The true state of Alberto Contador's form has been something of an enigma thus far at the Tour de France. Although the Saxo-Tinkoff leader struggled on the first mountaintop finish at Ax 3 Domaines, he is still only 1:51 off the yellow jersey of Chris Froome (Sky) and adamant that his condition will continue to improve as the race progresses.
Long before that tough final week in the Alps, however, Wednesday's 30km time trial to Mont-Saint-Michel is something of an acid test of Contador's Tour credentials. The race of truth did not earn its moniker by chance, and a test of similar length at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné issued a harsh verdict, as Contador coughed up almost three minutes to Froome.
Saxo-Tinkoff directeur sportif Philippe Mauduit warned against drawing premature conclusions based on what happened a month ago, pointing to his team's strong showing in the Nice team time trial, where they limited their losses to Sky to just six seconds.
"Alberto will do his best and we will see the figure at the end of the day but anything we say beforehand is just speculation like many people did before the team time trial," Mauduit told Cyclingnews. "Many, many people said that we were going to lose between 20 and 40 seconds, but in the end, we lost only six."
Predictions, Mauduit reckons, are a mug's game. "Tomorrow is another time trial and there are a lot of things to take into consideration before you can make a prediction of time loss or gain but it's still speculation," he said, and then joked, "The one who can tell us today how much time we gain or lose to Froome, Valverde, Quintana or whoever, I would pay him a kilo of cherries a day for the rest of his life because I'm not able to predict it."
Contador blamed his allergies for his low-key performance at the Dauphiné but Mauduit said that the race had also come immediately after a heavy training load, which contributed to his tired showing in the time trial.
"He was working a lot before the Dauphiné and he wasn't so fresh because he was using it as a last training for the Tour," he said. "Of course, he has made a lot of progress in the time trial because he has worked a lot, both before and after the Dauphiné. It's a maybe bit different at the Tour too because the boys have one hard week in the legs, and that's also a change to the way they start the TT, so we will see."
Mauduit took a pragmatic view of Team Sky's failure to control affairs on Sunday's second Pyrenean stage but said he was quietly pleased with Saxo-Tinkoff's collective efforts to date. Roman Kreuziger lies one place ahead of Contador overall, while Michael Rogers has also provided robust support.
"It was a little bit strange because we're not used to it, but it's just human," he said of Sky's collapse on stage 9. "We're not here playing with a Playstation, these are people and sometimes it's human that they don't perform as we expect."
Saxo-Tinkoff manager Bjarne Riis, meanwhile, echoed Contador's belief that he will be at his best when the Tour enters its demanding final week, bookended by summit finishes at Mont Ventoux and Semnoz.
"I'm pretty sure about that. I think he's proved that he's always good in a long stage race and I think the last week suits him well, so he has every reason to be confident," Riis said before stage 10. "We want to win this Tour and if you want to win this Tour, you need to be good and we're happy so far."