Words by William Fotheringham | Photos by CorVos/SWpix.com
It’s that time of year again, when we rush headlong from the Giro d’Italia to the Tour de France via a dizzying whirl of minor stage races. If ever there was a case for simplifying the men’s professional cycling calendar, it could be made in mid to late June. The Criterium du Dauphiné, the Tour of Switzerland, and this year the Baloise Belgium Tour and the Tour of Slovenia, not to mention the Route d’Occitanie.
Confusing though it may be – can you remember who won the fourth stage of the Dauphiné right now? – there’s still a coherent narrative, because of the centrifugal pull of the biggest race on the calendar. Everything points us there, but there’s still time for the story to develop, partly because of the confusion of it all, plus the fact that by and large the big names are either still finding form or avoiding going head to head.
In Tour de France terms, what have we learned from the last two weeks, with only 12 days remaining until it’s all too late and it’s time to put up or shut up on the Wolf’s Ditch at Landerneau?
On the up: Tadej Pogacar, winner of the Tour of Slovenia with insolent ease, continuing the triumphant trajectory which already includes the UAE Tour, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Tirreno-Adriatico.
Caleb Ewan, in dominant sprint form at the Baloise Belgium Tour, and more interestingly in terms of a challenge for the green jersey, in more than decent climbing form if his win in Friday’s tough stage is anything to go by.
Team Ineos, pretty much snaffling any stage races that “Pog” leaves over. Their collective strength won Egan Bernal the Giro, and from the form that Richie Porte, Richard Carapaz, Geraint Thomas and Tao Geogheghan Hart have shown in the Dauphiné and Switzerland, they will be queuing up to lead at the Tour.
Bahrain Victorious salvaged their Giro in spite of Mikel Landa’s crash, and the form of Mark Padun, Sonny Colbrelli and Jack Haig is promising for the Tour. Also looking good: Rigoberto Uran and the whole of EF, double stage winners in Switzerland.
Mark Cavendish was not a zillion miles behind Tim Merlier at Elfstettenronde, and while you wouldn’t put your mortgage on Patrick Lefevère choosing him for the Tour, the fact that the DQS head is even openly discussing it shows how far the Manxman has travelled since his low of last autumn.
Stable: Primoz Roglic, remember him? He’s currently in Tignes, honing his form, and will turn up at the Tour having not raced since Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It’s a risky strategy, the more so given that Jumbo-Visma have not exactly set the world alight in his absence.
Julien Alaphilippe made a planned withdrawal from the Tour of Switzerland to be with his partner Marion Rousse when she gave birth to their first child. But his form early in the Swiss Tour was more than acceptable, particularly his time trialling, which is significant given the early contre la montre in the Tour.
Mathieu van der Poel may have pulled out of Switzerland with a cold, but that smacked of caution rather than panic. The impression there was of a man testing his form before the big one. And around him, Alpecin-Fenix continue to impress, with Tim Merlier still on a winning run.
Francaise des Jeux may just have drawn the winning balls in the form lottery, with two wins in a week for Stefan Küng and Arnaud Démare meaning they can travel to the Tour with confidence, as David Gaudu is also there or thereabouts.
Cause for concern: Sam Bennett has gone missing, nursing a knee injury. He has six wins to his name this year, but the last dates back to early May. The contrast with Ewan is glaring, the more so as at Deceuninck-Quickstep, even if he starts the Tour, if Alaphilippe flies there, it’s hard for a team to challenge for stage wins and green, and defend yellow.
Also, collectively, among the French teams. Apart from FDJ, they all needed to show more in the run-in to the Tour, where the pressure will be on as always. Ben O’Connor is showing decent climbing form for Ag2R-Citroen, and Conor Swift has looked strong for Arkéa-Samsic. But that’s not a lot to cling to.
Cofidis, Total Direct Energie and Arkéa in particular will be looking over their shoulders. But they are not alone. This hasn’t been the most fruitful of early summers for DSM and Trek-Segafredo, and Assos-Qhubeka may find their three stage wins at the Giro are soon forgotten. The moral of that is that fortunes turn quickly. When July comes, how relevant are the runes we read in June? We shall soon find out.