The battle between Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky) on stage two of the Critérium du Dauphiné creates more questions than it possibly answers but one certainty is that the Spaniard is set to push the defending champion far closer both in this race and the Tour de France than he did last year.
In last year’s Tour, where Chris Froome consistently dominated Contador, it looked as though the Spaniard had lost his sparkle. An almost winless season, a weak showing at the Tour de France and the ascendancy of Froome all looked set to signal the end of Contador’s stage racing dominance. For whatever reason, he had gone backwards, while a handful of the pack had not just caught up but surpassed him too.
However, this year Contador has regained something close his best form. He won Tirreno-Adriatico with a near faultless display but with Froome absent from that race, the Dauphiné’s importance is magnified. On the slopes of the Col du Béal, the final climb of stage 2 of the Dauphiné, the pair crossed swords once more.
Team Sky had set the pace for the majority of the stage and despite sweltering heat they still had strength in numbers as they tackled the lower slopes of the Béal. The early loss of Richie Porte – who is still finding his way towards top form – was the only blemish up that point as the black and blue train set their trajectory and honed in on the summit.
When Froome’s last man Mikel Nieve peeled off, the Tour de France champion unleashed the first of several punishing attacks. It was like the Tour all over again, with Contador the only rider able to match the initial acceleration. He’d done the same on the slopes of the Ventoux in 2013 before cracking horribly after a second attack from Froome but this time he kept pace for a second time and every time the Sky leader jumped, Contador hung onto his wheel.
Contador was unable to come through and take the win, finishing second and in the same time as Froome, but the Spaniard was certainly pleased with the progress he has made since their last major clash on French soil at last year’s Tour.
“Today was hard with a high tempo all day and some difficult roads as well but that’s okay because this was really good training for next month and the Tour. That’s why we’re here, no? Of course if we could have taken a stage win today we would but at the moment Chris is very strong so congrats to him. Now we’ll take it day by day and we’ll see how it goes in the final,” Contador told Cyclingnews at the summit, as he leant against the railings.
Contador remains in second place overall but dropped four more seconds in bonuses to trail Froome by 12 seconds after two stages. There will certainly be tougher tests ahead in this year’s Dauphiné, with the race set to come down to two crucial days on the final weekend. Today, Contador appeared only concerned with matching Froome and with a mechanical problem to contend with, he never strayed from the Briton’s wheel, even when others attacked.
“The last kilometre was the hardest but the climb was okay. I want to take it day by day. There was a small problem with my bike when I was climbing out of the saddle but I’m very happy with the last two days and I think the coming days will be even better.”