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Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) launched a last-ditch attack on the final climb to unhorse Chris Froome (Sky) as leader of the Critérium du Dauphiné on Saturday as Lieuwe Westra (Astana) roared up from behind to steal the stage win from a flagging pair of Katusha attackers.
Stage 7, the 160km queen stage from Ville-la-Grand to Finhaut-Emosson, featured five rated climbs — two category 2s, one category 1 and two beyond-category ascents, including the finale, a 10.2km grind with an average grade of 8 percent.
Yury Trofimov (Katusha), the sole survivor of a 14-man breakaway, was off the front going over the top of the Col de la Forclaz, the penultimate climb of the day. Sky led the peloton for overall leader Froome, who was swathed in bandages earned in a stage-6 crash.
Egor Silin caught his teammate on the descent and it was a Katusha twosome climbing to the finish with just under six minutes’ advantage.
Going into the final ascent Froome still had five mates working on his behalf. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) had only Jakob Fuglsang for company while Contador was on his own. Ahead, Silin and Trofimov were still holding onto four minutes of their edge.
With 5km to go all the contenders were still holding their fire, with Contador and Nibali parked on Froome’s wheel as Sky set tempo. Westra had already begun his chase of the two leaders, but the GC detente continued until Contador finally lit it up in the final 2km, quickly prying open a big gap. Froome was unable to respond and stayed on the wheel of teammate Richie Porte, leaving the chase to him.
Ahead, Westra overhauled Silin and Trofimov and thundered on to the stage win.
“I wanted to stay quiet in this stage after my second place yesterday,” said Westra. “But I am fit and found myself in the breakaway. I rode at my own pace. Under the red kite, I saw it was possible to rejoin [the two Katusha riders]. They were at the limit. In this case, it’s easier when you’re behind. I gave everything.”
Behind, going under the red kite, Froome had to take over his own jersey defense. Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjesdal and Andrew Talansky were clinging to his wheel.
Contador hit the line for fourth on the day, 1:33 down on Westra, and the clock started ticking. Froome gave it his all, but saw the jersey slip off his shoulders — and onto Contador’s. The Sky rider dropped to second overall, eight seconds down, with Talansky third at 39 seconds.
“Obviously I’m disappointed to lose the yellow jersey, but in the same breath, I think we can take a lot away from today — it was such a strong team performance,” said Froome.
“I took a bit of a knock yesterday in the crash and lost a bit of energy because of that. I felt a bit blocked through my thighs, especially where I landed yesterday, but I’m not going to let that get me down.
“I think it’s normal that I was a little bit off and Alberto rode a fantastic race, so respect to him. He took the race on when it was at its hardest, and he’s got the jersey to show for it.”
The new race leader said he took confidence from his ride on Saturday.
“It confirms all the work I’ve done. I’m on the right path,” said Contador. “The most important thing is that I’m getting better every day.”
Sunday’s eighth and final stage is a 131.5km run from Megeve to Courchevel, with three cat.-1 climbs and another summit finish.
“I came to the Dauphiné without thinking about victory,” said Contador. “Tomorrow I expect to be difficult. We’ll see what happens.”
And Froome wasn’t throwing in the towel quite yet.
“Two stage victories, six days in yellow and the green jersey for points,” he said, tallying up Sky’s successes. “There is only an eight-second difference in the standings and for me it will depend on how I feel. It’s never finished until you’ve crossed the line.”