The last of the five picks is the final stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, a 115km sprint across several Alpine passes. These short stages are like dessert as they’re best served after other courses have been consumed and this came after a week of good racing and set things up nicely for the Tour de France… possibly too well.
This is a pre-Tour race and a prime attraction is seeing the form of the overall contenders for July. The week supplied this but plenty more starting with Thomas de Gendt winning the opening stage, powering away from the breakaway on the final climb of the finishing circuit around Saint Étienne. The cherubic Koen Bouwman also won from a breakaway on a day promised to the sprinters, satisfaction agai in seeing a move stick. Arnaud Démare won a sprint and the points jersey but none of the sprinters looked convincing, notably Alexander Kristoff while Bryan Coquard’s season was ending following his contractual divorce from Direct Énergie. Sunweb’s Phil Bauhaus won a sprint stage.
The 23.5km time trial saw the overall contenders come out to play and Richie Porte won ahead of Tony Martin and Alejandro Valverde with Chris Froome 37 seconds back or 1.5 seconds per kilometre which mattered in the moment and beyond as question marks began to appear. A curiously timed media “leak” that Froome was mulling an offer from BMC Racing stirred things further.
Froome reassured the following day on the anticipated stage over the Mont du Chat. Jacob Fuglsang won, 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. But note Oliver Naesen was pulled back from the breakaway by Ag2r but he may well have won the stage, an impressive ride. The Mont du Chat lived up to its promise, the severe slopes scattering the peloton over the side of the mountain. Fabio Aru was first over the top via a series of attacks and accelerations; team mate Fuglsang was more steady. While Aru danced away the Dane eased up to meet Porte and Froome at the top of the climb. The four regrouped on the descent in part thanks to Froome’s ride-it-like-you-stole-it descending.
The final stage was a 115km stage with 4,000m of climbing including a “new” summit finish. The stage promised fireworks and duly began like a blaze in a pyrotechnics warehouse. There were 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. The only downside was that this was not live on TV until halfway up the Col de la Colombière.
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 descent of the Colombière and had to work hard to chase. Froome was again descending with that feral style.
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 enjoyed a Sedan chair ride to the foot of the next climb with Michał Kwiatkowski – who had caught and passed Porte on the descent – instrumental in towing the Froome-Fuglsang group. They started the steep ascent to the Plateau de Solaison 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 barely concerd 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.
With hindsight: Richie Porte narrowly lost the race on the descent of the Colombière. He’s not a bad descender but after winning the time trial and climbing with the best this is his relative weak point and this would cost him in the Tour. What could have been we’ll never know but based on his Dauphiné form the podium looked a reasonable extrapolation.
Just as travelling can be better than arriving, anticipation can be more enjoyable than reality and the Dauphiné’s position on the calendar makes the pilot episode for the Tour de France in July. Arguably this is its raison d’être, we tune in to follow the overall contenders for the Tour de France. So Froome’s struggles in June hinted at the possibility of a more open Tour, a change of script for once… although in time we got the same show again. It seems Froome was ill in June, something that for obvious reasons only came out later.
Fuglsang didn’t get much momentum from his win. If anything his win seems tangential, incidental given the way the Tour overshadows this race and he couldn’t follow through. He could have played an interesting 1-2 win Aru in the Tour but was off the pace on the first Planche des Belles Filles and would leave the race after cracking his wrist before reaching the Pyrenees. Nothing to show? On the contrary, he renewed a contract at Astana following his Dauphiné win and presumably cashed in on a high.
Why the highlight? The final stage of the Dauphiné has been a regular highlight – think Talansky trumping Froome and Contador in 2014 – and this delivered again with the overall result in play right until the final seconds. More so as Froome was challenging and risk-taking and others took their chances too.
Other highlights? The problem with lists is you exclude. There were so many more enjoyable moments such as the suspense of Milan-Sanremo, a slow burner but incendiary from the Poggio onwards. The Italian championships were lively with a selective circuit that included the kind of climb many Belgium and Dutch riders must dream of in order to wear their national championships jersey; French too because even if the country has some big climbs they seem to keep awarding the championships to Dullsville. The Route du Sud visiting Gavarnie was a treat and revealed Rigo Urán was in condition. La Course on the Izoard was spectacular and live from start to finish. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was good; ditto the Three Days of De Panne. Lombardia was a fine finish to the season in Europe. And we don’t have to pick races or moments, the likes of Julian Alaphilippe amd Tim Wellens seem refreshing for their fearless attacks which eventually pay off. Share your highlights below…