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Chris Froome free to focus on Alberto Contador as Dauphine looms

Contador seems the primary challenger to Froome as the two square off at the Dauphiné, final proving ground for the 2014 Tour de France

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LYON, France (AFP) — Chris Froome will have to forget about Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins and focus on Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador when the Critérium du Dauphiné begins here on Sunday.

In recent interviews and the serialization of his autobiography by a British newspaper, Froome has been somewhat disparaging towards Wiggins, the man who preceded him as Tour de France winner in 2012.

Froome, who served Wiggins as a “super-domestique” during that Tour, has questioned Wiggins’s mental strength and criticized him for mood swings during the 2012 race.

The upshot of the infighting at Sky seems to have cost Wiggins the chance of riding alongside Froome at this year’s Tour — an admission the Olympic time-trial champion made in an interview with the BBC earlier this week.

So with Wiggins no longer dominating his thoughts, Froome can now concentrate on his primary rival for Tour glory in July: Contador.

It is the Spaniard, a two-time winner of the Tour, who has been in the best form of all contenders this season, winning the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of the Basque Country, while finishing second in both the Tour of the Algarve and Tour of Catalunya.

However, Froome himself has also been in fine form, despite a season disrupted by injury and illness, winning the Tour of Oman and last month’s Tour de Romandie.

The eight-stage Dauphiné, the final major Tour warm-up event for the likes of Froome, Contador and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), will provide the perfect gauge to the form of the potential Grand Boucle winners.

A mountainous race, the Dauphiné should be decided in the Alpine stages of the final weekend, with the seventh and penultimate stage culminating in the 10.2km climb to the Emosson reservoir on the border between France and Switzerland.

Froome has not raced since his Tour de Romandie victory in early May, and Contador has been absent from the peloton since his win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco in mid-April

Both have focused primarily on mountain preparation during May, along with Nibali, the 2013 Giro d’Italia winner.

Last year Froome followed in the footsteps of Wiggins, the 2011 and 2012 Dauphiné winner, to set himself up as favorite for the Tour de France, after a faultless run through the race.

Froome, 29, says he is approaching the race in the form of his life, free of the health problems that dogged his early season.

His team is totally at his service with Richie Porte, second in the Dauphiné last year, again set to accompany him.

Froome overpowered Contador in the mountains last year, but the Spaniard seems to have recovered the form he had before returning in 2012 from a two-year doping ban.

“He’s going to refine his condition. The Dauphiné is a tough race perfect to prepare for the Tour,” said his Tinkoff-Saxo team sporting director Philippe Mauduit.

The presence of Froome and Contador should allow the other challengers to gauge their form, among them BMC Racing’s American Tejay Van Garderen, who said: “I’m going to test my limits.”

Fellow American Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) represent the young generation along with France’s Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale).

The opening 10.4km time trial on Sunday will be followed by a stage 2 that should set the tone for things to come, with a finish on Col du Beal in the Massif Central mountains in south central France.

The route should suit the climbers with few big-name sprinters taking part, although there will be opportunities for stage wins in the relatively flat stages on Tuesday and Friday.

The race culminates with another mountainous stage from Megeve to the French ski resort of Courchevel on Sunday week.