The 71st Critérium du Dauphiné in France follows the D-Day commemorations on the 6th June, 75 years after the Allied forces invaded continental Western Europe with beach landings in Normandy. The bike race is also a by-product of the liberation that marked the end of World War II.
The event began in 1947 as Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré – “liberated” was a tagline for several newspapers after the war, including Le Parisien Libéré that was a co-organiser of the Tour de France along with sports daily L’Équipe. They had to change their name as their predecessors were accused of having sympathised with the Nazis (L’Équipe took over from L’Auto). “The free newspaper of the free men” was the headline of the first issue of the Dauphiné Libéré on 7 September 1945.
Georges Cazeneuve, one of the seven founders of the paper - who were all resistance fighters - created the race, which preceded the first post-WWII Tour de France. It ran from Grenoble to Grenoble, through Vienne, Annecy, Geneva (in Switzerland) and Annemasse, from June 12 to 16, 1947. Stage 3b solo winner was Emile Baffert. On 11 November 1943, he had taken part in a public protest against the German occupation of Grenoble. He was arrested and sent to a prisoners’ camp along with fellow cyclist Bernard Gauthier in February 1944 but they jumped out of the train before it reached Germany. They raced together for many years. Baffert won the conclusive stage of the 1950 Tour de France in Paris after Gauthier wore the yellow jersey for seven days. Gauthier became famous after he won the 600km long Bordeaux-Paris four times. Baffert and Gauthier died in their 90s, in 2017 and 2018 respectively, both in Grenoble.
Thierry Cazeneuve, Georges’ nephew, organised the Critérium du Dauphiné for 21 years until the event was taken over by Tour de France promoters ASO in 2010. The spirit remains, with the race regularly visiting historical sites of the resistance such as the Vercors where Julian Alaphilippe won stage 4 last year. The Dauphiné is a rehearsal for the Tour de France, with elements of the Grande Boucle concentrated into one week.
“There’s always a very high standard of competition,” said three times winner Chris Froome on the eve of stage 1 in Aurillac where the race took an unprecedented start, away from its roots in the Alps. “It’s a great platform to be able to test yourself against your rivals. It’s a very different race than the Tour de France because you don’t have the same kind of pressure on your shoulders. You can take more of a risk and try attacking if you feel good and maybe further out than normally.”
It is, indeed, a race of free men. A Tour de France domestique like AG2R-La Mondiale’s Oliver Naesen gave it his all in trying to win stage 1 this year rather than staying in the bunch at the service of Romain Bardet. Alaphilippe and Tom Dumoulin made no calculation of their efforts as they rode away and pedalled hard until they had nothing left in the tank on the demanding – though not mountainous – course of stage 2. The Dauphiné is the race in which top contenders are prepared to risk losing for the sake of possibly winning big. And even if the attacking racing doesn’t work, it’s an investment for building up great shape ahead of July.
The winners of the past 13 Tours de France have all ridden the Dauphiné the month before, with the exception of Andy Schleck in 2010. But that year, Alberto Contador who received the yellow jersey in Paris before being disqualified, had finished second overall in the Alpine race and won stage 7 to l’Alpe d’Huez.
It has become a British specialty to win the Dauphiné and then the Tour: Bradley Wiggins in 2012, Froome in 2013, 2015 and 2016, and Geraint Thomas in 2018. But it’s by no means all controlled by Team Sky (now Team Ineos). In 2014, for instance, Froome was leading from day one but lost the yellow-blue jersey on the penultimate day to Contador who, himself, lost the race on the last day to Andrew Talansky. In 2017, as Richie Porte was first on GC in the morning of the conclusive stage, Jakob Fuglsang dethroned him up the last climb to Plateau de Solaison with a difference of 10 seconds – equivalent to the time bonus awarded to the stage winner. That day, Froome made the life of his former Team Sky team-mate very difficult.
That’s what the Critérium du Dauphiné is all about: being free to ride your own race with no ulterior motive.