Bradley Wiggins' final build-up to the Tour starts this Sunday at the Critérium du Dauphiné, France's third-biggest stage race, where the Sky rider will be the defending champion – and where as one of the top favourites for July, his form will be intensely scrutinised.
"He'll be expected to win the Dauphiné and that's the mindset he has now in every race he does," Britain's most veteran stage racer and former Tour leader David Millar told The Independent.
"Judging by the Tour of Bayern" – in which Millar also raced – "he'll have the strongest team there. It's going to be a bit of a Sky display, I think."
Last year Wiggins was a surprise winner. This time, both Sky and the Briton are the targets for the rest of the sport to beat. Wiggins has taken victories in Paris-Nice in early March and the Tour of Romandie in late April and races second only to the three Grand Tours in prestige, while Sky's total of 25 victories is second only to the 30 captured by Omega Pharma-Quick Step – the Belgian team have dominated the Classics in 2012 much the same way that Sky have dominated week-long stage races like the Dauphiné.
Kicking off with a short, flat prologue through the streets of Grenoble, this year's Dauphiné is, if anything, even harder than last year's, with 29 classified climbs and two ultra-difficult stages in the Alps. As in 2011, the race's watershed will be a 53-km (33-mile) individual time trial, very similar to the one where Wiggins took the race lead last year.
"It's the closest to a mini-Tour de France because it's got all the elements on a slightly shorter scale. It's a bit of a weird one, because if you're going well there's a good chance you'll be going well at the Tour.
"But if you're going badly that doesn't always mean a bad Tour – some guys have gone like a bag of shit in the Dauphiné but then won in July - but it does mean you've more to worry about.
"Brad and the people around him know what he's doing there, there's no reason why he can't do very well there and even better at the Tour."
Nor will the rivals be any more straightforward than July: although Cadel Evans, last year's Tour de France winner is a Dauphine "regular", far less predictable is Andy Schleck, a three-time Tour podium finisher who is making his Dauphiné debut. Wiggins will also monitoring World Champion Tony Martin, recent winner of the Tour of Belgium and, like the Briton, a contender for the Olympics time trial.
For Sky, the race will be a test-run for the Tour for more than just Wiggins. Barring Mark Cavendish – whose only June race will be the low-profile ZLM Tour in Netherlands – all of their top Tour names will, for the first time,race together. That includes Chris Froome, second in the Vuelta a España last year, and Edvald Boasson Hagen, who took both of Sky's Tour stage wins last July.
For Millar – a former leader and podium finisher of the Dauphiné – his big aim will be "to find some good form."
Of breaking his collarbone during the E3-Harelbeke, a Belgian spring Classic, he said: "I was sick in the Tour of Norway and suffered through the Tour of Bayern [his two last races], so it's been a bit of a rough comeback. But it should balance out.
"More than anything, I want to show some form, which I haven't done all year, not only for my confidence but for July."Reuse content