Sean Yates has seen Alberto Contador up close and personal during his sport directing days at Discovery Channel and Astana, where the Spanish climber earned his earliest grand tour successes. Yates knows that Contador will be the five-star favorite when the Tour de France starts next month despite having raced and won the Giro d’Italia.

Yates is now a sport director at Team Sky, which saw its own Tour fortunes bolstered by the the impressive overall victory by Bradley Wiggins at the Criterium du Dauphiné last weekend. Wiggins is quick to admit he won’t be able to stay close to Contador if the Spaniard is back on top form. After watching Contador blast through the Giro, Yates said Contador stands above the field.

“There’s no one at the same level as Alberto right now,” Yates told VeloNews. “When you look how he attacks, he is 15 percent better than the next guy. It’s like he riding along with a bunch of juniors. It’s like me riding with a bunch of school boys. The level of difference is amazing. You cannot see anyone beating him.”

Yates said that Andy Schleck is the lone rider who can seriously challenge Contador, but said he expects the Spaniard to have the edge.

“Andy Schleck has been touted as the opposition. We saw last year that he could be there. We also saw that Alberto wasn’t so good last year, not as good as he was the previous years,” Yates said. “Mentally, he’s so much stronger than Andy. They’re different characters, you cannot compare them. Andy is very talented, but he doesn’t have the same mentality as Contador.”

Yates said Contador doesn’t have a weakness. With climbing skills and time trialing ability matched by mental toughness, Yates said it would be hard for anyone to beat him.

“One thing about Alberto is that he’s a natural. He doesn’t have to put in a lot of miles. I’ve seen him show up at camps when he hasn’t touched the pedals in two months and he still looks like riding on thin air,” Yates continued. “When you watch him pedal, you think he’s cruising along, but when you look down at the SRM or try to keep up with him, you can see how much power he’s putting out. Cadence comes with fitness. Everyone talks about cadence, but to turn cadence, you have to have power, especially when you’re going uphill. Only the very, very best can do that.”

Yates also said that Contador’s growing success only makes it even more difficult for would-be rivals to knock him off his throne.

“Every time you get a success, it builds your confidence. He’s shows he’s very intelligent, not only with the bike game, but also with the media and with the bunch,” Yates continued. “He’s always in the right place. You never see him at the back. He’s surrounded by a lot of respect, and that does make life easier. It’s normal, because you don’t come up and knock Contador off the wheel. He’s given a lot of space, so it makes it a lot easier, but you still got to be there. His team is totally dedicated to him. There is no question that the team is there for him.”

This week, Contador is scouting some of the decisive stages in the Alps that will feature in the third decisive week of the 2011 Tour after revealing that he would, indeed, start despite his unresolved clenbuterol case still hanging over his head.

If Yates is right, Contador could well win the 2011 Tour while having the risk of 2010 victory being taken away.