The last metres of the last stage. Jacob Fuglsang has attacked on the final climb, dropped Daniel Martin and the stage win is his. Behind Richie Porte has been chasing alone for the best part of 35km to defend his yellow jersey, first from an attack by Fabio Aru and Alejandro Valverde, then to contain Chris Froome and finally to try and prevent Fuglsang. But the Dane won the stage, took the time bonus and with it the overall classification.
Is there a more scenic race? The Giro d’Italia has plenty to offer and the Tour of the Alps, ex Trentino, is special too but the Dauphiné in early June is sublime in the sunshine.
Fortunately there’s more than the scenery to enjoy starting with a lively opening stage where big game hunter Thomas De Gendt won from the breakaway, helped because not enough teams would commit to the chase. This was a theme for the week as Koen Bouwman won a stage when he only really wanted the mountains points on offer, but his escapes rewarded him with the mountains jersey come the end of the race.
Arnaud Démare was the strongest sprinter and collected a stage win and the points jersey, an incentive for him to continue in the race while others retired citing illness, presumably from looking at the stage profiles ahead. Démare impressed and his transalpine FDJ sprint train was effective too but if he was often miles ahead he won’t have it so easy come the Tour de France.
The 23km time trial was always going to be crucial but who knew it would be so surprising? Richie Porte won, pipping Tony Martin and Chris Froome was 37 seconds back. We noticed Fabio Aru losing 1m19 seconds which seemed acceptable but Jacob Fuglsang’s identical performance didn’t register. In hindsight this deficit gave Fuglsang a lot of work to do but the Dane didn’t seem focussed on it either.
Fuglsang won the stage over the Mont du Chat, claiming a 10 second time bonus which matters with hindsight but at the time was merely a fringe benefit from his first ever win in a World Tour race after a long career. The Mont du Chat lived up to its promise, the severe slopes scattering the peloton over the side of the mountain and so steep that drafting barely makes a difference. Fabio Aru was first to the top and did it the hard way via a series of attacks and accelerations, a demanding effort on such a slope. As every schoolkid knows, F=ma and so to accelerate on a 14% gradient requires a lot of force. Fuglsang was more steady and while Aru danced away the Dane eased up to meet Richie Porte and Chris Froome at the top of the climb. The four regrouped on the descent in part thanks to Froome’s descending, he seemed to throw himself into every corner.
The stage bodes well for the Tour de France where they will copy the Mont du Chat but only after the Col de la Biche and the Grand Colombier, each steep climbs in their own right and you wonder what will happen in July: carnage or will the severity tilt riders towards energy conservation?
Saturday’s stage to Alpe d’Huez was a slow burner. The breakaway stayed away with Peter Kennaugh taking the stage win while behind Romain Bardet took back some time on his GC rivals and later said he’s yet to do high intensity training, the implication being that his climbing performances will improve come July. Among the other contenders Astana continued to make use of their strength in numbers firing Fabio Aru up the road on the final slopes of Alpe d’Huez then Richie Porte responded and only Jacob Fuglsang could respond but the Dane’s move allowed to stay level on time with Porte and this move would be another vital part of his overall win. We thought Porte had been consistent all week but so was Fuglsang.
The final stage was just 115km with four major mountain climbs and beaucoup vertical gain. Short stages are like dessert, they’re best served after some other courses and you can’t eat dessert every day by itself. Nobody can sustain the frenetic riding of a 115km stage with 4,000m of climbing for days on end. It’s a format that works perfectly for the Dauphiné and the final stage has consistently been an annual highlight. 2017 was a vintage edition and if the stage promised fireworks it began like a blaze in a pyrotechnics warehouse with wave after wave on uncontrolled attacks with the big names starting early, including Froome but many others. The result was that Richie Porte was quickly isolated.
Astana tried the old 1-2. First they fired Fabio Aru up the road on the Col de la Colombière with Alejandro Valverde for company, two clear threats to Richie Porte’s yellow jersey. Sure enough at the top of the pass they were seconds away from becoming the virtual race leaders. Should Porte have let them go? Ideally not but to contain them would be to see Romain Bardet or Chris Froome counter attack and so on. Indeed with hindsight Porte’s caution paid off because Aru and Valverde were reeled in so those two didn’t threaten him. But others did and by then Porte had lost contact with almost all his rivals on the slopes of the Colombière and its descent and had to work hard to chase.
Often we think of only the mountains and their descents but the ensuing flat section along the Arve valley was crucial, Porte having to chase by himself except for a turn or two from Sam Oomen while the likes of Fuglsang and Froome were sat in a Sedan chair being taken to the foot of the next climb by Michał Kwiatkowski. So when the Froome-Fuglsang group started the steep ascent to the Plateau de Solaison they were fresh and quickly brought back Aru and Valverde while Porte had been toiling for some time. Fresh Fuglsang was able to respond when Dan Martin attacked halfway up the climb, the Dane went with him and later on dropped him to go solo. Porte chased all the way up the climb and set the fastest time, aided by his single-minded task rather than the tactics of a group but impressive nonetheless because he’d had to toil on the valley approach road. But after Fuglsang the clocked was ticking and Porte crossed the ten seconds too late to save his yellow jersey.
