Anybody looking for signs that Chris Froome is well on track for winning Britain’s second straight Tour de France - and that almost all of his main opponents are in severe danger of becoming completely de-railed in their bid to try and stop him - would have taken deep encouragement from Wednesday’s time trial stage of the Criterium du Dauphiné.
In the’s 32 kilometre, completely flat, race against the clock, Froome gained 2 minutes and 45 seconds on his Tour archrival Alberto Contador of Spain and soared to second overall.
It barely mattered that unlike Sir Bradley Wiggins in last year’s equivalent Dauphine time trial, Froome did not beat reigning World Champion, Tony Martin, but instead had to settle for third. All of his fellow Tour de France contenders on paper - Alejandro Valverde of Spain, 53rd, Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck, 54th, Contador, 61st, Joaquim Rodriguez, 70th, all former top five Tour finishers or Grand Tour winners or dangerous climbers - were so far behind in comparison that Sky will now, perhaps, have to start looking for new Tour rivals amongst those who finished closer to their leader.
“I don’t know how he [Alberto] is feeling, perhaps he’s keeping something back for the mountains,” Froome said afterwards, whilst warning that he will not hold back on today’s first stage in the Alps himself.
“I could just try and keep things under control but I’ll want to have a go. It’s not my big objective here, but if we can win the Dauphine, with me or one of my team-mates, we’ll try.”
Froome can also draw huge encouragement that he is far from being the only Sky rider to hit top form just as the Tour hoves into view. Edvald Boasson Hagen, Wales Geraint Thomas and Australian Richie Porte, touted as plan ‘B’ for Sky should Froome falter and who himself overtook Contador in the time trial, all took top ten places. And, just as in last year’s Dauphine after the time trial, Sky now has four riders in the top six overall.
Whilst any doubts over Froome’s ability to fill Sir Bradley Wiggins’ shoes as Sky’s Tour leader will have evaporated completely now, and Thursday’s mountain stage should re-confirm Froome's climbing ability and probably net him the lead, the biggest questionmark after Wednesday’s Dauphine stage concerns Contador and his severely below-expectations performance.
“You can never really rule him out,” Sky’s Richie Porte, a former team-mate of the Spanish multiple Tour winner, told specialist website cyclingnews.com “It’s not over yet, and there are still a few more weeks. If anyone in the peloton knows how to win the Tour, it’s Alberto Contador.” Psychologically, though, Froome should now be more motivated than ever to beat Contador, and triumph come July.