June 13, 2010 2 Comments
This year’s Critérium du Dauphiné may have been missing a few more star names than in previous editions, but it lacked nothing in terms of the quality and excitement of the racing over its eight days. It was ultimately won by RadioShack‘s Slovenian rider Janez Brajkovic, but that was almost a sidebar relative to the tantalising glimpses of form (or lack thereof) shown by leading riders a mere three weeks before the start of the Tour de France.
Prologue to stage 3: On the flats
After last Sunday’s short prologue, won by defending Tour champion Alberto Contador, stages 1 and 2 concluded with two frantic, thrilling sprints won by Grega Bole and J J Haedo. But it was not until stage 3′s 49km individual time trial that we started to gain some genuine form insights.
That the stage was won by RadioShack’s Brajkovic – a former world under-23 time trial champion – was not in itself a major shock. But the sight of Contador looking distinctly uncomfortable on his brand new ‘Project Black’ time trial bike, constantly shifting around in the saddle to try to find a riding position which was both aerodynamic and less than excruciating, was a genuine surprise and contributed significantly to a sixth-placed finish on the day, 1:46 down on Brajkovic, and conceding the yellow jersey to the Slovenian.
Afterwards, Contador admitted he had had trouble settling into a good rhythm on his new bike, but was quick to point out that the Tour remained his primary objective.
I couldn’t get into the right rhythm. I tried to take the pace, especially at first. It was an extremely rough road and although I thought to push a little at the end, it was a not super day.
I’ve always left the Dauphiné to the others to fight for the overall. For me, the most important thing is to use this race to prepare for the Tour.
And Brajkovic was all too aware that a good showing would significantly boost his chance of selection for RadioShack’s Tour team:
I’m just going to do my best this week, and if I make the Tour team – great. If not, it’s not the end of the world.
Stages 4-7: In the mountains
Stage 4 saw the first big mountain stage with a summit finish at Risoul, won by Nicolas Vogondy after he made a decisive solo break in the final 2km. Denis Menchov made a couple of exploratory attacks to no avail, but looked in reasonable shape. And Contador also tried a couple of savage accelerations which only Brajkovic was able to live with. This was not Contador at his very best – if he had been, Brajkovic would undoubtedly have been dropped – but the Spaniard looked to be at around 95% of his peak form, which is exactly where he would want to be at this point.
Equally impressive was the way first Brajkovic’s RadioShack team and then Contador’s Astana colleagues drove hard at the front of the peloton on the final climb. It bodes well for both teams’ ability to support and protect their team leaders at the Tour.
Stage 5 went up the HC-rated Chamrousse before a long descent to the finish in Grenoble. With the leaders content to ride quietly and conserve their energy for the following day, the stage reinforced the view that both Astana and RadioShack possess a strong stable of domestiques. Contador’s teammate Daniel Navarro, a climbing specialist, broke clear before the summit of the Chamrousse and rode solo for nearly 40km to claim his first professional victory. Meanwhile, RadioShack clamped down hard on an attempted getaway by David Millar, showing impressive collective strength to snuff out the threat to Brajkovic.
Saturday was always going to be the decisive stage of the Dauphiné – with the monstrous Col du Glandon a mere appetiser before the nightmare that is Alpe d’Huez – and it produced a cracking finish. Right from the beginning of the final climb, Astana took control of the front of the peloton, slowly but surely cranking up the tempo and dropping riders one at a time from the lead group. That effort provided Contador with a springboard to launch wave after wave of attacks, breaking everyone but Brajkovic. The two rode nose-to-tail to the finish – Contador crossed the line first – but there was no mistaking how impressive Brajkovic’s performance had been on a day on which the pair left the likes of Menchov and Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Samuel Sanchez gasping in their wake.
Contador was delighted with the stage win, even though he had been unable to gain time on Brajkovic, effectively conceding the overall race win to the Slovenian.
It’s very moving to win in L’Alpe d’Huez. When you have a chance to win a stage on top of a mountain everybody remembers, you don’t take it lightly. I’m probably going to finish second in this Dauphiné but with the prologue and this victory, it’s mission accomplished.
