Those hoping for a close Tour de France likely breathed sighs of relief Monday morning as it was very clear that Alberto Contador was back to his old, fleet self.
Chris Froome (Sky) won the day up the beyond-category Col du Béal, and was dazzling in his ever-whirring, high-cadence attacks, but Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) fought him tooth and nail to the line, proving unshakable.
It was a far cry from last year’s Tour de France, where Froome upped his cadence and rode away from everyone and anyone.
This Dauphiné marks Contador’s return to racing after almost two months off; in the first part of the season, he won the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Basque Country, and finished second overall at the Volta a Catalunya.
In a press conference held Saturday afternoon, the Spaniard offered his point of view on his return to competition after his last race, Pais Vasco, a couple of months ago. Most importantly, Contador stressed that the Dauphiné is only a warm-up race, and that he still has room to improve for the Tour de France.
Contador finished second to Froome on the opening time trial, eight second back, and again on stage 2. He starts stage 3 second overall, 12 seconds behind Froome.
Question: What have you done since your last race, how has your preparation been?
Alberto Contador: After the Tour of the Basque Country I had a rest period because the season had been very intense and I really needed it. From there, I have been gradually increasing the training load to build up my shape for Dauphiné and ultimately the Tour.
Q: What is your goal in Dauphiné?
AC: It’s a key race for me, also in regard to Tour de France. Like other years, I have said it’s a race of preparation. I have worked very hard and come here with good condition, but without having ridden at high intensity, since the Tour will be decided in the last week, and I’ll also go to Vuelta a España this year. I’ll be in good shape [at Dauphiné] but without the obsession to win.
Q: This winter you said that Froome would be the man to beat in the Tour. Seen in the light of the past months, do you still think that or have something changed?
AC: I still believe that. Froome has been very strong in the Tour the last two years and he’s the number-one favorite. I’ll be very motivated at the start line, and then we’ll see what happens.
Q: What will be a good result for you in Dauphiné?
AC: To analyze my performance, have a good physical recovery, and especially in the 10 days following the end of the race. I can use the feedback I get from Dauphiné to alter and add the final details to my shape.
Q: Does it mean if Froome won the Dauphiné clearly that will not affect your confidence?
AC: Confidence is a subjective factor and everyone looks at it from their own point of view. Everyone has to draw his own conclusions. Obviously, if you want to have options in the Tour, you have to have a good level in Dauphiné, but it is another thing to win or not. I would have even more questions if I win; because I’ve never done that, and then I will start thinking about if anything would be different in the Tour.
Q: This year Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has had no important results, does that mean something or do you think he will be at his level in the Tour?
AC: With a rider like Nibali you have to expect that he will be at his best during the goal of his season. He has a good training and race plan leading up to the Tour and today he has to be considered as one of the favorites despite this season’s missed victories.
Q: Have you had the best start of the season of your entire career this year?
AC: At first I didn’t think of it that way. But then I began to read it in some places and the truth is that it has been the best start of a season so from the point of view of efficiency, because I’ve been first or second in every race where I have started, and I’ve taken advantage of many of the opportunities I had, winning or finishing in the top 3 on many stages.
Q: How can you explain this?
AC: It was a completely different winter from the last two or three years. My day has revolved around the bike completely, to optimize training and rest, being aware that  was a very challenging year. When I experience that the results do not come, it’s a tough challenge but an extra motivation as well. I’m back to the traditional calendar, giving up some early races this year that didn’t allow me to train with calm.
Q: Was it a surprise to hear that Sky will not have Bradley Wiggins in the Tour?
AC: Neither yes nor no. Each team will have a race plan and find the best group of riders at all levels. Wiggins has shown great form, but that will also give Sky a chance in Vuelta a España.
Q: What will be the best stage to test yourself in during Dauphiné?
AC: Stage 7, because the climbs are like in the Tour de France, with 8 percent gradients and long climbs. This is where it gets really challenging in the Tour and it’s on these percentages where I’ll see my fitness.
Q: Is there a key day in this year’s Tour and how important will the cobbled stage become?
AC: I think this Tour will be super open and entertaining to watch, because most days have something. The stages in England will be tough and edgy, then comes the cobbles, the Vosges with two demanding stages, and finally we will fight in the Alps and the Pyrenees with several stages, plus the time trial. The cobbled stage will be very important, but not decisive, unless you have a fall and sustain an injury.