The big mountains of the Tour de France may be over a month away, but former winners Chris Froome and Alberto Contador are already sizing each other up, trying to score psychological points and going head to head in the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Froome took first blood when he beat Contador by eight seconds to win Sunday’s opening time trial. The Spaniard was again bested on Monday’s first mountain stage, but in matching every one of Froome’s surges while the other riders were all dropped, he showed that he is close to the Briton’s level and likely to be his biggest challenger next month.
CyclingTips understands that Contador went into the race expecting to be some way off his Tour de France form, and that he is confident he will be able to step things again for the Grand Tour. Froome may also have the same intention; July will show how they square up and who has the edge then.
Both riders were a little less prominent on Tuesday’s flatter stage to La Teil, won in a bunch sprint by Nikias Arndt (Giant Shimano), and again on Wednesday’s stage to Gap, which saw Katusha’s Yury Trofimov solo in after attacking the day’s break.
Thursday was another matter, though; the parcours suggested the stage could be a relatively uneventful one in terms of the general classification contenders, but Contador showed the aggression he is known for when he raced clear on the descent of the Col de la Morte.
Attacking with more than 25 kilometres to go, he joined up with team-mate Sergio Paulinho and then gradually reeled in some of the riders who had been clear in the earlier break. Behind, Froome’s Team Sky companions chased hard to contain the attack, being conscious that just twelve seconds divided the Briton and the Spaniard in the overall standings.
Despite the chase, the latter succeeded in inflating his lead to one minute and 20 seconds, causing concern behind. However Froome and his team eventually managed to get back on terms, chipping away at the advantage and negating the threat.
Froome complemented Contador afterwards on his move, acknowledging that the Spaniard is always willing to attack. The Tinkoff Saxo rider said that it was a spur of the moment decision, and was one that was inspired as much by a willingness to have a go as it was to try to regain the time already lost.
In fact, he said that he attacked despite knowing the move was unlikely to succeed. “It was not planned at all. I saw we were going very slowly, I had a team-mate in front and quickly saw the gap opened up, so I decided to go forward,” he stated.
“It was very difficult [to stay clear]. There were 20 flat kilometers to go and I only had a chance if I got to the front of the race. I have seen that the breakaway riders were far away and I could not get up to them, so it was impossible to reach the finish [ahead of Froome].”
The Sky leader admitted that he was taken by surprise. “We didn’t expect him to attack, we were expecting him to save it for Saturday, and the climbs on that day will be a lot more telling,” he stated.
He said that he wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the move. “Either Alberto’s not so confident about the weekend, or he feels very confident and is able to attack anywhere.
“That’s what I respect about him; he does make the race entertaining and is prepared to take it up on the climbs and the descents.”
Contador said before the race start on Sunday that he wasn’t obsessed about trying to win. In fact, he said that as he has never taken victory in the event, he didn’t feel that it was necessary to do so in order to know he would be on top form for the Tour.
He continued that train of thought on Thursday, saying after the stage that he didn’t feel any pressure. Because of that, he said he was willing to fire off an attack without being preoccupied with how it worked out.
“I allowed myself to do it because I don’t have the pressure to have to try to win,” he explained. “I had fun, the stage was interesting and that is good for everyone.”
He added that the move was not inspired by any signs of weakness on the part of Sky. “I didn’t see anything,” he said. “I only saw that it was a tough day for everyone, and also for Sky who controlled the race. So I decided to try and see. When there is some movement [amongst the GC contenders – ed.], everything is also more interesting… What is important now is to recover for the weekend.”
Contador has already had a far better season than in 2013, winning two stages plus the overall classification in Tirreno Adriatico, a stage plus the overall in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and a stage in the Volta ao Algarve. He has a confidence that he lacked twelve months ago, and already knows that he is far closer to Froome than before.
“I’ve said I’m going day by day. My goal is in 22 days,” he stated. “I’ll do what I can here, but I recognize that Froome was the strongest in the two important days, in the time trial and at the summit finish. So a lot would have to change for the weekend.”
He’s certain to give it everything on Saturday and Sunday’s summit finishes; so too will Froome.
“I won’t be holding anything back there in the fear of going too deep before the Tour,” said the race leader. “Any big efforts this week are only going to help in preparation for the Tour, and the Dauphine is the perfect opportunity to test our legs and try some big moves.”
The net effect is that there could be some electrifying racing ahead, both in this event and also in the bigger race next month.