Alberto Contador (Saxo - Tinkoff) may have had a disappointing individual time trial and seen Chris Froome (Sky) distance him in the mountains but the Spanish grand tour specialist was a picture of calm when Cyclingnews caught up with him after stage 5 of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
"When you're here in the race you want to win but the plan that I put in motion two months ago is still the plan that I've got at the moment, so I'm where I want to be. Okay, when I'm in race I want to go as quickly as I can, but at the moment the plan is going well," he told Cyclingnews when we sat down with him at the team hotel atop Montée de Valmorel.
Froome has looked in imperious form so far in the Dauphiné and his stage win on Thursday saw him move into the race lead for the first time. While the Sky leader has tallied up wins through the season, Contador has enjoyed a steady but less spectacular start to the season. He was runner up to Froome at the Tour of Oman earlier this year and again finished one place behind him at Tirreno Adriatico.
"At this moment in time Froome is strong," Contador says. "He's solid in the time trials and in the mountains and this year he's having an incredible season. At the moment he's the strongest guy in the Dauphiné. There's not much more I can say about it."
Froome's strength, plus that of his team, has seen him move into the position of outright favourite for this year's Tour de France. However, unlike Contador Froome has yet to win a grand tour, his best results coming in the Vuelta in 2011 and Tour last year where he was second in both events.
"I don't think that's a big problem for him. He's made a lot of good impressions in races this year with what's been happening at Sky but when the team have been working for him he's always been there for the win. Yes, the Tour is the Tour, it's different and there's a different pressure but he's a strong rider, in the head and in the legs."
Froome's biggest obstacle so far this season appears to have been in asserting his dominance at Sky. The moment Bradley Wiggins dared to mention a possible Giro/Tour double saw Froome release a statement outside of the Sky's media arm reaffirming that he would be the team's Tour leader. It may be a moot point now given that Wiggins will be at home in July nursing an injured knee, but Contador knows all about internal team battles for supremacy and how they can drain a athlete mentally during a season.
In 2009 Contador was forced to compete against teammate Lance Armstrong and the Astana management all the way up to his successful Tour de France ride. There were comments in the press, even moments on the road when he appeared isolated from his teammates.
"I can read the press like everyone else but at the end of the day only Wiggins and Froome know the real situation. For me the most important thing is that I concentrate on myself and my own condition.
"In my case it was a big motivation to work ever harder. Okay you can go in that direction or you can lose lots of energy but I'm sure it's just made Froome more motivated."
Contador's team now is a world apart from the fractious one that took on the Tour in 2009. His current manager Bjarne Riis strengthened the team with substantial firepower this winter with Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers and Nicholas Roche all joining the Danish team. Daniel Navarro left for Cofidis but all-in-all the team is far stronger on paper. Is this Contador's strongest ever team?
"Maybe, maybe. In 2009 the Astana team was incredible and strong but maybe the difference here is that the team has a clear direction on what we want in the race. I have a lot of confidence in this team and maybe it is the strongest team I've ever had in my life."
Cyclingnews understands that Saxo Bank looked at a number Sky's domestiques in the off season as possible targets and landed Rogers late in the year. The beefed-up squad will be looking to take Sky on during the Tour and break the team's domination that at times suffocated the race last year.
Circumstances, rather than just tactics, should help play a part in that. The route is more mountainous and Sky will almost certainly race differently given that Froome is a rider with different characteristics to Wiggins. On top of that this year's Tour promises to have more aggressive racing due to the list of climbers lining up. Contador will be joined by Joaquím Rodríguez, an improved Alejandro Valverde and Andy Schleck.
"Of course I hope it's going to be different to the outcome last year. I think it will be different though simply because of the more mountainous route. Also there are more climbers in the race, like you said, and these riders like to attack."
Schleck's form is still an unknown. Although the RadioShack rider looked an improved rider at the recent Tour of California he has done little this year to suggest that he as regained top form after a serious injury in 2012.
"I really don't know what he can do at the Tour," says Contador.
"I saw him racing at the Tour of California and he was there in a break one day. I think it's important to see what level he can reach at the Tour de Suisse and then we can talk more but at the moment I just don't know. He's a rider with a lot of class though so anything is possible."
Anything is possible and writing off Contador at this stage, as every one of his rivals makes clear, is a foolish move. Finally, he's asked what it would mean to win his first Tour de France since 2009, or is it 2010?
"It was 2010, of course. For me this Tour is 100 per cent mine. It might not say so in the books but what's more important to me is how I feel about it, and how others close to me feel about it."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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