Dani Martinez wins the Critérium du Dauphiné ahead of Thibaut Pinot and Guillaume Martin at the end of a thrilling final stage. Not a shock but a surprise. Primož Roglič looked the strongest rider all week but retired before the last stage, copying Egan Bernal who had also left. In this abbreviated, condensed season the Tour de France is more important than ever and the Dauphiné was both a lively and instructive five days of racing.
“To finish first, first finish” and the final weekend of the Critérium du Dauphiné saw several precautionary withdrawals. First came Egan Bernal with talk of back pain but probably he and his team had enough of getting sand kicked in their face. Jumbo-Visma have made a thing of emulating Ineos in recent years and it was their turn to withdraw Primož Roglič the next day. The Slovenian was leading the race but crashed on an ordinary section of road on Saturday and got as far as climbing in the team car before remounting and racing. Even sore and shredded he showed he could deal with a collective attack from the Bahrain-Merida squad. Unlike Bernal, Roglič had been floating and as predicted, he and his Jumbo Visma team were the strongest in the neat little Tour de l’Ain last week and against a deeper field held their own again.
The opening stage to Saint-Christo saw Wout van Aert win the uphill sprint and the Belgian would prove the most versatile rider of the week. The next day’s stage to the Col de Porte saw Jumbo-Visma vs Team Ineos, a repeat of the Tour de l’Ain. Jumbo-Visma won the duel because Roglič won the stage and had Sep Kuss on hand in the final to mop up Bernal’s attack while Ineos ran out of helpers. The Dutch team extended this superiority all week, the next day Roglič took the time bonus for second place behind long range raider Davide Formolo, while Bernal lost few metres in the finish. Not that everything went to plan, Steven Kruijswijk crashed on a descent the next day with a reported dislocated shoulder and an hour later Roglič fell. While he got back and finished the stage he didn’t start the next day but this just let the remaining Jumbo riders play their own cards and Sep Kuss won the stage while Tom Dumoulin impressed, his form visibly improved from the Tour de l’Ain.
Ineos had a tough week. Bernal started well with third place on the first stage but in the first summit finish the next day he lost a few seconds to rivals. Crucially Ineos’s mountain train ran out of riders. A giant pull by Michał Kwiatkowski on the Col de Porte asphyxiated many riders including Chris Froome who couldn’t take over but it was probably the closest he got to the front all week, sitting up on the other climbs. Geraint Thomas looked off the pace too, he finished second last on the final stage. But replay the week without Froome and with, say, Andrey Amador and collectively they’d have looked stronger and Pavel Sivakov is riding very well. What’s striking is the team has made winning the Dauphiné the launchpad for their Tour success, and in seasons when the gap between the races is 4-5 weeks, now it’s 13 days and remember Stage 2 of the Tour de France tackles the Colmiane, the Turini and the Col d’Eze and Stage 4 of the Tour de France is the Orcière-Merlette summit finish, there’s no biding your time until the third week.
Amid the duel between the two teams, Dani Martinez ended up as a satisfying winner, and not just because the pre-race preview here wrote if he got a gap on the road to Megève he’d be hard to reel in. It’s a timely reminder that Ineos vs. Jumbo isn’t the only show in town, focus on them only and you’ll miss plenty. Martinez didn’t put a foot wrong all week and made a solid move on the final day to take the race, he’s similar to his captain Rigo Uran as both solid in the mountains but also excellent in time trials and this won’t be his last World Tour stage win. Thibaut Pinot inherited the race lead following Roglič’s withdrawal but the Frenchman’s yet to win a World Tour-level stage race and he and his team have little experience of defending a lead. Groupama-FDJ didn’t bring their Tour team to the Dauphiné and the presence of a race-fit Molard and Gaudu could have helped. For a moment Pinot got extra help from a front républicain of Julian Alaphilippe and Warren Barguil which narrowed the gap but couldn’t close it.
