What did we learn from the Criterium du Dauphine 2014?

The Critérium du Dauphiné has long been an important race in the lead up to the Tour de France; for the riders it’s a chance to test their legs and size each other up, and for the fans it’s the first chance to gauge the form of their favourite riders in the run up to the main event.

The man who wins the Dauphiné won’t necessarily win the Tour de France – for many, it is a preparation race, after all -  but the winners of the previous two editions (Wiggins in 2012, Froome in 2013) have indeed found themselves heading for Paris at the end of July with champagne glass in hand.

During these eight days in southern France a rider can’t win the Tour de France, but it’s fair to say they can go a long way to losing it - psychologically if nothing else.

So, with the 2014 edition of the Dauphiné wrapped up and the Tour de France in mind, what have we learnt?

On his day, Froome still looks like the man to beat. Just.

By the end of stage 2, after two wins in two days, the casual observer may have had the distinct impression that barring major mishap, Chris Froome was a nailed on certaintly to win the Dauphiné, the Tour de France, and anything else he chose to turn up at.

On the final climb up the Col du Beal on stage 2 (having already won the short time trial on stage 1), and with the field whittled down to just three, Froome attacked with real aggression and intent. Dutchman Wilko Kelderman was dropped, leaving Froome and Contador to go head to head, with the Sky rider looking like a man intent on landing a psychological blow to his Tour rival. The Spaniard clung on gamely, but painfully, and Froome took the win.

Although Contador clung on to Froome’s wheel right to line that was what he was doing: clinging. The Spaniard looks a cut above the rider he has been for the past few years, but on a level playing field Froome still looks the man to beat.

Contador can beat Froome

The next installment of Contador v Froome came on stage 5 with Contador engaging in guerilla tactics; attacking on the penultimate descent of the day.  Nothing decisive, just a nudge in Froome’s ribs to remind him he’s still around.

And then, two days later, with Froome apparently suffering from the effects of a crash on stage 6, Contador pushed himself to his limit in attacking boldly on the summit finish at Emossan. Froome tried to respond but Contador was gone, twenty seconds down the road, and into the overall race lead. Perhaps Froome’s crash injuries played their part but a win is a win, and it was Contador’s turn to deal a psychological blow.

Making predictions is a tricky business

With Contador in yellow, anyone who knows anything was predicting that the final stage would be a battle royale between the Spaniard and Froome for the overall win. But predictions are a tricky business.

In a chaotic final stage it was Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky who gained enough time to take a remarkable overall race win. After finding the right breakaway he gained time on the two main protaganists - a clearly struggling Chris Froome (perhaps a legacy of his crash on stage 6) and an Alberto Contador with a serious lack of teammates to help him - and found himself topping the podium and scarcely able to believe what had just happened.

Talansky rode well all week and took his chance when it came to become the winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné 2014, but nobody saw that coming.

 Wilko Kelderman looks to have a big future

Wilko Kelderman rode like the future star many wise observers have him down to be. Following up his 7th place finish at the Giro D’Italia in May, the Dutch rider from the Belkin team took the young rider classification at this race, and finished 4th overall ahead of seasoned racers like Tejay Van Garderen, Vincenzo Nibali, and a somewhat ailing Chris Froome. Not bad for a 23 year old.

Katusha like a breakaway

On stage 4 Yuri Trofimov attacked on the final climb of the Col de Manse before careering down the descent into the town of Gap to take the win. The next day, stage 5, his teammate Simon Spilak attacked on the final climb up the Col de Laffrey and stayed clear to claim victory. Trofimov has since announced that he fancies a Tour de France stage win.

Judging by their apparent ability to head up the road alone and sniff out victory, any other riders with one eye on a Tour stage win this year might be well advised to find the nearest wheel of a Katusha rider and stick to it like glue.

Wiggins won’t ride the Tour de France (or will he?)

We also learnt that, by virtue of his non-attendance and some seemingly off-the-cuff public statements, Bradley Wiggins is not a member of ‘Team Froome’ and so will not ride the Tour de France this year. Didn’t we?

Could it be that the apparent animosity between Froome and Wiggins and the corresponding worldwide press, the global trending on social media, the boost in book sales, and the general wall to wall coverage of all things Team Sky is part of a grand publicity plan? Look this space!