Wednesday’s individual time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné saw a familiar name at the top of the results sheet, with Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) reconfirming his status as the enforcer against the clock and remaining unbeaten in six time-trial starts this season. The man to come up short in the stage 4 test? Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff).
Chris Froome (Sky) also appeared near the top, where he was expected to be, with third, 51 ticks of the second hand behind Martin.
Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp) was also exceptional, confirming his young talent with a second-place ride to snatch the leader’s jersey. All heady stuff for the top finishers.
One name that was expected to have been near the top — Contador’s — wasn’t there. Not even close. To find Contador’s name, one had to scroll down, down and further down the results, all the way to 61st, 3:37 back.
Contador’s TT ride, perhaps one of the worst of his career, had everyone scratching their heads. Froome was no exception.
“I am not sure what Contador’s strategy is,” the ever-polite Froome offered on French TV. “Maybe he’s saving for the mountains.”
With the start of the Tour de France just weeks away, Froome is clearly flying on good form and is not only poised to win the Dauphiné, but will carry critical momentum into the season’s major goal.
Other Tour favorites also fell flat in an important litmus test, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) all more than three minutes off Martin’s time.
But all eyes are on Contador, especially in a Dauphiné hyped as a showdown between the Spanish “pistolero” and prince-in-waiting Froome. Contador downplayed his ride, admitting he didn’t feel good right from the gun and just tried to get through the stage as best as possible. Heavy pollen, after Europe’s wettest and coldest winter, also didn’t help.
“I am not worried because I am getting better as we get closer to the Tour,” Contador said after the stage. “It’s a pity, from the allergies I am suffering.”
Contador, however, must be also wondering what happened. Although he openly declared he wasn’t racing for GC at the Dauphiné, getting passed by Richie Porte (Sky) in the closing kilometers of the time trial certainly wasn’t what Contador would be expecting so close to the Tour.
The 32.5-kilometer course was flat and favored the specialists like Martin and Froome. The big difference between those two, of course, is that Froome climbs as well as he time trials, and will be the top favorite for the yellow jersey next month.
Wednesday’s route was similar to what the peloton will face in stage 11 at the Tour — a flat, power course from Avranches to Mont-Sant-Michel. Throw in some potential crosswinds, and the stage will prove decisive for who ends up with the yellow jersey in Paris on July 21.
Contador tried to put the best spin on the day.
“It wasn’t a good day for me. I immediately felt I lacked strength, and I rode the first half on pure strength, and then the second half on cadence,” Contador admitted on French TV. “There is still time to reach my top level, and we will see how things go over the next few days. I have time until the Tour to analyze this and return to a higher level.”
Now 30, Contador has built his career on the effective double punch of climbing and time trialing. Though often called a pure climber, Contador has always had top time trialing chops. In fact, his first pro win was a time trial in the 2003 Tour of Poland.
In 2009, Contador hit his zenith, beating world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara on a hilly, 40km course along the Lake Annecy shoreline late in the Tour to confirm his yellow jersey.
Since returning from his clenbuterol ban in 2012, his climbing has been consistent, but perhaps not as potent, and Contador has struggled to regain his winning form against the clock.
Last year, he was seventh at the Eneco Tour time trial and ninth at the time trial worlds in Valkenburg, Netherlands. The exception was his strong second place in a hilly, 39.4km time trial in Galicia when he took 22 seconds out of Froome early in the Vuelta a España, a performance that set the stage for his dramatic victory.
This year, he’s been 10th at the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), 12th at the Tour de San Luís, and 17th at Tirreno-Adriatico, all three on relatively short courses, with the Basque Country course the longest at 24km. None of those performances saw Contador at his best.
The Dauphiné and the Tour are clearly two different animals, but some conclusions are obvious.
Froome is on cruise control and looks to have smoothly stepped into the void left by Sir Bradley Wiggins at Sky.
It’s Contador who will have to up his game dramatically between now and the Tour if he hopes to seriously challenge Froome for yellow.
The next four stages will present Contador and Froome with an opportunity to test their climbing legs. The pollen should be less of a problem higher in the mountains. Perhaps that long-anticipated showdown might finally happen.