With Spain's Alberto Contador taking some time off following his exertions in the Giro d'Italia, defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali and 2013 victor Chris Froome were both in action during last week's Critérium du Dauphiné. Meanwhile, Nairo Quintana - winner of Tirreno-Adriatico back in the spring - has been training at altitude back in his native Colombia.
But who's in the best shape ahead of the showpiece race of the season? It's time to find out...

Vincenzo Nibali

Image credit: Panoramic

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Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
Considering the 30-year-old vowed to "give it all I've got" in the Dauphiné, his 12th place finish - despite holding the yellow jersey with two stages remaining - could be seen by many as cause for concern.
On Thursday's stage to Pra Loup, Nibali put in a Merckxian performance by dropping off the front of the main pack like a stone - although many were quick to read in between the lines.
Indeed, L'Equipe's veteran cycle-scribe Philippe Bouvet saw enough that day to declare Nibali winner of the pre-Tour mind games war after what he viewed as a calculated tailing off. The inference being that here is a rider so secure of his own abilities that he does not need to put in superhuman efforts - or even disguise his weaknesses - when riding to full fitness.
It was Sky's Chris Froome who buried himself with a pulverising attack in the wake of impressive stage winner Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale). But despite his statement of intent, "the Englishman who looked less convincing" than Nibali, according to Bouvet.
The Sicilian reminded everyone of his class a day later with a well-engineered attack in the rain, seizing the maillot jaune after finishing second to Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida). Fellow escapee Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) later told the press how hard it was to keep on Nibali's wheel every time he took a pull.
But let's be honest - if Nibali wants to win successive Tours, it'd be worrying if he were not making Alpine mincemeat of a climber of the caliber of Gallopin (no offence, Tone). That Nibali petered out dramatically on the Dauphiné's final weekend is either a red herring or an irksome blip that even Bouvet overlooked.
Just remember this: Nibali is Mr Consistency incarnate - a rider who has completed all 13 of his Grand Tours, with top seven finishes (including three victories) in the past 10 outings. He may not be ready right now, but he will be firing all cylinders come July - and of all the favourites, he is the best suited to getting through a very tricky opening week unscathed. And that, after all, is where the race could be won.
Nibability rating: 6.5/10

Chris Froome celebrates as he crosses the line at the Critrium du Dauphiné

Image credit: AFP

Chris Froome (Team Sky)
After the Briton won the first of back-to-back summit finishes at Saint-Gervais on the final weekend of the Dauphiné, Sky manager Sir David Brailsford warned that there was still a long way to go for his main man and that Froome was "nowhere near to his best".
But after Froome's decisive win at Modane on Sunday - through which he prised the yellow jersey from the shoulders of BMC's Tejay van Garderen - even Brailsford struggled to see too much room for improvement.
"It all looks good and we couldn't be in a better place heading into the Tour," the British cycling supremo gushed - quickly forgetting Sky's horror show in the team time trial of stage three (which put Froome in a position in which he had to claw back a deficit and come from behind all week).
What impressed the most other than Froome's climbing legs was his morale, demeanour and motivation. Although he got himself in hot water for refusing to speak to the press after Saturday's win, his instant reaction (deliciously caught on camera) to winning was quite special, touching even.
"YESSSS!" he bellowed before looking to the heavens and celebrating with his soigneur. Froome was all smiles, looking both hungry and happy. It's no surprise: he's lean, clearly in good form, and no doubt buoyed by the prospect of imminent fatherhood (his pregnant wife was on hand to congratulate her ecstatic husband).
This all bodes well for the 30-year-old. On his day, Froome takes some beating. Sure, his principal rival here was van Garderen - a rider for whom the Tour's jury is still very much out - but he emerged from the Dauphiné with flying colours. Although cynics could say that perhaps Froome was a little too eager to take a morale-boosting yet energy-sapping overall win in what is merely a dress rehearsal to the main event.
Froometastic rating: 7/10

Giro d'Italia winner Tinkoff-Saxo rider Alberto Contador stands next to his trophy (Reuters)