Today’s concluding stage was won by Sky‘s Edvald Boasson Hagen, who accelerated clear of an initial breakaway group in the final seven kilometres, descending in treacherous wet conditions to a fine solo win.
Overall winner Brajkovic was delighted with his success, albeit one that had come in the absence of many top riders.
This is the biggest success of my career. The guys did an awesome job this week, they were just great. The Dauphiné is a really hard race with a quality field but it’s a month before the Tour de France. We shouldn’t forget that the top riders come here and they are not in their very top shape. To have raced against Contador and won is enough. He’s the best rider in the world, and although he is not on top form right now he can win just about any race he wants to.
Contador and Astana look to be in excellent shape. Alexandre Vinokourov should return for the Tour to serve as Contador’s deputy, alongside an experienced supporting cast which includes Oscar Pereiro and Benjamin Noval. Time trial hiccup notwithstanding, the defending champion remains the man to beat in July, having pronounced himself happy with his week’s work:
The assessment I make of this week’s competition is very positive. It was a very good preparation for the Tour de France, and, furthermore, I have won two stages. It has also been a very good performance by the team, with the victory of Dani Navarro included. All of my teammates have been at a high level, and that makes me very confident.
For RadioShack, it was a mixed week. Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer will spearhead the team in France, and the squad overall seems strong, if perhaps a touch short of Astana. Brajkovic performed brilliantly and must now be a strong contender for a Tour slot given the injury to Haimar Zubeldia, who fractured a bone in his wrist on stage 1. Although he has not yet been ruled out of the Tour, having had three pins inserted into his wrist he must be considered unlikely to participate. RadioShack sport director Allan Gallopin explained that the team would give Zubeldia every chance to recover, acknowledging the importance of his proven ability:
We’re waiting to see how Haimar recovers, because not only is he a good climber, but he’s very experienced as well.
Menchov is perhaps a touch short in terms of overall form in the mountains, but he was a creditable fifth in the individual time trial, ahead of Contador, and will be there or thereabouts next month. Whether his Rabobank squad can consistently match up to Astana, RadioShack and Saxo Bank on the Tour’s key Alpine and Pyrenean stages remains to be seen.
The other serious GC contender, Samuel Sanchez, had a terrible race, finishing 48th and over four minutes down in the stage 3 time trial, and losing a further four minutes the following day on the climb to Risoul. He was never likely to be more than a remote threat to Contador in France, and the gulf in form here suggests we can safely discount him as a challenger in the Tour.
Beyond that, David Millar looked in good nick. He will have two genuine shots at a stage win at the Tour, in the Rotterdam prologue and on what will be a punishing 52km slog from Bordeaux to Pauillac on the penultimate day, and should provide strong support to his (currently injured) team leader Christian Vande Velde on at least the lower parts of the major climbs. And a watching Bradley Wiggins will know that, with the likes of Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas available for selection, he will have capable support for his yellow jersey bid, although there has to be a question mark over the squad’s overall climbing strength compared to Astana, Saxo Bank and RadioShack.
The focus of attention now moves to the Tour de Suisse, which started yesterday and concludes next Sunday. This will give us a view of the progress of overall contenders Armstrong, Leipheimer, Andy and Frank Schleck, as well as top sprinters Mark Cavendish, Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen.
By next weekend, we will have a good idea how many of the leading players in next month’s Tour are looking. Let the speculation begin.
Final General Classification
1. Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack) 28h 06m 28s
2. Alberto Contador (Astana) @ 1:41 behind
3. Tejay van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) @ 2:41
4. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) @ 3:46
5. Jérôme Coppel (Saur-Sojasun) @ 4:17
6. Nicolas Vogondy (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) @ 4:23
7. Christophe Riblon (Ag2R-La Mondiale) @ 4:23
8. Pierre Rolland (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) @ 6:16
9. Chris Horner (RadioShack) @ 6:20
10. Sylvester Szmyd (Liquigas-Doimo) @ 6:57