By Jean-François Quénet in Saint-Etienne
Paris-Nice is like a boxing game: Sylvain Chavanel and Alberto Contador fight each other every day. Each has marked his respective territories. Chavanel, the Frenchman likes the flat stages and crosswinds, while Contador the Spaniard prefers the time trial and climbs. Like a true champion, former Tour de France winner Contador responded to his challenger on stage four with 8.5km to go on the col de la Rochetaillée.
"Alberto and his whole team were huff after what happened the day before," said Astana's directeur sportif Alain Gallopin. "His attack was not planned at all, but Alberto likes to follow his instinct and make a spectacle. In one kilometre he is able to create a big gap, but he has to learn how to spare some energy. He learns from his mistakes. He's the kind of rider who needs to be given some freedom to attack when he feels like it."
"I only wanted to test Chavanel," said Contador after finishing in Saint-Etienne. "When I realized he was not able to react, I decided to keep going. At the end, there wasn't a big difference (27 seconds - ed.) but psychologically, it can have an impact. For me, it's positive. It shows there is room for winning Paris-Nice."
"The race is far from over," said Gallopin. "It's better for Alberto to have less than 40 seconds deficit on Chavanel than to have more than a minute. The Montagne de Lure is long but less steep than the Mont Serein we did last year. With the condition he has, Chavanel can limit the damage up there."
The day after his tour de force, Chavanel was tired. Looking at his heart rate monitor, he acknowledged he had an average of 150 beats per minute during the four hours of racing. "When Contador attacked, I was well positioned but I realized I wasn't going so well," said Chavanel.
"I'm happy to keep the yellow jersey. With 1:03 over Contador, I knew I had a certain margin but I was more worried about Garate." If fact, Rabobank's Spanish recruit came closer to Chavanel on the GC. He sits at six seconds going into stage five.
"I won't give up, but I shouldn't daydream," Chavanel said. "Above all, I'd like to win another stage." This year's stage four was unlike last year's when Chavanel lost his GC lead; however, he acknowledged that his overall chances of winning are slimmer.
"It was a day that turned better than I'd expected," said Contador. "I managed to surprise Chavanel and take a few seconds."
The Frenchman reckoned he wouldn't be able to keep the duel going during stage five. "I'll hide in the bunch and prepare for the big day on Friday," he said. "But the whole bunch is tired and afraid of this stage in the Ardèche with seven climbs," said Gallopin who is happy with his protégé's attitude.
"Alberto is motivated like a beginner. I'd like him to win Paris-Nice and keep quiet after that until the Tour de France."
"I have my options," said Contador after reflecting on the upcoming terrain. "I'll try again," he promised.