The Dauphiné’s a warm up for the Tour de France. So what does this week mean for the Tour? In the past it’s been easy to convert a strong, dominant ride in the Dauphiné to the Tour de France, see Wiggins in 2012, Froome in 2013 and Thomas in 2018. Crafty, deserved wins by the likes of Talansky, Fuglsang and now Martinez don’t translate as well. Extrapolate from
June to July August to September and Primož Roglič is the rider to beat, Jumbo-Visma the team to beat. Roglič can climb with the best, his jump lets him harvest time bonuses and he’s handy in a time trial too. He’s backed by a very strong team with Tony Martin who can control for hours on end, a role often unseen on TV. Wout van Aert’s the athletic version of an impersonator, one minute he can do the role of a sprinter, the next he’s pace setting in the Alps. Steven Kruijswiijk was one of the team’s three leaders but even before his crash and shoulder injury looks to be a luxury domestique, a role to share alongside Sep Kuss, Robert Gesink and George Bennett. Tom Dumoulin was a helper in the Tour de l’Ain but increasingly looks like a contender.
Ineos look like they have work to do but that’s the wrong phrase, you can’t work to improve form significantly between now the Tour, no long rides nor interval sessions can change much. Perhaps they’ve got rest to do, some suggested they came in tired from training? If so then that might explain the blunt legs in the Tour de l’Ain but not late into the Dauphiné when things even out, nor doesn’t explain why Bernal and Sivakov rode so well when others didn’t. It’s these question marks that make the Tour more open.
Dani Martinez doesn’t look like a Tour winner yet but he’s certainly a contender and precisely for the way he rode this week, he can climb with the best all week and when it matters drop them and given he shares the same agent as Bernal, Kwiatkowski, Sosa, Amador and more at Ineos you wonder when he’ll move to the British squad? Eight months ago French forums fizzed with mockery when Cedric Vasseur declared his new signing Guillaume Martin could make the top-5 in the Tour de France. Now it’s possible, he’s had a good week but this builds on his rides on Mont Ventoux and the Tour de l’Ain, he’s groupe de tête material at moment and he puts this down to the move to a bigger team and having spent three weeks at altitude and with his philosophy degree he’s occupying terrain once free for Romain Bardet. French hopes still rest with Pinot and his form is on the up, on the receiving end from Bernal in Occitanie, superior to him last week but as ever things look brittle. Nairo Quintana’s stock has fallen since a motorist cut him up on a training ride in Colombia while compatriot Miguel Angel Lopez is looking stronger. Mikel Landa looks more volatile than ever, as the pre-race preview suggested just a stage win would be impressive but for a big budget team Bahrain seem off the pace. Movistar, often a threat in the summer, look worse.
In the background is the Coronavirus. The chart above isn’t the profile of last Friday’s stage over the Madeleine to Saint Martin, it’s the average number of COVID-19 cases in France per day going back six months and as you can see the number is rising significantly this month. Now this pick-up is different to the March, there’s more testing and more local differentiations and you haven’t come here for the epidemiology, but the story is of one of restrictions coming back, not being lifted but for now we’re talking compulsory masks, not lockdowns. The Tour de France has its own measures, the plan is to ensure the travelling convoy stays in a bubble so that whatever is happening en route the Tour isn’t part of it. But this only gets things so far and a viral sword of Damocles hangs over the race. Under the sport’s rules if the race is stopped it’s down to officialdom to decide what to do, all the stage results stand but the GC can be awarded or cancelled. It’s a thought-exercise to make us think what a grand tour is – they don’t have to be three weeks, the rules say they can be 15 days – but any abbreviation is going to be very unsatisfying. Last year’s omission of the Tignes summit finish and the re-routing of the final stage sans the Cormet de Roselend and Col de Tra was bad enough. But imagine not to making the final time trial or halting before the Col le la Loze on Stage 17? Things that seemed unimaginable in February happened in March, what seems out of question today might feel suitable one day and that’s probably as true for epidemiology as it is for bike racing.