After being put on the back foot on the opening day of Paris-Nice, the stage 4 time trial to the summit of Mont Brouilly was supposed to offer Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) a chance at redemption.
Still searching for his first win in almost a year, the Spaniard was determined to turn the tables on his rivals and restore the GC balance in his favour. He previewed the 14.5km course earlier in the day, and when he made his way to the start ramp he was the personification of concentration – he was one of the few riders to ensure he had time on the rollers right up until his roll out.
And had it not been for Julian Alaphilippe's devastating ride, Contador's plan would have succeeded, at least in terms of winning the stage. He set off with a blistering pace, cutting through the early time references set by the competition before dancing up the slopes towards an impressive time of 21:58. Only Richie Porte – who held back in the opening sector – could better him on the climb itself, but that mattered little by the time the dust settled.
At the line Contador sat, watched and recovered his breathing from his own efforts as one by one his rivals failed to dislodge him from the hot seat. Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) and Gorka Izagirre (Movistar) came mighty close, but when Alaphilippe came into view with 200 meters to go Contador knew that victory had eluded him.
The Frenchman won the stage and added another 19 seconds to the 1:12 he had over Contador at the start of the day. It was Contador's third podium of the year, but his last win – the prologue in last year's Criterium du Dauphine – is more than a distant memory.
"I rode a good time trial, but Alaphilippe was really fast, especially on the flat part before the climb up the Mont Brouilly," Contador said as he shuffled back to the Trek-Segafredo vehicle waiting for him at the top of the climb.
"Congratulations to him. Now it's time to think about tomorrow. Alaphilippe and Gallopin are the two favourites," he added with more truth to it than any element of mind games.
Alaphilippe leads the race with Gallopin tucked in at 33 seconds and Izagirre is another 14 seconds in arrears. Contador has risen up the standings to 8th at 1:31, and although more mountainous terrain lies ahead, even he knows that it will take something special to dislodge Alaphilippe and then expect the other riders ahead of him to crack. Taking the Quick-Step leader out of the equation, Contador still needs to pull back a minute on Gallopin and nearly the same on Izaguirre.
"I'm behind," he said.
"I'll see what I can do, but the truth is is that it will be very complicated. Alaphilippe is extremely talented."