Blazin' Saddles: 8 things we learned from Geraint Thomas' Criterium du Dauphine victory
With Team Sky winning their sixth Criterium du Dauphine crown in eight years, it's time to reflect over the impact and implications of the 70th edition of the annual Tour de France warm-up race.
Welshman Geraint Thomas secured one of the biggest stage race victories of his career on Sunday after holding on to the fabled yellow jersey at Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc to cap a dominant week for the British Team Sky. But what have the events of the past eight days told us going forward?
Sky will take some beating in the Tour TTT
After bashing out the pan-flat 35km race against the clock in an average time of 57.46km/h Team Sky tore strips off their rivals in stage 3 to come home a massive 38 seconds clear of their nearest challengers, BMC.
With Mitchelton-Scott (Adam Yates) trailing by 56 seconds, Ag2R-La Mondiale (Romain Bardet) by 1'30", Bahrain-Merida (Vincenzo Nibali) by 2'05" and UAE Team Emirates (Dan Martin) by a whopping 2'28", Sky occupied the top four spots on GC and were able to control their race accordingly. From that point, Thomas's opponents were merely fighting for second place.
The third stage of the Tour also features a 35km TTT but over a course in Cholet that is both slightly lumpier and more technical. If all their rivals will be at full strength, then so too will Sky – after all, they were without their main man Chris Froome (recovering from his Giro exertions) in the Dauphine.
It's worth also mentioning the plight of Tom Dumoulin's Team Sunweb, who finished last some 3'20" down on Sky (albeit without the indomitable Dutchman). With Dumoulin targeting the Tour after finishing behind Froome in the Giro, he will need a far better performance from his team in July should he wish to mount a challenge for the maillot jaune.
Of course, of Sky's winning team only four riders – Thomas, Gianni Moscon, Michal Kwiatkowski and Dylan van Baarle – are currently on the shortlist to support Froome in the Tour. But the emphatic performance will be enough to set alarm bells ringing for the other Tour contenders, who could find themselves out of the frame as early as day three in July.
Race winner Britain's Geraint Thomas, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey (C), stage winner and overall second-placed Great Britain's Adam Yates (L) and third-placed France's Romain Bardet (R) celebrate on the podium after the seventh & last stageGetty Images
Thomas a worthy plan B but will struggle over three weeks
On becoming the third British Sky rider to win the Dauphine on Sunday, Geraint Thomas will be aware that the other two – Bradley Wiggins and Froome – went on to become Tour winners. Can he do the same?
This year, the uncertainty behind Froome's participation in the Grande Boucle – following his on-going salbutamol case – has elevated Thomas to the position of co-leader, at least on paper.
The 32-year-old is part of a strong team with proven pedigree in the Tour and he showed he clearly has decent climbing legs – zipping clear to take second place and vital bonus seconds in stage 6 to La Rosiere, a carbon copy of the Tour's stage 11.
But the foundations of Thomas's win were above all laid in the TTT and then secured by largely conservative riding in the mountains, for Thomas did not need to go on the attack.
An eight-day race is also very different from the monster that is the three-week Tour – and Thomas will come up against stiffer opposition than an undercooked Romain Bardet and a previously out-of-sorts Dan Martin searching for form.
What's more, Thomas's nasty crash in the prologue was a reminder that the Welshman's tendency to hit the deck at key moments so often proves his undoing – whether in one-day or stage races.
We should remember that for all his promise, Thomas is still yet to prove himself as a GC contender in Grand Tours having yet to crack the top 10 in any of his previous 12 attempts despite coming very close in 2015.
Of course, this could all change this summer. But the fact that Sky are tipped to include the Colombian sensation Egan Bernal in their eight-man team suggests that Sir Dave Brailsford is looking more to the future than to Thomas as an alternative to Froome taking a record-equalling fifth win.
Ag2R-La Mondiale don't have the armoury to trouble Sky
It's early days yet but Romain Bardet's Ag2R-La Mondiale team will hardly have Sky shaking in their boots. Sure, they battled hard to limit their losses in a TTT which on previous occasions may have seen them ship three minutes. But Bardet, who finished third overall at 1'47", lacks support in the mountains and lacks bite of his own.
The Frenchman readily admits that he's well short of 100% and claims that he's "really happy" where his legs are right now. But he will be alarmed how Sky's number two rider – or is that even number three? – rode clear of him at the end of the summit finishes on stages 5 and 6.
In their defence, Ag2R-La Mondiale showed the same kind of fighting spirit they'll need when putting pressure on Sky after Thomas punctured at a key moment on Sunday's final stage. Even if this did spark a war of words and sail close to the wind of fair play while testing the waters of the unwritten rules, this is exactly the kind of bullish, uncompromising stance they will have to take if they want to throw the kitchen sink at Sky come July.
But on reflection, it's hard to look at both Bardet's and Ag2R-La Mondiale's armoury and see anything that can trump their big rivals especially with the Tour bookended by team and individual time trials.
Boring Yates more effective than a fun Yates
There's a distinctive difference between the way Adam and Simon Yates ride. The latter raced the Giro to win it – or, at the very least, to put himself in the best chance of winning it before the inevitable slump came; meanwhile the former races in a more calculated, defensive, less romantic way – as encapsulated in his stage 7 win at Saint-Gervais.
On Sunday, Adam did just enough to win the final stage of the Dauphine while securing his place as runner-up, exactly one minute down on Thomas on GC. Unlike twin brother Simon – who channelled his inner Alberto Contador to win three swashbuckling stages in the maglia rosa last month by riding off the front all guns blazing – Adam bided his time in the chasing group, let his rivals do the work, before putting in his attack in the last few hundred metres to give him just enough time to catch lone escapee Dani Navarro with the finish line in sight.
