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Road Racing

Here’s what’s going to happen (we think) at the Critérium du Dauphiné

The Critérium du Dauphiné, scheduled to start earlier than normal in this Olympic year, will roll out from Issoire on Sunday.

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With the Giro d’Italia still very much in progress, it’s hard to believe that another big race is set to get underway across the French-Italian border this weekend – but set to get underway it is. The Critérium du Dauphiné, scheduled to start earlier than normal in this Olympic year, will roll out from Issoire on Sunday.

Traditionally seen as the sport’s premier pre-Tour de France tuneup, the Dauphiné will be without top Tour favorites Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic this year, but at least the Ineos Grenadiers are bringing two Grand Tour winners of their own as part of a very strong roster. The start list features a few other Tour GC hopefuls too.

In short, the race is a big enough deal for us to interrupt our regularly scheduled Giro programming with a bit of pre-race analysis. Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming Critérium du Dauphiné … along with some bold predictions about what we expect to happen at the race.

A quick rundown of the key details

The Dauphiné will start on Sunday and run for eight stages, concluding the following Sunday in Les Gets. There could be some fast finishes but there aren’t any guaranteed days for the pure sprinters along the way. After three hilly opening stages, the GC battle will heat up with an individual time trial on stage 4. Stages 5 and 6 won’t be easy, and then stage 7 will really test the GC riders with two hors-categorie climbs on the profile. The final stage will be another test with six categorized climbs, including a trip up the Col de la Colombière in the first 80 km of the day and the hors-categorie Coul de Joux Plane topping out 16 km from the finish.

We don’t have a fully finalized start list yet, but the potential GC hopefuls for the race include Geraint Thomas, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Richie Porte, Steven Kruijswijk, Sepp Kuss, Miguel Ángel López, Alejandro Valverde, Enric Mas, Ion Izagirre, Wilco Kelderman, David Gaudu, Nairo Quintana, Warren Barguil, Jack Haig, Brandon McNulty, Fabio Aru, Mike Woods, and Chris Froome. Mads Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven, Greg Van Avermaet, and Kasper Asgreen headline a surprisingly strong list of Classics types who could be in the mix for stage wins.

What’s going to happen

With the basics of what you absolutely must know out of the way, let’s get into some predictions about how things will play out this coming week in France.

An Ineos Grenadier will win the Critérium du Dauphiné

Attaching your byline to a piece that predicts who will win a race can be nerve-racking but I’m feeling pretty good about this one. And, sure, I’m hedging my bets by naming the whole team, but this is my analysis piece and I’m going to do what I want.

Just look at that team compared to the rest of the field. Geoghegan Hart and Thomas alone would be overall favorites, not to mention the fact that Richie Porte, fresh off of runner-up rides at both the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Romandie, is in attendance along with Michal Kwiatkowski, Andrey Amador, Dylan van Baarle, and up-and-comer Carlos Rodriguez.

Geraint Thomas in time trial mode on stage 5 of the Tour de Romandie.

I particularly like Thomas’s chances after his Romandie win and with this time trial on the menu. Most of the other would-be contenders – riders like López, Kruijswijk, Woods – will struggle in the stage 4 TT, and then the Ineos Grenadiers can do what the Ineos Grenadiers do and chase down their rivals’ attempts to even the score in the mountains. With neither Roglic nor Pogacar in the field, the Ineos Grenadiers should really win this thing. If they don’t, it could be panic stations for team brass with the Tour less than a month away.

Chris Froome will make Israel Start-Up Nation wonder whether he’s worthy of a Tour spot

This is a tough one to write because I think Froome getting back to some semblance of form would be a good storyline – but the three-time Dauphiné winner just hasn’t shown anything close to that so far in 2021. The way he’s been riding, it’s hard to see him holding on when his former team puts the hammer down in the mountains.

Chris Froome atop Jebel Jais at the UAE Tour.

