The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
Chris Froome’s authoritative stamp on the first two stages of the Criterium du Dauphine shows the defending champion’s form is excellent, but Alberto Contador is there right with him.
It makes for an intriguing race in its own right, but with the Tour de France looming the stakes are considerably higher.
Last week morning I woke up and realised with horror that it’s already June and the year is half over and “Oh my god, the Dauphine is starting!”
The tête-à-tête-à-tête between Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, the three big favourites for July’s main event, is the first time this season they have all raced together, providing a popular core narrative for the race.
All three big favourites have been training on the same roads in Tenerife, and no doubt there’s been a bit of cloak and dagger funny business as the rivals try to observe each other’s times on the slopes of Mt Teide.
The secondary cast of Tour de France aspirants racing this week includes Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Michal Kwiatkowski. Wilco Keldermann and Ryder Hesjedal are both racing in the aftermath of a tough Giro, where each seemed to be getting stronger in the third week.
Most are within reach of the leaders after two stages, but there will be some stern faces at BMC after their designated Tour leader Tejay van Garderen dropped 2:38 on Monday.
Nevertheless, it was always difficult to go past the trio of Froome, Contador and Nibali for favouritism this week.
Nibali has been the least impressive of the three; still yet to win a race in 2014 and with a string of mediocre results, he has the most to prove at the Dauphine. Has the birth of his first child earlier this year been too much of a distraction?
Nibali doesn’t need to win the Dauphine to settle the nerves, but he needs to show his team that his best form is within reach for July. Unfortunately losing 27 seconds to Froome on the Col du Béal doesn’t spell out the ideal scenario for the popular Italian.
The resurgence of Contador has had tongues wagging: he’s already won Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta Ciclista a Pais Vasco); and taken second overall at the Tour of Catalunya and Volta ao Algarve.
In other words, Contador has raced in four stage races this season and never finished worse than second overall, including defeating Froome in Catalunya. His time trialling seems back to its best, and his confidence and strength on long climbs seem much improved over the 2013 version of ‘el Pistolero’.
Contador was the only rider able to withstand Froome’s pace on the Col du Béal.
As for Froome, his form has been very good this season, despite a back injury that kept him out of Tirreno-Adriatico and a chest infection that forced him to withdraw from Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
He won the Tour of Romandie a month ago, defeating Nibali in the process. The last three winners of Romandie (Cadel Evans, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Froome) have gone on to win the Tour de France.
Unfortunately, instead of letting his legs do the talking, it’s been disappointing to see Froome getting involved in the unedifying public stoush with Sir Bradley Wiggins over Tour de France selection, which continues to build pressure within Team Sky.
Froome has seemed more than happy to kick the feud along with some choice words about Wiggins in his recently released ghost-written autobiography, sections of which were published in major British newspapers to generate maximum attention. That’s a fair tactic to generate sales, but it doesn’t create an ideal team atmosphere.
Wiggins responded with a self-defeating round of “pity me” interviews with that most influential of cycling newspapers, L’Equipe, suggesting that he would love to ride the Tour but Froome doesn’t want him.
Relations have become so fraught that Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford was forced to publicly remind everyone that he’s in charge of picking the Tour team. It’s a huge distraction.
It’s now difficult to see how the surly Sir could possibly stay at Sky beyond this season; the team bus is clearly not big enough for both egos.
It’s a huge personal shame for Wiggins that he won’t be riding the Tour, particularly as he’s done as much as anybody else to bring the race to England this year.
But this very public slanging match is doing damage to the team and its brand. Neutral fans are turned off by the petty squabbling. I find it hard to warm to Froome at the best of times, but having a crack at a teammate, in print, is poor form no matter who started it.
On the bike, for all its stars and individual performances, cycling remains a sport where teamwork is essential, and disunity often means defeat.
Despite the team strife, Froome’s still stomping the pedals. Apparently he recently destroyed his personal best on the Col de la Madone, famously a key benchmark for Lance Armstrong.
Crushing everyone in the prologue was a jutted chin more than anything else, but Monday’s HC-rated Col du Béal was the real thing.
The Dauphine has two more summit finishes, and won’t be decided until Sunday’s 8km climb to Courchevel, but already it seems like Froome and Contador are a class above.