The bottleneck atop the GC is about to break loose at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
With three demanding and explosive mountain stages on tap, and the top 5 riders separated by just 12 seconds, anything could happen in the rumble in the Alps for important bragging rights ahead of July’s Tour de France.
Race leader Alberto Contador of Tinkoff saw his race lead trimmed by 9 seconds when he was caught up behind a crash with about 2km to go. The “3km rule” was not applied because the jury insisted that the pack regrouped again before splitting apart after a crash, something that Tinkoff sport director Steven de Jongh didn’t agree with.
“The crash caused some real uncertainty in the group,” De Jongh said in a team release. “We were expecting the 3km rule to be applied, but we ended up losing time. Alberto and some of the other GC riders tried to fight back to the front, but some of the other teams’ sprint train riders sat up and delayed the riders behind and the commissaries allowed the time gaps to stand. We were hoping the decision would be clearer — sometimes the jury will make a decision that goes for you, sometimes it goes against you, but the uncertainty creates lots of stress for the GC riders.
“It needs to be clearer so the sprint teams can take the risk, and the GC riders can stay safe — especially at the end of the day where there can be a lot of street furniture that can cause crashes.”
Two-time Dauphiné winner Chris Froome of Sky was the main beneficiary of the day’s chaos and gained 9 seconds to move into second. He’s now 4 seconds behind Contador.
Contador won the opening climbing time trial in dramatic fashion, but he keeps insisting the real objective is July, not the Dauphiné, a race he’s never won. No one believes that Contador won’t be racing to win.
“The Dauphiné is a little like the Tour, because you really don’t know how you are until the mountains,” Contador said Thursday. “We have the leader’s jersey when it wasn’t an objective, so we’re not going to take more responsibility than necessary. We’ll see how the stage unfolds, and I will go day to day to test the legs.”
The 80th Dauphiné will be decided in a trio of short, intense climbing stages across the Alps. None of the three stages are longer than 150km, and there are 18 rated climbs packed in between Friday’s starting gun and Sunday’s winner’s flag. It should be a real shootout, especially with some challenging climbs coming midway through the stages that will open the door for riders and teams to attack early to isolate and attack the main leaders before the final summit finales.
The fireworks started Friday with the 141km rollercoaster, seven-climb stage to Vaujany. The stage opened with six punchy climbs in the first half before the final, 6.4km climb to Vaujany. At 6.5 percent, the final ascent is just around the corner from Alpe d’Huez. Unlike its more famous neighbor, the second-category Vaujany climb shouldn’t see major separation among the GC favorites, but it will certainly thin the field of contenders.
Saturday’s 140km “queen stage” tackles the Col de la Madeleine, at 19.2km at 8 percent, midway through the stage before climbing the 12.3km approach to Meribel. With an average grade of 6.6 percent, the favorites will be looking to make decisive differences to seal the GC.
Sunday’s 151km final stage features two first-category climbs before the third-category climb to Superdévoluy, which measures 3.8km at 5.9 percent. It could all come down to the final ramps if it’s still tight at the top.
Julian Alaphilippe of Etixx – Quick-Step, who recently won the Amgen Tour of California, also moved up Thursday by finishing with Froome in the front group. He’s now fourth at 9 seconds back. With Etixx teammate Daniel Martin in fifth at 12 seconds behind Froome, the team will be ideally suited to try to rattle Sky’s strong fortress around its leader.
“The real climbing starts [Friday] at the Dauphiné,” Alaphilippe said. “We are ready to fight and find out how far we can go.”
Porte also was caught up behind Thursday’s crash and ceded seconds to his rivals, but he stayed even with Contador and is now third at 6 seconds back. After a strong opening time trial, Porte is ready to show his stuff ahead of July, when he will co-lead BMC Racing with Tejay van Garderen — who is racing this weekend at the Tour de Suisse.
“The real race starts [Friday] in the mountains,” BMC sport director Valerio Piva said. “It will be up to our climbers to protect Richie. Richie looks good, and we’re looking to seeing how the next three stages go.”
It will be the peloton vs. Sky. The British outfit has won four of the last five editions of the Dauphiné, results that paved the way for Tour de France victories in 2012, 2013, and 2015. Three days of hard racing will provide a very good barometer of where the favorites stand.