Blazin' Saddles: From Fuglsang to Froome, six thoughts from the Dauphine
While Chris Froome's crash ahead of the time trial understandably stole much of the limelight, a fair few other things went on during the 71st edition of the Criterium du Dauphine. Let's take a closer look at some of the biggest talking points and the bearing they may have going forward…
Fuglsang's fine form puts him in Tour window
The veteran Dane built on his early season promise by securing a second Dauphine title off the back of his emphatic Ardennes fortnight. It's fair to say, things are shaping up nicely for Jakob Fuglsang ahead of the Tour de France, where he'll spearhead Astana's attacking team as the 34-year-old bids for a first ever podium finish in Paris.
Granted, Fuglsang did not win any stages en route to his overall victory – but that's no deterrent to Tour glory, as Chris Froome will attest in 2017. The Dane also relied on with final day withdrawal of Adam Yates – but he's not the first to win a race following the abandonment of a rival.
The fact that Fuglsang won the Dauphine through consistent riding and at a relative canter could strengthen his case as one of the key favourites ahead of the Tour. Indeed, everything suggests that Fuglsang is in the form of his career and his "blue limousine" team Astana are firing on all cylinders.
Surely Fuglsang in the best position he's ever been in to improve on his previous career high of seventh in Paris, in 2013.
Whether he has what it takes to win the real maillot jaune come July is another matter. Of the three previous riders to have won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Dauphine in the same season, only Eddy Merckx went on to win the Tour (in 1971), with Bernard Hinault sitting out the Tour in 1977 and Alejandro Valverde coming eighth in 2008.
Alaphilippe and Van Aert could press Sagan all the way
Following up his first WorldTour scalp in the time trial with victory in a reduced sprint one day later in stage 5, Jumbo-Visma's Van Aert secured the green jersey and underlined just why he is one of cycling's hottest properties.
As if keen to remind the world who's boss, Frenchman Alaphilippe beat Gregor Muhlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe) in a combative two-up sprint one day later to secure his tenth win of the season and the 37th for his Deceuninck-QuickStep team.
While Alaphilippe won last year's polka-dot jersey at the Tour, his consistency and the abundance of uphill punchy sprint finishes in this year's race may make the Frenchman a favourite for the green jersey battle.
It's a battle which Sagan dominated for five straight years before his controversial disqualification in the 2017 Tour denied him a record sixth straight maillot vert. The Slovakian showman got back to winning ways last year – but in Alaphilippe and Van Aert he may come up against a proper battle this time round, especially given his own patchy form this season. This would make a welcome change.
Team Ineos' strength in depth to be tested after Froome crash
It would be remiss not to mention Froome and Ineos – especially given how the British team turned things round with two emphatic stage wins for Wout Poels and Dylan Van Baarle following their leader's withdrawal from the race ahead of stage 4.
The crazy notion that the incident was staged by Froome and Ineos doesn't warrant anything besides a passing mention; feel free to be confounded by some grade-A flat-earther jazz on Twitter if you have a spare 10 minutes to throw away.
But Froome's injury does at least solve one conundrum for Ineos: the forthcoming Tour will not be preceded amid talk of the team's supposed leadership struggle. Or will it?
With defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas currently on Tour de Suisse duty alongside the talented Colombian Egan Bernal, it will be interesting to see how the pair fare ahead of the Grande Boucle. Should Bernal – who missed leading Ineos at the Giro after breaking his collarbone – outperform the Welshman in the mountains, the speculation may start. Thomas hasn't exactly pulled up any trees since his victory last year.
Throw into the pot the form of Poels, who won stage 6 of the Dauphine in torrential rain en route to finishing a solid fourth place overall, and Dave Brailsford is hardly short of options even with Froome's bid for a fifth win put on hold.
Truth be told, such is the strength in depth of the red and black limousine that is Ineos, they probably could win the Tour with any of those three riders as protected leader. But things become a little more complicated if Thomas, Poels and Bernal all enter the race believing in their own chances over the others. And that's ignoring the case for Michal Kwiatkowski…
Bora brimming with ebullience is bad for Bennett
It was with resigned stoicism that Sam Bennett, after notching his seventh win of the season in stage 3, admitted that his next stage race of the season would be the Binck Bank Tour and not the Tour de France.
Having missed out on the Giro – where Pascal Ackermann won twice while picking up the maglia ciclamino – Bennett's only hope of winning on the main stage this year will come in the climbing-heavy Vuelta in August. It seems mightily unfair for a sprinter at the peak of his powers, but it's the sign of how fierce competition is at his Bora-Hansgrohe team.
