Chris Froome has solidified his status as the favorite to win the 100th Tour de France with a fine performance in the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he won by a minute over his team mate Ritchie Porte and more than two minutes over all his toughest Tour competition, including Alberto Contador and Michael Rogers of Saxo-Tinkoff.
Froome didn’t win a stage but outperformed his rivals in the time trial and on all the climbing stages. While there are still a few weeks for riders to improve their form, and Froome could fade in that time, as of the end of the Dauphiné Froome is the favorite.
The Critérium du Dauphiné is a tune-up race for riders with General Classification hopes for the Tour de France. The eight-stage Dauphiné finishes with four mountain stages, which tests the legs of the contenders and their team mates. A good ride in the Dauphiné can cement a spot on a Tour team, and a bad week can cost a rider his spot.
The first three stages were supposed to end in sprints, but the Stage One went to a solo breakaway rider. Europcar’s David Veilleux stole the stage with a 47-km solo attack, winning the stage by two minutes and taking the yellow jersey. The Canadian rider joined a breakaway three kilometers into the 121-km stage, attacked when the break started to falter, and outrode the entire peloton to take the race lead.
Stage Two was supposed to end in a sprint despite six categorized climbs, including a Cat Two near the end. The sprinters who dragged themselves painfully over the hill then had to watch Rein Taaramae streak away from the peloton with on the last climb, almost the bunch sprint again, but the Cofidis rider was caught two kilometers from the finish, setting up a sprinters’ duel between Cannondale’s Elia Viviani and Omega’s Gianni Meersman, which Viviani won
Stage Three, with only two Cat Three climbs, was a better stage for the sprinters but even there a late attack nearly succeed—Bart de Clerq of Lotto Belisol and Laurent Didier of RadioShack were caught in the final 1500 meters.
After the catch the sprinters’ teams took over but it was Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, not any of the pure sprinters, who won the stage. Boasson Hagen started the sprint right up the middle; Michael Matthews of Orica-Greenedge, coming hard down the right, nearly caught up at the line. Gianni Meersman finished third. FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni got boxed in when he chose the more crowded left side and finished seventh.
Exciting as they were, none of the opening stages really counted towards General Classification. The race for the overall win started Wednesday, with Stage Four’s time trial.
The time trial was 32.5 km of straight, flat roads, perfect for TT specialists; no technical corners, no hills, just a simple high-speed blast from start to finish.
Not surprisingly World Time Trial Champion Tony Martin of Omega Pharma-Quickstep won the stage, with Sky’s Chris Froome, who finished third, one of only two riders able to get within a minute of the speedy German’s time. The other, Best Young Rider Rohan Dennis of Garmin Sharp, took second and the race leader’s yellow jersey.
Stage Five was the first of four climbing stages, ending with an Hors Categorie summit finish. The stage was perfectly designed for a dramatic finish and it delivered.
Alberto Contador, who had ridden poorly in the time trial, attacked on the final climb, showing he was still a serious contender for the upcoming Tour de France. Chris Froome showed that he is the favorite in that prestigious race, catching and passing the Saxo-Tinkoff rider in the final fifty meters to take the stage win and also the yellow jersey.
RadioShack’s Matthew Busche was the only survivor of fifteen-rider to stay away to the end; he finished third, just a few meters behind Contador.
Stage Six was supposed to end with a sprint, despite the middle being full of mountains, but the climbs (a Cat 4, Cat 2, Cat 1, and a final Cat 4, followed by several short, steep uncategorized hills) proved to be too much for most of the sprinters.
The first flat 50 km went by very quickly. It took an hour of racing before three riders finally got away. Half an hour later, Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler led three other riders across to the break. The break split 35 km from the finish, and the four remaining riders: Voeckler, Kevin Seeldrayers and Egor Silin (Astana,) and José Herrada (Movistar) stayed away all the way to the finish.
None of the final four wanted to lead out the final sprint; finally, Voeckler took the chance and took off. None of the rest had the legs and the French rider from a French team took a very popular win on home soil.
The win meant all the more to Voeckler because it was his first since coming back from a badly shattered collarbone. After this performance, the 33-year-old French rider looks likely to be a team co-leader at the Tour de France.
Froome stayed in yellow, with team mate Ritchie Porte and Garmin’s Dennis Rohan second and third.
The race finished with a pair of brutal climbing stages with summit finishes.
Stage Seven offered up five categorized climbs, starting with the legendary Alpe d’Huez (Hors Categorie) then a Cat Two, two Cat Ones, and the Cat Three ascent to Superdévoluy. Twenty-two riders got away before the climb up Alpe d’Huez and stayed together until 35 km from the finish, when Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale) struck out on their own.
Sky waited until the penultimate climb, the Cat 1 Col du Noyer to take over the peloton, ansd started cutting down the gap. De Marchi attacked 16 km from the end as the gap dropped to 45 seconds, but he only lasted another couple kilometers.
By the top of Col de Noyer only a dozen riders remained in the lead group, with Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez and Astana’s Jacob Fuglsang a few dozen meters ahead of the field.
After a few minutes of brisk descent, the road headed up again towards the finish line. Joachim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) attacked halfway up the final climb; 1000 meters later Sky’s Ritchie Porte launched a serious attack, catching these two quickly and setting off after the two leaders.
Samual Sanchez had the most left in the final 200 meters and took the win, with Fuglasand right behind. Porte came home 15 seconds later, with a group of six, including Chris Froome in the yellow jersey, just a second behind.
The race finished with a somewhat shorter but still difficult stage, 156 km from Sisteron to Risoul. The climbing opened with a Cat Three in the first third and ended with a pair of long Cat Ones separated only by a fast descent.
This stage also opened with a large breakaway, 24 riders this time. Again Alessandro De Marchi attacked, this time 47 km from the finish with Lotto-Belisol’s Tim Wellens as a companion. Travis Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge) bridged across to this pair, then pushed past them, trying to solo to the finish.
This trio pushed up the Cat 1 Col de Vars, with one , then another dropping back and struggling to catch back up. Alberto Losada (Katusha) and Manuel Quinziato (BMC) caught the leaders on the descent, creating as leading quintet.
This bunch had three minutes at the start of the final 14-km Cat 1 climb, but as per plan, Sky moved to the front of the peloton on the lower slopes and started eating into the lead. Wellens attacked the break a third of the way up the climb, but De Marchi surged past four kilometers later. Two K from the finish the Cannondale rider had a minute gap; this was when Froome chose to strike.
Chris Froome, with Ritchie Porte, rode away from the rest of the peloton with ease. Only Andrew Talansky of Garmin-Sharp, who was a pre-race foavorite who fell far back with stomach ailments early in the race, had the legs left to chase the Sky riders.
Talanksy passed Porte but couldn’t catch Froome. Froome couldn’t catch De Marchi, who finally got a stage win out of all his attacking. Froome won the General Classification, showing form which makes him the definite favorite to win the Tour de France.