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by Shane Stokes
June 15, 2014
Exactly three weeks before the start of the Tour de France, Alberto Contador sent the clearest signal yet to defending champion Chris Froome and the other contenders that he means business this year.
The Spaniard rode impressively on the final climb of stage seven to Finaut-Émosson, sitting on race leader Froome’s wheel while the Briton’s Sky team-mates set the pace and burned off most of the bunch, then attacking hard in the finale and swiftly opening a gap.
Leaping clear inside the final two kilometres, he drove hard towards the line and fended off a late chase by Froome. The Sky rider had been injured in a crash on stage six and while he looked to be the second-strongest on the final climb, he ran out of steam in his chase and was caught and passed by Garmin-Sharp duo Andrew Talansky and Ryder Hesjedal.
Contador finished fourth on the stage, with three breakaway riders having enough of a buffer on the final climb to fight it out for the win. Katusha duo Yuri Trofimov and Egor Silin had looked set to finish first and second on the stage, but Astana’s Lieuwe Westra caught them inside the final kilometre and jumped past for the win.
Trofimov finished seven seconds back, nine seconds ahead of Silin. Contador was one minute 33 seconds back; Talansky was at one minute 51, with Hesjedal and Froome a further two seconds adrift.
Contador has been in winning form all season and was already a concern to Team Sky. The stage seven display further reinforces that and if he successfully defends his new eight second lead over Froome on Sunday’s final stage, he will gain a valuable psychological advantage in advance of the Tour.
“Today’s result gives me confidence and peace of mind, especially about the work I’m doing,” he said afterwards. “This shows me that to be focused 100% on the bike works and I’m on the right track, but there are still twenty days to reach the first big goal of the year, the Tour de France.”
The Spaniard stated before the race that he was aiming to ride well, but not obsessed about winning. He pointed out that he had never won the race before, yet went on to take the Tour; he reasoned that if he was strongest in the Dauphiné, that he might wonder if he was too good, too soon.
What’s worth noting is that he almost always downplays expectations before major races. In addition to that, he believes that he still has more in the tank, with further improvements possible between now and July.
“Before coming here I was not thinking about winning the race. I was expecting only a good peak of form, but not thinking about victory,” he said. “Now I’m in yellow, but that does not change anything. Tomorrow is also a very difficult stage.
“The most important thing is that legs are better every day. I recover well and that my preparation is going well. Today Froome was behind me, but here every day is different.”
Froome slipped back to second place and saw the Maillot Jaune pass to his main rival for the Tour. “Obviously I’m disappointed to lose the yellow jersey, but in the same breath, I think we can take a lot away from today,” he said, looking for the silver lining. “It was such a strong team performance.”
His Team Sky squad were indeed riding strongly on the final climb, lining out the bunch and shedding riders off the back. Richie Porte seemed back in solid form after the disappointment of day two, showing that he should be on course for a good Tour de France.
Froome looked uncomfortable on the climb, although his style is often deceptive. What was more telling was that he lost a length to his team-mates at one point when they accelerated, showing that he was not that sharp. He explained that his fall on Friday likely affected him on stage seven.
“I took a bit of a knock yesterday in the crash and lost a bit of energy because of that,” he stated. “I felt a bit blocked through my thighs, especially where I landed yesterday, but I’m not going to let that get me down.”
“I think it’s normal that I was a little bit off and Alberto rode a fantastic race, so respect to him. He took the race on when it was at its hardest, and he’s got the jersey to show for it.”
Froome will hope to be stronger on stage eight and knows that if he is, the course will give him opportunity to try to get time back. He will be conscious that he was unable to drop Contador on stage two, however, and so it is by no means certain if he can still win this race.
Even if he doesn’t, other Tour de France contenders have a lot more to be worried about; many of them lost time today, although Talansky put in a very impressive ride.
Those who wilted included Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who dropped 38 seconds to Contador, Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol), who lost 51 seconds, and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team), who cracked early on the final climb and conceded three minutes 34 seconds to the Spaniard.
He said before the race that he was aiming to be at a very high level, but things haven’t worked out at all; he is 20th overall, five minutes 44 seconds behind new race leader Contador.
Van Garderen had promised to keep fighting after he lost time on stage two. “I was hoping to stay with the leaders longer,” he said after Saturday’s race. “I guess I will just have to take a step back and get a little perspective knowing I had an injury and it has taken me a little bit longer to come back to my same level than I thought.
“I just have to stay patient, stay confident and stay the course. I really believe that in July this will be behind me and I will be able to be right up there fighting for a good GC place.”
Contador, though, is already in a good place. He said that his improved form this season is partially due to his decision to mimic the preparation of Froome in going to altitude camps in Teide, Tenerife.
“Everyone always tries to optimize the results. Until now I did not need to go in altitude because I got good results and won some big tours,” he stated. “I always said that when I saw that I could not, then it’s time to change. This year I took that step and things have worked well.”
He acknowledged that Froome is still stronger than him against the clock, but said he has reason to believe that this might not be a factor in the Tour de France.
“Froome is stronger than me at time trial, but what gives me confidence is that the time trial of the next Tour will be on the penultimate day. Then the result depends a lot on how you finish the Tour. He will have some benefit, but there is a lot of ground before. The last time trial of a Grand Tour is always something different.”
Froome won the Critérium du Dauphiné last year and would dearly love to do so again, reassuring himself that he is on course for a second Tour win. He praised his team-mates and said that he believes his team is in ‘a really good position’ in advance of next month’s race. Whether or not he wins overall on Sunday, he said that there are already reasons to be satisfied.
“It’s been a good week for us – two stage wins, six days and yellow and I’m still top of the points classification. We’ve got some really good things out of this week, even if we don’t end up with the leader’s jersey.”
He vowed to go down swinging. “There’s only eight seconds to make up on the hill-top finish tomorrow. The big thing for me will be to see how my legs are, and how my body is feeling. It’s never over until it’s over.”