After Critérium du Dauphiné team triumph, the Tour de France title is Team Sky's to lose
Even without Wiggins and Cavendish, the British squad is still the one holding all the aces
Given the degree of extreme thoroughness and collective good form that Team Sky usually bring when targeting a particular race, that Chris Froome and his team-mates leave the Critérium du Dauphiné, the biggest and best dress rehearsal for the Tour de France, confirmed as favourites for July is hardly surprising. What is unusual, compared to 2012's and 2011's Critériums, both of which Sky won with Sir Bradley Wiggins, is the size of the question marks over their nominal rivals, and the depth of their inability to challenge the British squad.
Of all Sky's theoretical rivals for July's big prize, neither five times Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador nor his Spanish compatriots Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez, nor Belgium's Jurgen Van Den Broeck, twice a top five finisher in Paris, were in any position, at any point, to cause Sky headaches.
Time-wise, Valverde is the closest to Froome, seventh at over three minutes back. That is more than double Cadel Evans' time loss of one minute and 26 seconds when he was third in the 2012 Dauphiné – and the closest rival to last year's winner Wiggins – and symptomatic of a different level of performance that may well be virtually impossible to improve upon come the Tour.
Sky, by comparison, are performing at the same kind of collective level – and here the losses of both Wiggins and Mark Cavendish should be recalled – as they were at this point after the Dauphiné in 2012. And form-wise Froome is looking at least as good as Wiggins was last year.
It is true that in 2012 Sky finished with four riders in the top 10 on overall classification in the Dauphiné – Wiggins first, Mick Rogers second, Froome fourth and Richie Porte ninth, meaning that Sky not only had a Plan A and B for the Tour de France with Wiggins and Froome but two potential plan Cs as well.
This time, however, the Dauphiné route was far tougher and, with no very long midweek time trial as in 2012, it played less to the British team's strengths. Even so, throughout the week Sky kept a stranglehold on the mountain stages – thanks to Geraint Thomas, Pete Kennaugh (both back on full road-race programmes after forming part of Britain's victorious Olympic team pursuit squad in 2012) and the Belarusian powerhouse Vasil Kiryienka – and finished the race with the top two spots overall for Froome and Porte, and two stage wins. Sir Dave Brailsford, Sky's general manager, said after last year's Dauphiné that it was the "riders in the middle" echelons of a team that made a difference, and this time round, in that area, too, no one could get near Sky.
While Sky's dominance is stiflingly clear – and it makes speculation on how Wiggins would have fitted into the overall plan a fascinating if futile exercise – Contador is perhaps the biggest mystery. In the midweek time trial, he finished 61st, his worst time result since 2003, and he was equally unable to out-duel Froome in the high mountains at Valmorel. That a team-mate, the former Sky rider Rogers, should be placed fourth, is hardly a cause for celebration when Contador himself finished 10th.
A word of caution: the Dauphiné is a key Tour pointer, but not a decisive one. In 2011 Evans looked a shade under par when he finished third there before going on to win the Tour. In 2012 another Tour favourite, the Italian Vincenzo Nibali, struggled, finishing 28th, then bounced back with a vengeance, claiming third place on the final podium in Paris. But it is also true that in 2012, barring the odd minor glitch, neither Nibali nor Evans was in a position to challenge Sky.
That said, Contador says he is only at 75 per cent of his form and he is clearly building for the third week of the Tour. If the Spaniard times it right, Froome could yet have a massive fight on his hands.
It is also true that there will be other significant challengers who have not taken part in the Dauphiné: Evans, third in the 2013 Giro d'Italia at 36, the Canadian Ryder Hesjedal and perhaps Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, should he finally return to his 2010 condition, cannot be ruled out.
But these are all potential threats, rather than confirmed ones. And for all Froome insists that he is just one of six or seven potential winners, and for all Contador and Co may well up their game before July, Froome too has said he is not yet at 100 per cent and the performance gap between the two top names for the Tour could, therefore, remain equally firmly in Froome's favour.
Riding as defending champions automatically makes the Tour the British team's to lose on paper: the 2013 Critérium du Dauphiné has shown that will be the case in reality too.
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