Since last August, Primož Roglič, leader of the individual UCI World Ranking, and the ranking’s runner-up Tadej Pogačar have between them won the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España, two editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Itzulia Basque Country and the UAE Tour. The 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné escaped their grasp (Roglič crashed, Pogačar finished 4th) and they won't win the 73rd edition of the French one-week race either as they both chose different paths to prepare for their next battles after a successful spring.
This absence is an opportunity for their rivals heading to the Massif Central and the Alps to sharpen their condition and their ambitions before they face the two Slovenian stars in the next Tour de France. It also opens new perspectives for the fans. Many riders hope to succeed Daniel Martinez (winner in 2020, currently displaying his talents with Egan Bernal in the Giro d'Italia). Geraint Thomas appears to be a favourite a few weeks after his victory at the Tour de Romandie but he faces many challenges in a race that has often led to explosive scenarios in the final weekend.
Ineos Grenadiers to set the tone?
During the last decade, a British dominance has been imposed on the Critérium du Dauphiné. The riders from Team Sky, and now Ineos Grenadiers, have won six of the past ten editions. In 2021, the team led by Dave Brailsford once again comes to France with strong ambitions. Geraint Thomas looks like he has all the right cards to play. His condition at the Tour de Romandie and the mid-week 16.5km individual time-trial (Firminy-La Roche Molière) bode well for his chances of claiming a second overall victory at the Dauphiné.
Riding within a team that put three of its members onto all three podium spots at the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya (with Thomas in third), he will enjoy the support of champions including Rohan Dennis and Michal Kwiatkowski but he may share the leader's duties with with Tao Geoghegan Hart, winner of the 2020 Giro d’Italia.
In addition to Geraint Thomas, who dominated the race before claiming the Tour de France in 2018, another former winner will be at the start: Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation), who will look to recapture the condition that led him to victory in 2013, 2015 and 2016. There are other strong climbers with undeniable TT abilities that could make the most of stage 4 to open differences, including Bora-Hansgrohe's Wilco Kelderman and his Dutch compatriot Steven Kruisjwijk (Team Jumbo-Visma).
A massive battle in the final weekend
One-week races may often be turned upside down in intermediary stages, but the final battles of the Critérium du Dauphiné should see the strongest champions emerge to the fore. After a hilly 6th stage from Loriol-sur-Drôme to Le Sapey-en-Chartreuse, capped off by an uphill finish on a 3.3km climb with an average gradient above 6%, the peloton will face two Hors-Catégorie climbs on Saturday: Col du Pré and the climb to La Plagne.
Then on Sunday 6 June, the riders tackle six ascents, including the Col de la Colombière (cat-1) and Joux-Plane (HC) before the finish in Les Gets. Only the purest climbers should shine in that gruelling sequence.
Colombians to shake the race
Many eyes turn to Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar Team) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) ahead of this climbing-packed weekend. Lopez just won the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol after a late return to competition on the Tour de Romandie (35th). Quintana won the Vuelta Asturias Julio Alvarez Mendo at the beginning of May after finishing just outside of the top 10 on his first two UCI WorldTour stage races of the season: 12th in Tirreno-Adriatico and 14th in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya.
Among the outsiders, two stage winners from 2020 have the ability to shake the race. Sepp Kuss (10th overall last year) won't be riding for Roglič this time, but he will share leading duties with Steven Kruijswijk, 3rd in the 2019 Tour de France. The young German Lennard Kämna (8th in 2020) leads Bora-Hansgrohe with Wilco Kelderman looking to show more of the exciting skills displayed last summer.
David Gaudu, France's rising star
On home soil, French climbers will also try to show the best of themselves. A few months ago, Thibaut Pinot saw the yellow jersey escape him on the final day and had to settle for second overall, behind Dani Martinez and ahead of Guillaume Martin. The French climber from Cofidis returns to the Critérium du Dauphiné in top condition, judging by his solo victory on the Mercan'Tour Classic Alpes-Maritimes at the beginning of the week.
French hopes of victory will also rest on David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), stage winner in the Itzulia Basque Country and 3rd at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Despite recently suffering a crash while training, the 24-year-old climber seems set to battle in the Alps. Will he be able to succeed Christophe Moreau, the last French winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné? That home victory now dates back 14 years...