A shortened, five-day Critérium du Dauphiné gets under way in Clermont Ferrand, France, on Wednesday, and recent Milan-San Remo runner-up Julian Alaphilippe will lead a strong Deceuninck-QuickStep squad there as he begins his final run-in towards this year's Tour de France.
The race was rescheduled from its original May 31-June 7 calendar slot and shortened from eight days due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the traditional Tour de France build-up race is nevertheless unlikely to be diminished as the sport's biggest stars line up there to continue to get as much climbing into their legs as possible.
"The Dauphiné is the best preparation for the Tour de France. It will be a special edition with many hard stages, but that doesn't scare me, and I would love to win a stage again, like last year," said Alaphilippe last month when revealing his revised race programme.
In 2019, the 28-year-old Frenchman finished the Dauphiné with both a stage victory and the polka-dot jersey as the race's best climber, and he'll be looking to come away with at least a similar haul with the help of teammates James Knox, Rémi Cavagna, Bob Jungels, Kasper Asgreen, Tim Declercq and neo-pro Mauri Vansevenant.
Knox, Jungels, Cavagna and Asgreen should be of particular help on the climbs, with Declercq and Vansevenant ready to help out elsewhere as the team throws everything at Alaphilippe in the hope of him again being able to light up the upcoming Tour de France, just as he did last year with two weeks in the yellow jersey and fifth place overall.
Second place behind Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) at Milan-San Remo on Saturday proved that his form is heading in the right direction, too.
If fans have enjoyed this past week of competition, with the Tour de Pologne, Tour de l'Ain and Milan-San Remo running concurrently and producing some excellent racing, the Dauphiné could yet kick things up another notch as the likes of GC hopefuls Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Mikel Landa (Bahrain McLaren), UAE Team Emirates' Tadej Pogacar, Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Rigoberto Uran (EF Pro Cycling) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) come together in one place, while Tour de l'Ain winner Primoz Roglic and Jumbo-Visma teammates Steven Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin are expected do battle once more with Egan Bernal, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas of Team Ineos.
It's a truly star-studded race, and there's barely a sprinter in sight – Israel Start-Up Nation's André Greipel and Bora-Hansgrohe's Peter Sagan proving to be two of few exceptions – as the mountain men take on some tough climbing to hone their form for the Tour. Those non-climbers like Sagan and Greipel will be looking to get some climbing in their legs in order to try to get through the Tour and be competitive for the green jersey in Paris.
Along with Alaphilippe, Jungels and Asgreen are likely to feature in Deceuninck-QuickStep's final Tour squad, but it should function as somewhat of a dress rehearsal for Alaphilippe, at least, for the Tour, even though the Dauphiné climbing stages are considerably shorter than many of the mountain stages the riders will face in September.
"The Dauphiné will be a very hard race – maybe one of the toughest of this season: five stages, five uphill finishes, and with four of these stages being quite short, it means it will be full gas from the start," Deceuninck-QuickStep sports director Tom Steels said in a press release on Sunday.
"The weekend [stages 4 and 5] will be particularly hard, with each of the two days packing in some 4,000 vertical metres, which could lead to some big gaps in the standings," he said. "We have a strong team and we hope for a stage win, but also for the riders to come out of the race with a good condition and feeling."
Deceuninck-QuickStep for the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné: Julian Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen, Rémi Cavagna, Tim Declercq, Bob Jungels, James Knox, Mauri Vansevenant