With the pressure on to get everything perfect, the Criterium du Dauphine, Tour de Suisse and Route de Sud were the last chance for riders to hit out in a stage race before the Grand Depart from La Manche on 2 July.
All the talk and hypothesis will soon be irrelevant but until then here's a form guide of the riders who are in with a shot at the business end of the race.
The Big Favourites
Chris Froome (Sky)
The two-time Tour de France winner entered Criterium du Dauphine with the Herald Sun Tour his only stage race victory for the year. A number of illnesses derailed his early European races and an inconsistent Romandie performance did little to quell doubters. He will be a lot happier with his form after taking the overall Dauphine victory.
Racing clear with Richie Porte on stage 5 and taking the stage win in a sprint set up the Kenyan-born Brit well his team strongly defending against aggressive moves from Contador and Bardet when Froome looked weak. He will have to rely on his team at times again at the Tour and he does appear to have the strongest squad of any of the contenders.
He is a modern master at getting himself in shape for the Tour and each time he has won the Dauphine, he has gone on to win the Tour. The one to beat.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff)
Depending on how you count them, the Spaniard has two or three Tour de France victories. No matter how you carve it he hasn’t won in July since Sky began dominating the Tour. It’s not he has gotten worse, as he has bossed races where the Sky juggernaut has been found wanting. But his natural attacking tendencies appear well-countered by the relentless pace of the Sky train.
Contador was on some frisky attacking form at the Dauphine, launching aggressive moves before the final climbs. He was ultimately off the pace but he is rarely at peak form for the Dauphine where he has never won despite going on to win the Tour. The harder climbs at the Tour will be where Contador shines and anyone who reads his fifth at the Dauphine as a sign of weakness hasn’t seen much of the tenacious Spaniard in action.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
The quietest of the big names, Quintana is happy to take a subdued lead into the Tour, mixing an intensive high altitude preparation in his native Colombia with a low key return to racing at the Route de Sud. The diminutive Colombian has barely put a foot wrong all season, winning the Volta Catalunya, Romandie and finishing third on a Pais Vasco course that didn’t really suit his talents.
His final tune-up at Route de Sud went to plan with an overall win, but he was always going to be the unbackable favourite against the likes of Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie) and Nicholas Edet (AG2R-La Mondiale).
His Movistar team will be his main asset in his push for the win at the Tour, as they showed last year when Alejandro Valverde put it on the line on the final stage up the Alpe d’Huez to put Quintana in with a shot at victory over a fatiguing Froome. The team will need to be at their best again in July to support Quintana, who had the best form of anyone in the early season, to complete what many have tipped him to do for a long time, take a maiden Tour de France win.
Richie Porte (BMC)
The Tasmanian has been one of the best climbers in the world for years now, riding in support of Chris Froome and getting occasional opportunities to go for wins of his own. With his transfer to BMC, the objective was always the big win in July.
His early season form was consistent with strong showings in tough races at Paris-Nice and Volta Catalunya. He would have been confident going into the Dauphine as leader and he looked pretty assured as he took two second places on the hardest climbs of the race.
The problem with Porte’s Grand Tours in the past hasn’t been his climbing ability. His biggest issue is bad days in the saddle where he has lost masses of time and bad luck, like at last year’s Giro where crashes and time penalties pushed him well behind the leaders before a demoralised Porte quit the race.
At 31 years of age, he’s no spring chicken and it is time to see if the Australian superstar can really match it with the best over three weeks.
On the next level, there are a host of hopefuls who will look to break through to that next level and show they are ready to win the Tour.
Leading these contenders are a group of Frenchmen who will be trying to be the first since 1985 to stand atop the podium on the Champs-Elysees.
Romain Bardet (AG2R-Mondiale)
Bardet is an attacking style rider who was on the offensive at the Criterium du Dauphine, where he vaulted into second overall with a long range move. If an outsider is to win, it will likely be from such a move and the verve of Bardet racing is something that would be great to see up the top of the general classification.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ)
Pinot already has a third place at the 2014 Tour de France, albeit in a year where seemingly half the contenders for yellow crashed out early. His season to date had looked consistent up until the Dauphine, where he fell well behind early, before rebounding with a stage win after sitting on Bardet’s wheel up the final climb. His inconsistencies have hurt him in the past, along with weaknesses in time-trialing and descending, which he’ll have to remedy if he wants to mix it with the best.
Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin)
Barguil makes it a trio of young Frenchmen from different teams trying to break into the top echelon of contenders. Barguil is a bit more versatile than your average climber, he had a string of impressive Ardennes classics performances this season but apart from that he hasn’t had many race days in his preparation for the Tour. An impressive showing in the key mountain stages of the Tour de Suisse netted him third overall there and he could use that form to propel himself into a position where he can challenge for a top 5 position and the white jersey.
Tejay Van Garderen (BMC)
Van Garderen will co-lead the team with Porte and the speculation all season about how well the two will combine comes to the Tour crunch. They have only raced together once since Porte signed on, at the Volta Catalunya where van Garderen placed fifth overall and Porte fourth. The American contender was again split from Porte in the final race before the Tour de France, heading to a very tough edition of the Tour de Suisse where he lost a lot of time in icy conditions. He rebounded to victory in the queen stage up one of Europe’s toughest climbs, the Rettenbachferner. After withdrawing from the Tour last year with illness when sitting second overall, he’ll be very keen to show he has what it takes.
Fabio Aru (Astana)
Aru is rarely good apart from the exact moment he needs to be so there won’t be any panic in the Astana camp over the Vuelta winner’s form at the moment. His Dauphine performance had many scratching their heads after a daring Nibali-esque escape saw him hold a gap of mere seconds down a twisting descent to take a memorable solo win. Other favourites expressed their surprise at how weak he was on the climbs and certainly his 45th overall for the race bears that out. It is worth noting his Grand Tour performances in the past bear little relation to his form leading in, so Aru could well be one of the best in July.
Geraint Thomas (Sky), Daniel Martin (Etixx-QuickStep), Pierre Rolland, Andrew Talansky (both Cannondale), Wilco Kelderman, Robert Gesink (both Lotto NL-Jumbo), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data) all impressed at various stages in either the Tour de Suisse or the Criterium du Dauphine and have shown their credentials for top general classification finishes in the past at Grand Tours. One who didn’t impress was Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), but he very rarely does in the Dauphine and particularly this season he may have pushed his peak form even later with the Olympics course looking to suit him nicely.
Julien Alaphillipe (Etixx-QuickStep), Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge), Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data) fought out a very tight battle for the white jersey at the Dauphine. Along with Warren Barguil, they will all have ambitions for that jersey again at the Tour, in what might be one of the most competitive battles for the young rider’s classification in recent years. They have all looked in superb touch and as younger stars of the sport they will be keen to show that they have the potential to be Grand Tour winners in the future and can justify a team to spend the money building a squad around supporting their goals. Throwing his hat into the ring for this jersey as well is Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) who won a topsy-turvy edition of the Tour de Suisse in the end. At just 22 years of age, he is yet another Colombian star of the sport and it will interesting to see if Astana opt to rush him into their Tour line-up after his win in Switzerland.
If the appetiser lead-up races are any indication, we're in for a cracking 2016 Tour de France. Clear favourite status must go to the riders who have performed well at the Tour in the past, but Dauphine and Tour de Suisse have shown the next level of riders are not far off challenging for the win.