Chris Froome attacks in the final kilometres of Stage 5 as the road climbs to the Vaujany ski station. After biding his time on the ascent he attacked and only Richie Porte could follow. This was the moment the race was won.
Start as you mean to go on: the race began with a tripe-twisting mountain prologue and Round 1 to Alberto Contador in the contest with Chris Froome. It was significant as he put 13 seconds into Froome in the short distance. Among the top-10 in the prologue eight would be in the top-10 overall at the finish of the race: Wout Poels (6th on the day) and Jesús Herrada (10th) fell out with Louis Meintjes and Pierre Rolland climbing up.
Nacer Bouhanni commemorated Mohammed Ali’s death with a victory celebration that mimicked a flurry of punches while behind real combat was raging. Katusha’s Jacopo Guarnieri blew a gasket and head-butted Cofidis’s Christophe Laporte who tried to close the door on him and soon elbows, bars and heads were flying. Bouhanni himself tangled with Kristoff while Edvald Boasson Hagen and Sam Bennett were proving cycling is a contact sport too.
Jesus Herrada took a stage win with help from his team mate Dani Moreno, coming round the breakaway riders for the win, an almost overdue win from the promising Spaniard. Behind a crash took out Romain Bardet but this might have been a blessing in disguise because it would give him more freedom to attack later in the race. Fabio Aru won a stage with a late attack – more on him in a moment – and in the final stage before the race went into the Alps Edvald Boasson Hagen took a stage win and with it the points jersey.
It marked a fine week for Dimension Data as Stephen Cummings won the last stage after a giant 50km breakaway and for some time Etixx-Quickstep’s hard chase barely dented his lead and Daniel Teklahaimanot won the mountains jersey too after a battle with Tsagbu Grmay and Thibaut Pinot.
The race rode into the Alps for three short and intense stages that generated furious attacks from the start. Promising but frustrating not to be able to see it on TV. Showing the first half of a race is still a rarity but given short stages usually equal early action we could see producers allocating resources (helicopters, aerial links and satellite time) to this. The race also featured some live onboard camera footage but it’d didn’t add much beyond the novelty.
The first of the Alpine road stages went to the ski village of Vaujany, a good climb because it’s short and selective: selective to prise the riders apart; short to keep the time gaps small. Team Sky put a gold-plated crowbar to work in Mikel Landa. It’s a sign of the team’s dominance that they can deploy grand tour contenders while the other team leaders looked isolated at times, BMC Racing’s Damiano Caruso did his best for Porte, the same for Roman Kreuziger with Contador but neither was in the same league. They’ll have more support in the Tour de France but so will Froome.
On the climb to Vaujany Landa was away with only a few metres and it forced the others to chase while Chris Froome was hanging back, “in difficulty” and “struggling” according to the TV audio but it ought to be a familiar sight as he tried to pace himself rather than respond to every move. Sure enough once he made it to the front he attacked with 2.5km to go and only Richie Porte could follow. Contador cracked a little and this was the decisive moment of the race. Froome was then helped by Porte who pulled against orders from the BMC team car. Round 2 to Froome.
Thibaut Pinot won the next day, he’d been off the pace but wanted to make amends, reportedly pacing up and down the team bus like a caged lion on the start of the stage and he duly went in the breakaway.
I wasn’t just going to stay in the race and follow. That’s everything I detest about modern cycling: stay passive and rest in defensive mode.
– Romain Bardet in L’Equipe
Things were going well for Pinot until Romain Bardet used the descent to bridge up to the breakaway and then his team to drive the break, a textbook example of the relay move Contador had wanted to try by sending Roman Kreuziger up the road.
Bardet’s relay move worked because he had the space to attack after losing time. Contador did not get as much room. He used the Madeleine for attacks, not for him the final summit finish as a means to poach a few seconds he was doing what he did in Paris-Nice with a long range attack. This is one of the benefits of the Dauphiné as a “training race”, it’s like trying to whip the tablecloth off a dining table set with Ikea crockery rather than exquisite porcelain and crystal. It doesn’t matter so much if break a plate or get dropped. Still there was a tiny price and Contador lost a few seconds in the streets of Méribel when Dan Martin attacked, Froome followed and he couldn’t.
