AFP / Yuzuru Sunada
Britain’s Chris Froome will have to forget about team-mate Bradley Wiggins and focus on Spaniard Alberto Contador when the Criterium du Dauphine begins in Lyon on Sunday. In recent interviews and the serialization of his autobiography by a British newspaper, Froome has been somewhat disparaging towards Wiggins, the man who preceded him as Tour de France winner in 2012. Froome has questioned Wiggins’s mental strength during that 2012 tour as well as criticizing him for his mood swings while he was working as a ‘super-domestique’ for his Team Sky leader that year.
The upshot of the in-fighting at Sky seems to have cost Wiggins the chance of riding alongside Froome at this year’s Tour – an admission the Olympic time-trial champion made in an interview with the BBC earlier this week. So with Wiggins no longer dominating his thoughts, Froome can now concentrate on his primary rival for Tour glory in July: Contador. It is the Spaniard, two time winner of the Tour, who has been in the best form of all contenders this season, winning the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of the Basque Country, while finishing second in both the Tour of the Algarve and Tour of Catalunya. However, Froome himself has also been in fine form, despite a season disrupted by injury and illness, winning the Tour of Oman and last month’s Tour of Romandie.
The Alpine eight-stage Criterium du Dauphine, the final major Tour warm-up event for the likes of Froome, Contador and Italian Vincenzo Nibali, will provide the perfect gauge to the form of the potential Grand Boucle winners. A mountainous race, the title should be decided in the Alpine stages of the final weekend, with the seventh and penultimate stage culminating in the 10.2km climb to the Emosson reservoir on the border between France and Switzerland. Froome has not raced since his Tour de Romandie victory early May, and Contador has been absent from the peloton since his win in the Tour of the Basque County mid-April. Both have focused primarily on mountain preparation during May, along with Nibali, the 2013 Giro d’Italia winner.
Last year Froome followed in the footsteps of Wiggins, the 2011 and 2012 Dauphine winner, to set himself up as favourite for the Tour de France, after a faultless run through the Dauphine. Kenyan-born Froome, 29, admitted that he is approaching the race in the form of his life, free of the health problems that dogged his early season. His team is totally at his service with Australian Richie Porte, second in the Dauphine last year, again set to accompany him. Contador was overpowered by Froome in the mountains last year but seems to have recovered the form he had before returning in 2012 from a two-year doping ban.
“He’s going to refine his condition. The Dauphine is a tough race perfect to prepare for the Tour,” said his Tinkoff-Saxo team sporting director Philippe Mauduit.
The presence of Froome and Contador should allow the other challengers to gauge their form, with American Tejay Van Garderen warning: “I’m going to test my limits.”
Fellow American Andrew Talansky and Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski represent the young generation along with France’s Romain Bardet. The opening 10.4km time-trial on Sunday will be followed by a stage two which should set the tone for things to come with a finish on Col du Beal in the Massif central mountains in south central France. The route should suit the climbers with few big name sprinters taking part, although there will be opportunities for stage wins in the relatively flat stages on Tuesday and Friday. The race culminates with another mountainous stage from Megeve to theFrench ski resort of Courchevel on Sunday week.