Finally Fuglsang: It marked a big week for Fuglsang. The Dane has been a pro for the best part of a decade and never won a World Tour race until this week. But the story is not surprise at his win, it’s what took him so long. He made a name for himself in the Dauphiné back in 2008 when he was a 23 year old mountainbiker-turned-neo-pro by finishing fifth on Mont Ventoux and then fifth again days later on the stage to Saint-François-Longchamp, better known as the Col de la Madelaine. He’s been consistent ever since, notably seventh overall in the 2013 Tour de France but often a lieutenant or what we could call a “Moto 2 rider”, not always in vision when we see the front group on a mountain stage, even as he rode to consistent overall placings. His stock’s risen for July.
The master and his apprentice: one of the attractions of the race this year was Porte on the up and Froome not looking so strong, to see the apprentice take on his master. This story fell apart on the last day when both lost out. Certainly Porte had the better race thanks to a stage win and more consistency in the mountains but arguably Froome’s loss in the time trial forced him to be less consistent, to try more.
Bonus time: another consolation for Porte is that he covered the course the quickest. Fuglsang took two stage wins and with them 20 seconds in time bonuses and won the race by 10 seconds over Porte. So the bonuses played their part in the arithmetic of the win. This kind of rejigging can infuriate some and simply stripping away the bonuses is not so simple because riders race according to the rules in play. For example Fuglsang may have known on the last ascent that the time bonus was waiting and so he did not gamble by trying to up his pace any more in the final moments, to risk blowing up. But if the Dauphiné is a Tour de France tune-up then it is instructive to see the true relative position of riders and Porte was the best against the clock and uphill. It’s also interesting how it weighs on the story-telling of the race, yes Porte lost thank to time bonuses but in 2015 when Chris Froome won the race ahead 10 seconds ahead of Tejay van Garderen it seemed the normal result, even if it was engineered by the identical arithmetic of two stage wins and 20 seconds in time bonuses.
The Dauphiné is often a race where young riders can shine against established names but the class of 2017 wasn’t the most convincing. Emanuel Buchmann had a satisfying race and won the white jersey. He’s 24, shy and climbed well to beat more established contenders like Louis Meintjes, Tiesj Benoot and Simon Yates but none of them weighed on the race: less the promise of youth and more its disappointment. Meintjes was stealthy and Yates probably not where he’d want to be. Benoot’s impressed before in this race and you wonder if he wasn’t from Ghent whether he’d still focus on the cobbled classics? Perhaps the most impressive young rider was Sunweb’s Phil Bauhaus, 22, who took a sprint stage win despite little lead out from his team and the Giro ridden in the service of Tom Dumoulin.
What does it all mean for the Tour de France? There’s an element of frustration in seeing everything that happened last week project to July when there’s much to enjoy from the week of racing in isolation, one of the best races on the calendar. But extrapolating from June to July is inevitable, the Tour de France dominates the sport and it’s less than three weeks away. The bookmakers still have Froome as the first pick with Porte closely behind, the Aussie’s odds having fallen sharply this week from 7:1 to 2:1 but this can reflect the flow of money into the market as well as expectations and they’re not necessarily the same thing. Froome still has Damoclean question marks hanging over him, the assured, even and formulaic approach isn’t working yet but he was close and it won’t take much to improve plus he gets a stronger team.
Porte is looking strong but far from invincible. His BMC team was strong until the final day and probably paid the price for their work in the previous days; the team could be strengthened for July but Greg Van Avermaet will have his own ambitions too. With Porte we’ll see how this affects his confidence. He was relaxed and smiling during interviews, you could see how at ease he felt on camera and on the bike. As said before he tends to work well when everything flows but when something goes wrong then the rest begins to fall apart too. The team has been working on this and he’s even discussed managing setbacks with Cadel Evans, a man who knows a thing or two about losing out and feeling unsupported. Already this year Paris-Nice was different when he lost time in the crosswinds but recovered mentally to win atop the Col de la Couillole. However this defeat could be more crushing because he would have woken up on Sunday morning hoping to win only to find himself left to his own devices mid-stage, the kind of experience you don’t forget. But he can console himself with the response in that he still climbed the Plateau de Solaison faster than anyone else and this despite having chased hard on the valley approach road too.
Meanwhile others can stake their claim, Astana’s tandem of Fuglsang and Aru looks promising and clichéd with the cool steady Dane and the hotheaded Italian. Alejandro Valverde did ok, he blew up a few times but this seemed more to do with him being caught out by the steep climbs which he had not ridden before and he had a good time trial and he’ll probably enjoy staying under the radar.
2017 Dauphiné is the first stage race in Europe which Contador hasn’t finished top 10 for over six years.
Breaking a run of 31 top 10s
— Cillian Kelly (@irishpeloton) June 12, 2017
The big miss was Alberto Contador, never a factor in the race and ultimately 11th overall, this was neither the catalytic agent who provokes reactions every time the road goes uphill nor a steady stage racer but he said as much before the race started and will now plan on adding more intensity to his training to be sharper for July.
While making a certain pick for July could sound authoritative – or foolish – the very uncertainty ahead is to be embraced and celebrated. It may be that Froome improves and Team Sky steamroller their way around France but for now there’s the hope of a contest. Until then there’s the certainty that the Dauphiné delivered up another great week of racing.