Pinot salvaged the stage win, the finish wasn’t a tactical masterclass as Bardet’s repeated surges meant repeated lulls in between and he lost time that could have put him in the overall lead although this, and any eventual win, involves a chain of speculation that can easily be unpicked. There’s a fine balance for Bardet who could probably write a good thesis on Descartes and the mind-body dualism.
The final stage saw more attempts and Contador had Froome out of team mates and on the ropes on the upper slopes of the Col du Noyer with Richie Porte and Romain Bardet in ringside seats, the four strongest riders in the race. Contador kept trying and Porte kept still and as they approached the final climb the overall result was still in play with Froome isolated. But a trio of Sky riders came across and Froome’s yellow jersey looked safe. The other podium places were still up for grabs and Dan Martin took a flyer with Romain Bardet in pursuit while Richie Porte was boxed in. Porte was livid but had one wheel to watch in the sprint and missed it as he was on the other side of the road and he’d also surrendered 16 seconds the previous day. He can take consolation from his strong riding during the week and on the road to Vaujany he was the only rider able to follow Froome.
Dan Martin was a revelation thanks to his consistency. Often excellent in the mountains, often disappointing too but this week he was riding well every day. As well as his regularity what impressed was his surging sprinting, not only did he hang with the leaders in the mountains most of the time when it came to the finishing straight he could put time into his rivals with his jump. Can he keep up the consistency ahead of the Tour de France’s visit to his adopted home of Andorra?
Etixx-Quickstep had a great week with Julian Alaphillipe taking the white jersey. We’ve known he can sprint for years, we’ve known he’s got one of the best uphill punches going and in California he showed us he can time trial too. Now he did very well in high mountains but wasn’t front group material when the crunch came. What to do: try to match compatriots like Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet or remain the versatile rider who seems to be able to win everywhere except the high mountains? Luxurious choices await.
Things went downhill for Fabio Aru. He took a stage win thanks to a bold attack and a brave descent but it was the sporting equivalent of going for a job interview, putting on a suit and discovering a €50 note in a pocket: a pleasant surprise but not the success you wanted. When the test came in the Alps Aru left the race with little to add to his CV: 36th in the prologue looked like a bad start and in all the Alpine stages he managed little better with only 35th place in Vaujany. He’ll now return to altitude training at Sestriere while notional team mate Vincenzo Nibali does his altitude camp at the Passo San Pellegrino several hundred kilometres away.
Tour de l’Avenir: a mention of just how many young riders thrived. Bardet and Pinot are established riders. Adam Yates and Julian Alaphilippe battled for the white jersey, Louis Meintjes made the top-10 too. German champion Emmanuel Buchmann continues his progress. Giro finisher Valerio Conti still found the energy to show in the mountains and several others had their moments too.
One team who started well were Wanty-Groupe Gobert, they seemed to get in most of attacks only the race ended on a sour note with Enrico Gasparotto and Bjorn Thurau blocked from starting the final stage after cortisol tests. These are not anti-doping controls but they will require some explanation if the team wants to rebuild the credit it was establishing with ASO for more wildcards. A Facebook post mentions “inflammation” but more detail is needed: what was the diagnosis, the exact treatment, was a TUE sought? et cetera
Another good edition with a hard fought contest for the overall win and a result that wasn’t decided until the finishing straight of the final stage with Bardet and Martin getting the reward for their aggressive, attacking racing at the expense of Richie Porte’s caution. Froome won but wasn’t head and shoulders beyond the rest, this was a victory of a few seconds. He lost time to Contador in the prologue and struggled to contain Dan Martin in the finish. Last year he beat Tejay Van Garderen on bonus seconds too before riding away with the Tour de France.
The focus turns to the Tour de Suisse this week and the Route du Sud where Nairo Quintana returns from Colombia.