Once again, Bora animated a WorldTour stage race on the Dauphine – picking up where they left off at the Giro. Besides Bennett's stage win, there were runner-up spots for the Irishman and the Austrian Muhlberger, and a third place for Germany's Emanuel Buchmann, both in stage 7 and the final GC.
Bora have been one of the success stories of the season, trailing only QuickStep and Astana in the table of victories, while regularly featuring in the GC battles. For the Tour they will hope Sagan rediscovers some of his former fizz as he bids to win a seventh green jersey, while Buchmann and Patrick Konrad will be eyeing breakthrough top-ten finishes. Unfortunately for Bennett, he'll be watching from the sidelines.
Can EF Education First tease the best out of Van Garderen
An American underachiever with an underachieving American team: Tejay van Garderen chez EF Education First was really a marriage made in heaven. And when EF started winning again, so (almost) did TVG, with a stint in the leader's yellow jersey in California via some very dodgy descending and some equally dodgy decision from the UCI race jury.
Back racing in France, and Van Garderen went about his business with stealth, taking second place at the time trial before finishing runner-up to Fuglsang on GC. Having failed to sparkle on the Tour since 2014, could the 30-year-old profit from the absence of Froome to record his highest ever finish in Paris?
To do so, he'll have to finish fourth or higher on 28th July. A big ask given the quality of even a Froome-depleted field. But one thing is certain, his manager Jonathan Vaughters is excited.
With Froome out, the Tour could be the most open in years
In any normal year, we wouldn't entertain the idea of Jakob Fuglsang winning the Tour de France, but Froome's sudden absence from the race has completely changed the dynamic.
In an instant, Nairo Quintana's long wait for a maiden Tour title have been given a boost, even if the 29-year-old Colombian hardly set the world on fire during the Dauphine. Indeed, the way in which Quintana rode the race suggested very much that he was on a steady boil approaching the Tour – rather than entering the race (such as Primoz Roglic did in the Giro) already bubbling away.
The same could be said about the likes of Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet, Richie Porte and Dan Martin, who did not look to be riding the Dauphine as if it were their main objective of the summer, rather as a means to an end – that end being Paris.
Throw in Giro runner-up Vincenzo Nibali, Sky's Suisse riders, Thomas and Bernal, Movistar's Spanish duo of Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde, EF's forgotten man Rigoberto Uran, and the host of riders who withdrew from the Dauphine on the last day citing illness – including the overnight leader Adam Yates, Canada's Michael Woods and the Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk – and, well, it's not an easy job narrowing things down…
One big question mark hangs over the fitness of Team Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin, however. The Dutchman withdrew from the Dauphine ahead of stage 7 when he was more than 13 minutes down on Yates, the knee injury he picked up on the Giro clearly holding him back.
How desperately unlucky it would be for Dumoulin – who finished runner-up to Froome in the Giro and Thomas in the Tour last year – to miss out on both his season's objectives despite injuries in both races to his main rivals at Ineos.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in cycling…
While the focus was on the racing in France and the fall-out from Froome's crash, some other big stories hit the news this past week.
Indeed, Chris Froome probably became the first rider to win a Grand Tour with a broken femur after it was announced by the UCI that Juan Jose Cobo faced a retrospective doping ban.
The Spaniard, now a 38-year-old part-time surfing instructor and milkman, was found guilty of a doping violation, based on biological passport data, and the UCI said it would strip him of his results from 2009 to 2011, which included his Vuelta win in 2011.
Quite why it took them eight years to come to the decision is anyone's guess. Indeed, it took the rider who came up with the famous "He did a Landis" quip with regards to Froome's solo attack in stage 19 of last year's Giro, to come up with his latest internet-winning take on the situation…
In other doping-related news, an article in L'Equipe claimed that the Chatenay-Malabry antidoping laboratory had refined its EPO testing method to make micro-doses detectable for 48 hours or more, as against approximately 24 hours as things currently stand. While yet to be ratified, this could be introduced as early as 2020 with samples from the last 10 years able to be retested.
The fact that this news came just hours before Froome crashed into a wall, evidently, got the conspiracy theorists tongues wagging on social media – but that's something for a rainy day.
Talking of rainy days, it's fair to say that the Dauphine wasn't exactly blessed by good weather…
Next Monday, we take a look at all the stories and analysis from the Tour de Suisse. Until then, take care when blowing your nose in sudden gusts of wind.