone to see, with Chris Froome and Richie Porte leading the field after the first mountain-top finish of the 2013 Critérium du Dauphiné.
A Froome-Porte one-two is something we’re getting quite used to witnessing this year.
On the third and final stage of March’s Critérium International, the Briton beat the Australian to the summit of the Col de l’Ospedale to take the win and secure a one-two in the same order in the General Classification.
The two riders are now sitting pretty at the top of the overall standings after five stages of the Dauphiné, with Froome taking the race’s first mountain-top finish at Valmorel to move to 52 seconds clear of Porte with three stages remaining.
Tour de France reigning champion Bradley Wiggins may be down and out – but a second successive Sky one-two on the Grande Boucle cannot be ruled out, with both Froome and Porte in the form of their lives this season.
A friendlier one-two it would be too – with best friends Froome and Porte sharing a strong bond in stark contrast to Froome’s icy relationship with Wiggins, which could be described, at best, as ‘professional’ (although some critics would even debate that).
After Alberto Contador had put in a stinging attack on with little over a kilometre to go on stage five’s final climb, Froome was happy to let the Spaniard clear safe in the knowledge of two things: first, that he had the legs to reel him in before the finish, and second, that the Spaniard, at his current level, did not have the power to sustain his acceleration through to the line.
Froome duly closed in on Contador and the pair caught RadioShack’s Matthew Bushe, the last remnant of the day’s break, with just 500m remaining.
The expected three-way sprint for the win never materialised; Froome simply blaze his way to the line to beat Contador by four seconds and throw down a second successive psychological marker over his rival ahead of the Tour.
One day earlier, Contador – apparently suffering from allergies – toiled on the flat 32.5km time trial, conceding a huge 2:44 to Froome.
To make matters worse for the Spaniard, Contador had one of those board-shorts-pulled-down-by-a-wave moments when being overtaken by Porte, his former understudy at Saxo Bank, with four kilometres of the ITT left to race.
If Contador is allergic to anything, it’s the sight of the back wheels of Messrs Froome and Porte.
Despite his second place on the stage, the multiple Grand Tour winner is languishing in unlucky 13th place on GC, 2:49 down on the seemingly irrepressible Froome.
One ray of light for Contador will be the form of team-mate Michael Rogers – a former Sky team-mate of both Froome and Porte.
Alongside compatriot Porte, the Australian veteran was Sky’s key domestique last summer, his knack of banging out 500 watts on the front of the diminished peloton ahead of each vital mountain rendez-vous integral in setting up Wiggins’s win ahead of Froome.
Although questions were raised after Rogers joined Saxo Bank in the wake of Sky implementing their notorious zero tolerance policy, the addition of the former triple world time trial champion was a shrewd piece of work by manager Bjarne Riis.
If anyone knows how to beat Sky at their own game on the roads of France in July, it’s a man who’s been there and done it alongside them.
‘Inside Man’ Rogers is fourth on GC in the Dauphiné – and one of three Australian riders in the top four alongside Porte and the impressive youngster Rohan Dennis of Garmin.
23-year-old Dennis – a first-year professional – was expecting to ride his debut Dauphiné in support of team leader Andrew Talansky – but with the American struggling with illness, Dennis has found himself propelled into the hot seat at Garmin.
Following his third place in the Tour of California time trial, Dennis took second place in France (47 seconds down on Germany’s Tony Martin) to move into the yellow jersey on a day he was actually targeting the white.
The lanky rider from Adelaide could only sport the Maillot Jaune for one stage but he limited his losses to just within a minute on the final ascent to Valmorel on Thursday.
Now in the white jersey as the race’s best young rider (he leads Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski by 1:04), Dennis is third on GC at 54 seconds and sandwiched between compatriots Porte and Rogers.
Friday’s 143km stage six features four climbs but concludes with a long plateau and then a 20km downhill into Grenoble. Barring any surprises there should be little change on GC ahead of the final decisive weekend.
Two consecutive summit finishes at Superdevoluy and Risoul will confirm whether or not Froome enters the Tour de France as the man to beat – and if so, whether he does with Porte right by his side.
Saturday’s stage seven starts with the ascents of both Alpe d’Huez and the Col de Sarenne – both of which will be tackled in the Tour in six weeks’ time (on the same day, with the former ridden twice).
As Contador stressed after his poor performance during the time trial, “the Dauphiné is the Dauphiné and the Tour is the Tour”. The 30-year-old’s allergies should have cleared up by the time the peloton takes to Corsica at the end of the month.
What’s more, Contador has never performed particularly well in the Dauphiné time trials – while two of his three legitimate Tour stage wins have come in ITTs.
But Froome’s consistently strong performances bode well for the Kenyan-born Brit.
The 28-year-old is following the Wiggins template of winning multiple stage races ahead of tackling the Tour: this year he has already notched wins in the Tour of Oman, Critérium International and Tour de Romandie, and a second place in Tirreno-Adriatico.
In Porte, Froome not only has an ally and a friend, but a competitive rider who himself has won a stage race this year (Paris-Nice) and finished second in two others (Critérium International and Tour of the Basque Country).
If things continue the way they are going in France – and given Sky’s training methods and strengths, you wouldn’t bet against it – Froome will have another win and Porte another second place ahead of the major target of the season, the Tour.
At the moment, no one else is coming close to matching the Sky duo.
Contador is riding into form but still somewhat short of his best; Alejandro Valverde won the Vuelta a Andalucia in the spring and had a consistent classics campaign, but is still playing catch up; Joaquim Rodriguez has seen his season stuttered by numerous crashes and enters unfamiliar waters (his only previous Tour appearance came in 2010, when he finished seventh) down on form on confidence.
There’s always Australia’s Cadel Evans – but time will tell how the 36-year-old BMC veteran’s body reacts to what was a particularly brutal Giro d’Italia.
At the moment, the safe money’s on a ruthless performer who, after all, perhaps already beat his main rival last week when it was revealed that, for the first time in history, the Tour’s reigning champion will be unable to defend his title.