Image credit: Eurosport

Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo)
According to Froome, the Spanish multiple Grand Tour winner "does stand out. He is the benchmark, the guy to beat." Contador is also the guy who is half way through recording a rare double that has not been done since the late Marco Pantani in 1998.
Indeed, it is Contador's very victory in May's Giro that means we won't get a glimpse of the 32-year-old until the start of the four-day mountainous Route du Sud race this Thursday - his only competitive outing this month ahead of the Tour.
Contador followed the Giro with a fortnight of "active rest" at his home at Lugano, where he tackled the iconic passes of the Gavia and Stelvio as well as some of the flatter terrain around the local lakes. He will head to the Route de Sud to condition himself ahead of the Tour but admits that "physically and muscularly I still feel the wear from the Giro, especially of the final week".
It's hard to tell if Contador's slight wobble in the final week of the Giro was down to true faiblesse on his part or whether or not he merely made he calculation and took his foot off the gas with the Tour in mind. In that respect, his final week in Italy could well mirror Nibali's week in the Dauphiné in that, for us and their rivals, it all amounts to a futile guessing game.
When Contador last targeted a Giro-Tour double in 2011 it was impromptu and off the hoof: he won the former with very little preparation and then struggled in the latter, finishing fifth. But this year he's trained specifically for the dual goal and it seems highly implausible that even a fatigued Contador will not be in the mix come July.
The Spaniard admits he sees the Tour with "uncertainty" but is adamant that he finds the task in hand extra motivating. "I'm mentally very excited and motivated about this challenge," he said this week. "Physically, when I get up, my legs still hurt and I feel muscle fatigue - but this is normal."
Contability: 5/10

Nairo Quintana wins general classification in Tirreno-Adriatico 2015

Image credit: Other Agency

Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
The biggest question mark of all hangs over the head of Nairo Quintana, who has been completely off the radar since his hardly radar-popping performance in the Tour de Romandie at the start of May. His early season success in Tirreno-Adriatico will count for nothing when the little Colombian returns to the Tour for the first time since finishing second behind Froome in his Grande Boucle debut in 2013.
Quintana, at 25 the least experienced of the Tour favourites, talked up the prospects of his rivals ahead of his return to Europe this week, telling national media that he is "not the man to beat" and that his principal objective will be simply to return to the podium in Paris after his second place in 2013.
Pedro Delgado, winner of the Tour in 1988, believes "Quintana will become the first Colombian to win the Tour" but admits it may not be this year. And yet of all the Big Four riders, the pint-sized Movistar man has easily had the most relaxed, stress-free build-up to the race.
While Nibali and Froome were doing their best to avoid each other in hotel corridors in Tenerife ahead of their muzzled showdown in the Dauphiné, and Contador was put through his paces by Nibali's Astana team-mates in Italy, Quintana has been able to train on his lofty home roads in the shadow of the Andes while sleeping in his own bed and enjoying his mother's cooking.
"That's the advantage that we Colombians have; we are already at altitude, so we do not have to spend even more time away from our family and friends, who already make many sacrifices for us during the year," Quintana said. "I know the work I have to do, and I am serious about my training. We have good roads around my home, so why go someplace else? One is always more comfortable when one is at home."
Acting against Quintana is perhaps a lack of race practice or familiarity in the Tour route. While he does live in Monaco when in Europe and so knows the Alps well, and while he did give the cobbles a recce during the spring classics campaign, Quintana, unlike Nibali and Froome, will have missed the opportunity to ride a carbon copy of the Tour's stage 17 to Pra Loup, as well as the twisting Lacets de Montvernier.
Like Contador, Quintana will return to action in the Route de Sud. Until then, all we have to go by are images of Quintana toiling away on his Canyon at 9,000 feet or with his feet up at home while his mother prepares a plate of tasty empanadas.
Quintanorama: 8/10
All in all, things are shaping up quite nicely for the Tour de France. Rendez-vous: 4th July 2015 at Utrecht...
Felix Lowe
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