And if he finishes the last few stages of the race well outside the frame, what then? We don’t know exactly what Israel Start-Up Nation is paying Froome, but it’s probably a good enough amount that the team will feel some desire to bring him to the Tour de France even on questionable form. That said, Mike Woods looked great at the Tour de Romandie, and I’m expecting a strong ride from him at the Dauphiné. If Woods makes a good run at the GC and if Froome is nowhere to be found on the mountain stages, Israel Start-Up Nation may start to at least consider whether someone should take Froome’s Tour spot. Again, for the sake of a good story, I hope I’m wrong on this, but Froome has a lot to prove right now.

Movistar’s 2021 trident will work better than past tridents have

I don’t think Movistar is going to win this race but I do think at least one of the trio of Alejandro Valverde, Enric Mas, and Miguel Ángel López will be up there. Expectations are low at Movistar right now after a transitional 2020 season in which the team seemed to be finding its bearings after some personnel changes. At the same time, all three of Valverde, Mas, and López have looked strong in recent racing appearances. It feels like a low-pressure opportunity for three riders in good form to outperform expectations ahead of the Tour.

Miguel Ángel López wins stage 3 of the Ruta del Sol.

López, who just won the Ruta del Sol, should be option 1a at this race. Valverde seems to be settling into his twilight years and Mas, who got his start as a GC rider often flying solo at Deceuninck-QuickStep, should be able to go with the flow here. Both could also be in the mix themselves. In any case, I expect them to work together more successfully at this Tour dress rehearsal than the multi-leader configurations that Movistar has brought to big races in years past.

Nairo Quintana will win a stage

Nairo Quintana fans have had to readjust their expectations for a rider who we all thought would have won the Tour de France by now, but winning mountaintop stages in big races is still a big deal, and Quintana is primed to do just that in this race.

Nairo Quintana on stage 4 of Tirreno-Adriatico.

Quintana will almost certainly lose time against the clock, and if he’s two minutes off the lead that I expect an Ineos Grenadiers rider to have headed into the final two stages, Quinana should get some breathing room. Stage 7 features three climbs that ascend over 1,700 meters, including a summit finish at La Plagne at 2,064 meters. If Quintana can’t win there on favored terrain, he’ll get another shot on the final stage, with its repeated hard climbs concluding with the hors-categorie Col de Joux Plane. A GC win would be a tall order against the Ineos Grenadiers but Quintana should come out of this with plenty of motivation for the Tour. And with less than 60 km of time trialing on tap for that Tour, don’t be surprised if there’s at least a little bit of excitement about Quintana heading into late June.

Brandon McNulty will get his first GC top 10 in a WorldTour race in Europe

I know, I’m simultaneously setting the bar pretty low here while also being weirdly specific. Again, my analysis piece, my rules!

McNulty has finished in a GC top 10 once before (at the 2018 Tour of California), but he’s never done it in a big European stage race. He should do that at the Dauphiné, one the biggest of European stage races outside of the Grand Tours.

Brandon McNulty on stage 3 of the Itzulia Basque Country.

The 23-year-old American was slated to race the Giro before UAE-Team Emirates decided to change up his schedule and send him to the Tour instead. And with Pogacar training instead of racing the Dauphiné, McNulty is the best GC rider on the squad at the race. UAE wouldn’t have changed plans if the team hadn’t been confident in McNulty’s form, and although he may find it tough to stick with the many strong climbers on the Dauphiné’s many tough climbs, he will be among the favorites for the TT. He has a golden opportunity to prove himself in this race.

Bonus prediction: Whoever wins the Dauphiné will be overhyped heading into the Tour

I’ll close it out with a reminder that while plenty of Dauphiné winners have gone on to dominate the Tour, others have come out of the race with a lot more hype than they probably deserved. Andrew Talansky and two-time winner Jakob Fuglsang can attest to that. At least we seemed to have learned that lesson in time for last year’s race, which Daniel Martínez won without generating too much unnecessary fanfare about his yellow jersey chances. Keep all that in mind for this year too.

Whoever wins the Dauphiné will have beaten a field that lacks the bookies’ top two favorites for the Tour. The Dauphiné is a big race in its own right and a victory is a big achievement regardless, but it shouldn’t make anyone a Tour favorite over the respective winners of last year’s Tour and Vuelta a España.

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