Chris Froome heads into the start of the week-long Criterium du Dauphine on Sunday with uncertainty surrounding his form and fitness.
The 32-year-old Briton is aiming for a record fourth Dauphine victory and third in a row after also succeeding in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
And each time he has previously won the main warm-up race for the Tour de France, he has gone on to be crowned at the Grand Boucle too a month later.
Yet contrary to his recent years of successes, Froome comes into this year’s Dauphine without a single win in 2017.
But the Team Sky leader seems relaxed.
“I’m happy with where my form is right now. Everything is looking good and I’m looking forward to putting all the training into practice,” he said.
“I think the line-up of riders at the Dauphine is particularly impressive this year in terms of GC (overall) contenders and other Tour rivals, so it should be a big test and a real challenge.
“I’m going there hoping to win, but I’m fully conscious that I’m going up against some very strong competition –- probably stronger competition than I’ve had at previous editions of the Dauphine — so I’m certainly not taking anything for granted.”
And well he shouldn’t. In 2013 he arrived at the Dauphine having already won the tours of Romandie and Oman, the Criterium International and finished second at Tirreno-Adriatico.
His best result so far this year was sixth at the lightly-regarded Herald Sun Tour, won by the unheralded Australian Damien Howson.
Froome was also knocked off his bike by a car while training in France last month, although he emerged unscathed.
And he seems unconcerned by his lack of results.
“This time of the year it always feels like it’s really getting towards the business part of my season. I’m coming off the back of two great blocks of training with the guys up in Tenerife, which has got me in great shape and ready for the challenges ahead.”
Former lieutenant Richie Porte will be amongst his chief rivals, with the Australian having enjoyed a strong start to the season, winning the tours of Romandie and Down Under, while also claiming a stage at Paris-Nice.
Romain Bardet, second to Froome at last year’s Tour de France, should also push the Brit close, although he too has had little to cheer this season, a 10th-placed finish at the Tour of Catalonia his best result.
Ireland’s Dan Martin and Spanish veteran Alberto Contador, as well as Colombia’s Esteban Chaves could have their say.
The race begins with a hilly 170km stage around Saint Etienne with eight categorised climbs, before ending a week later with an hors category ascent to Plateau de Solaison. – Agence France-Presse