Words by Peter Cossins | Photo: CorVos/SWpix.com
The end of the Critérium du Dauphiné moves us ever closer to the Tour de France, but before looking ahead let’s look back at what is sure to be remembered as one of the best races of the year come the end of the 2021 season.
I ’ve always had a soft spot for the Dauphiné, a race that rarely concerns itself with having much a prelude to the mountains, usually opting to direct those taking part towards short and steep hills from the off, then steadily lengthening the extent of the climbing over each consecutive stage. It eventually reaches a final day when the riders predict “all kinds of chaos” and that “anything could happen” because no one team has got the energy to impose any kind of control. This year’s edition followed this template precisely – well, until the last day, that is.
Since 2016, the race has ranged well beyond the Dauphiné region that largely encompassed the modern-day departments of Isère, Drôme and Hautes-Alpes in an ever-widening search for towns willing to pay to host its starts and finishes. In 2019, the broadening of the Dauphiné’s scope was officialised with the introduction of the sub-title “Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes”, which has resulted in the early stages taking place in the rolls and ravines of the Massif Central rather than the foothills of the Alps. Purists may not like this development, but it’s enabled the race to survive and it hasn’t affected the spectacle a jot.
The first couple of stages illustrated this perfectly. On the opening day, second-year Belgian pro Brent Van Moer announced himself to his peers and the rest of the cycling world with a solo performance of staggering power and panache. The last surviving member of the escape group, the Lotto Soudal youngster held off a very fast-moving bunch to win on a tough finishing circuit in Issoire.
Day two ran to a similar pattern, with Bora’s Lukas Pöstlberger playing the Van Moer role to perfection as he held off the bunch on the tough final climb, then descended like a demon into the finish at Saugues, where Sonny Colbrelli was runner-up for the second day in a row. Mention should also be made of the beautiful terrain in and around the Allier river valley, which provided a magnificent reminder that France can still surprise even the most seasoned race-goer.
On day three, Colbrelli, described by B&B Hotels climber Pierre Rolland as being “fort comme une vache”, or as strong as an ox, lived up to that billing by barrelling away from his rivals up the sharp drag into Saint-Haon-le-Vieux to take the stage win that always seemed to be coming. Just as memorable, though, was the sight of Fabio Jakobsen battling for position in the final kilometres as he contested his first bunch sprint since that awful crash in Poland last year. Although the Dutchman didn’t have the legs to sustain his effort in the final kilometre, he looked radiant at the finish having felt the buzz of adrenalin that a bunch gallop always brings.
I’m not usually keen on a time trial, but the Dauphiné’s test between Firminy and Roche-la-Molière was thrilling because it was so unpredictable. I can’t remember who it was that said at the finish that they weren’t sure what kind of rider it suited (Richie Porte?), as the 16.4km test where there was never any more than 400m of straight road before the next bend, descent or, towards the finish, sharp ramp defied almost everyone’s attempt to get the pacing right.
No one was caught out more obviously by it than Geraint Thomas, the quickest by seven seconds at the first checkpoint, but only good enough for 10th on the line, a place behind Pöstlberger, who lay flat out on the road for some time after a courageous ride that enabled him to retain the lead by one second. Thomas responded the very next day, though, attacking on the exit of a close to 360-degree corner a kilometre from the line in Saint-Vallier and then just resisting the ox-like Colbrelli’s final burst of power and speed.
The first stage in the Dauphiné region produced that rarest of things, a day when Movistar’s riders collaborated perfectly and out-thought their rivals to set up Alejandro Valverde for his first stage win at the race since 2008. This augured well for the final weekend, pitching the Spanish team against Ineos, with Astana, AG2R and Bora very much in the contest too with two contenders each.
The first and toughest of the final two stages took the race to La Plagne, once a regular feature on the Tour de France route but not visited since 2002. The return was memorable, firstly for Mark Padun’s completely unexpected victory, the Ukrainian jack-hammering the pedals as if on a butcher’s bike but with very impressive effect. Behind him, the battle between the GC contenders was drawn-out, engrossing and eventually concluded with Richie Porte emerging as the strongest. He’d only been in the leader’s yellow and blue jersey for a few minutes when he was being reminded by the press of his fate in 2017, when he led into the Dauphiné’s final day only to be harried, ambushed and almost broken by defeat right at the last.
“Expect chaos” was the GC contenders’ forecast for the concluding stage to Les Gets. Instead, it delivered what was close to a rerun of the La Plagne stage, Padun winning again, this time from the breakaway, and Porte relatively untroubled as Ineos controlled his rivals perfectly. Thirty-six years on from the only previous victory by an Australian in the Dauphiné, Phil Anderson’s 1985 success, 36-year-old Porte claimed what had hitherto been an elusive title.
Looking ahead to the Tour, the Dauphiné suggested that Ineos will be the team to beat. Victorious at Catalunya, Romandie, the Giro and the Dauphiné, their meltdown in this race last year now looks like an aberration. Thomas is a genuine Tour contender again, while Porte and Tao Geoghegan Hart look unflappably strong. Astana, Movistar, Bora, AG2R and Bahrain will be buoyed by their performances too.
On the other hand, UAE Team Emirates’ hopes of helping Tadej Pogaçar defend the Tour title took a significant knock. In the Slovenian’s absence, Brandon McNulty slumped, apparently affected by his return from training at altitude in the US, and the rest of the team were anonymous. Jumbo-Visma, who were also missing their Slovenian talisman in Primož Roglič, also struggled, Steven Kruiswijk their highest finisher in 15th place. Both of these teams will have to improve significantly if they want to match Ineos.
But the final word should go to the Dauphiné, which once again served up a week of enthralling racing, mostly free of the shackles that will come on at the Tour. For that it should truly be cherished.