Not everyone was best pleased with the outcome, that's for sure.
And afterwards, Adam admitted that his brother's style had brought him better results – but still said they were on an even keel as riders.
But Yates (Adam, not Simon) is still riding back to form after fracturing his pelvis in the Volta a Catalunya in late March; it's not his prerogative to ride in an attacking fashion in June when his main target for the season remains the Tour five weeks later.
Time will tell which of the Yateses has the more effective method. Simon's style has – and will – bring him more stage scalps in major races, but Adam perhaps has the bigger picture in mind. He may not win three stages and wear the leader's jersey but in a race that awards conservative, patient riding, Adam shouldn't drop to 21st place (and over an hour down) on GC by the end of the three weeks.
Martin's much-needed win merely papers over the cracks
Two days before his stage 5 win at Valmorel revitalised not only his race but his entire time at UAE Team Emirates, the knives were out for Dan Martin. His new team had shipped the best part of two-and-a-half minutes in the TTT to hammer a nail into the Irishman's bid for Dauphine glory before the race had even reached the mountains.
But then Martin started to show the form of old and the kind of mountain legs that made UAE Team Emirates snap up both him and Fabio Aru over the winter – a double swoop that had previously been about as successful as Laurel and Hardy.
Martin attacked with 4km to go in stage 5 en route to beating Chris Froome's time on the final climb to Valmorel (from the 2013 Tour de France) by a huge one minute. Martin's badly-needed first win for UAE put the smile back on his face and lifted him from a slump which he later admitted hit rock bottom after he came 61st in La Fleche Wallonne earlier in the spring.
It came one day after Martin finished runner-up to Julian Alaphilippe in Lans-en-Vercors and preceded third and sixth-place finishes in the Alps that capped his week off strongly. Indeed, subtract the time he lost in the opening prologue and the TTT (a combined 2'58") and it would be Martin, not Thomas, who wore yellow on the final podium.
While this bodes well for the 31-year-old ahead of the Tour, it's hard seeing Martin's fate proving any different over the three weeks: provided he can avoid being taken out by a sprawling Richie Porte, he'll be there in the mountains, but always needing to make up for time lost elsewhere.
Chris Froome's rivals have work to do
In any case, the likes of Martin and Yates shouldn't prove to be Froome's major rivals in the Tour – provided the 33-year-old Briton actually takes to the start. If he does take to the start, we hardly learnt anything new this week about Bardet – as touched upon earlier – or Vincenzo Nibali, who had a wholly unremarkable race following Bahrain Merida's capitulation in the TTT.
Nibali, of course, is a seasoned GC rider who has a knack of coming good once the chips are down, and his threadbare team will undoubtedly be a lot stronger once the Tour hits the Vendee for the Grand Depart on 7th July.
Elsewhere, however, the race is now on to get in shape ahead of the Tour. After all, Froome won the Giro after only coming good in the latter stages of the race – and the extra week's recuperation will play into his hands. Little has been seen of Richie Porte (BMC) since his strong early form Down Under, while Movistar have their three trump cards to play in Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde.
It's Movistar who are likely to prove the biggest threat to Froome's Giro-Tour double – but will it be a question of too many cooks spoiling the broth? It's certainly hard to see any of those diminutive climbers adding much steel to Movistar's TTT outfit, which conceded 1'31" to Sky last week.
Impey making hay while the sun shines
Daryl Impey has been in sparkling form this season for Mitchelton-Scott and added a fourth win in stage 1 at Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert en route to wearing the yellow jersey for a day and securing the overall points classification.
It's been a rejuvenating year for the South African, who became double national champion shortly after winning the Tour Down Under in January, plus was part of Mitchelton-Scott's winning team in the recent Hammer Stavanger.
But Impey only needed to out-kick Julian Alaphilippe and Pascal Ackermann for his sprint win last week – with the recent trend of the sport's top sprinters avoiding the hilly Dauphine continuing.
The likes of Peter Sagan, Fernando Gaviria, Michael Matthews and Greg van Avermaet are all racing the Tour de Suisse this week, while the Tour will also see the return of Messrs Cavendish, Greipel, Ewan, Kristoff, Kittel, Bouhanni, Groenewegen et al.
If Impey's winning sprints now it's because he can – and because he won't be able to in July, where the competition will be the strongest it has been in years.
Geoghegan Hart is a talent to behold
You'd say the future was bright for Tao Geoghegan Hart but that would be doing disservice to what the British youngster is doing right now in the present.
Having played a key role in team-mate Egan Bernal's overall win in California last month, the 23-year-old was again instrumental in setting up another team-mate's victory in the Dauphine. Whether pulling like a man possessed in the TTT or helping Thomas back following his heart-in-mouth puncture in stage 8, Geoghegan Hart buried himself for the cause while knocking on the door of the top 10.
Many are talking up his chances to make Sky's team for the Tour de France but it seems that his Grand Tour debut will instead come in August with the Vuelta, where he may even lead the team given his enormous promise. Still five years shy of the age when Froome won his first Tour, Geoghegan Hart is already showing much more potential than his British counterpart at that age.
Despite Sky's questionable record of cultivating young talent, Geoghegan Hart is making the most of his chances and will surely have a huge role to play at Sky in the light of the advancing years of both Froome and Thomas. But with Bernal and possibly the Russian Pavel Sivakov seen as the great GC hopes of the future, the question remains how long Geoghegan Hart is prepared to wait.
For now, he's clearly in the right place to develop. Let's just hope he's given his chance to shine for on this showing there should be exciting times ahead for the young man from Hackney.