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At Dauphiné, Contador has eye on July

Alberto Contador's prologue win at the Critérium du Dauphiné shows he's on track for another run at the yellow jersey next month.

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In just 4 kilometers, Alberto Contador sent a message to his Tour de France rivals: I am still here.

Though he is unquestionably the most successful grand tour rider of his generation, the Tinkoff superstar still has something to prove this July. And his ambitions were made crystal clear with his emotional victory in Sunday’s wild climbing time trial to open the 69th Critérium du Dauphiné.

“It’s a surprise to beat Chris Froome,” Contador said. “I didn’t know if it would be tough enough today.”

The time differences are minimal — Contador took 6 seconds out of second-place Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and 13 on Chris Froome (Sky) — but for Contador, those 13 seconds might as well have been a country mile.

Though he downplays their rivalry in public, Contador is driven to beat Froome in the Tour de France. The Sky captain has replaced Contador as indisputable king of the Tour hill, claiming two out of the past three yellow jerseys. Though Contador has beaten Froome on two occasions at the Vuelta a España (in 2012 and 2014), the Tour is the real measuring stick of success inside the peloton.

Now 33, Contador knows in order to reclaim the unofficial crown as the peloton’s best rider, he needs to beat Froome and win the Tour de France again (as well as fend off Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru). Even if he did retire at the end of this season — he’s since changed his mind, and said he wants to race two more years — his palmares would automatically elevate him among the best in cycling history, but he wants one more yellow jersey.

Depending on how you count them — his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro d’Italia titles were erased as part of his clenbuterol ban — he’s officially won seven grand tours, the most of any active rider. His grand tour track record is impeccable: ever since his 2005 Tour debut with 31st, he has never finished worse than fifth in 12 of 13 grand tour starts (he crashed out of the 2014 Tour in his lone DNF).

What Contador wants more than anything, however, is to win one more yellow jersey.

After winning three Tours in a four-year stretch, he’s been wobbly since 2010. His 2010 and 2011 results were erased (a victory and fifth after winning the Giro), and he missed 2012 while serving a backdated racing ban. In 2013, he was absolutely humiliated by Froome, and never seriously posed a threat to yellow. Two years ago, he worked harder than ever to be in what he called the best form of his career, but crashed out in the Vosges just days after Froome had also exited, opening the door for Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali. Last year, he never found his footing after having to go deeper than he expected to win the Giro in his attempt at the Giro-Tour double.

Contador’s emphatic win Sunday reconfirms that he’s back on track for July.

After a superb spring, punctuated by his fourth career crown at the Tour of the Basque Country, Contador is coming into the Dauphiné after spending three weeks at altitude on Teide. The results were obvious Sunday.

This year it’s all about the Tour, which could mean he won’t be racing to win this week despite the big boost Sunday. Contador’s been around long enough to know what really counts is July, so it will be interesting to see how he races this week.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Dauphiné is one of the few, perhaps only, major stage race that he’s never won. He’s been on the podium three times, and in 2014, Andrew Talansky picked his pocket in a superb, final-stage tactical play, relegating Contador to second. Will Contador keep his eye on July, or push himself to win the Dauphiné?

If it’s there for the taking, he certainly won’t back off, but comments so far suggest that Contador will be racing to win in July, not June.

And if the race rides away from him somehow, he won’t panic, but he certainly won’t back down from a mano-a-mano fight with Froome, either.

“My goal here is to keep building my form for the Tour de France,” he said Sunday. “It will be a long week and the squad and myself will stick to our goal of fine-tuning for the Tour. Aiming at the GC here will be a big wear for us, so we will let other teams take that responsibility.”