Chris Froome was victorious on stage two of the Criterium du Dauphiné with the Team Sky rider extending his lead over main rival Alberto Contador to 12 seconds overall.
Froome displayed his good form and attacked attacked several times on the last climb of the day but was unable to shake a stubborn Contador. The British rider crossed the finish line in front of his Spanish rival, however, and took the time bonus which extended his lead by four seconds.
But despite Froome taking his seconds successive stage win, Sky experienced a tough day after being in front of the peloton controlling the race for most of the day.
Tinkoff–Saxo's Contador – anticipated to be Froome's biggest rival for next month's Tour de France – survived every attack Froome attempted and although the Spaniard could not muster any attack of his own, it was plain to see he is in a much better state than a year ago.
Furthermore, Richie Porte – Froome's main support at last year's successful Tour campaign – cracked relatively early which suggests his form is still some way off after an injury-ravaged season for the Australian, who was scheduled to lead Sky at the Giro d'Italia but was pulled out by his team.
Nicolas Portal, Sky's sports director, swiftly played down the importance of the substandard performance.
“I don’t know about Richie,” Portal told cyclingnews.
“We heard on the radio that he didn’t feel good but we’re disappointed for him as we know he has been good in the last few weeks. Maybe it’s something to do with the hot weather but let's wait and see but sometimes in sport this happens.”
Froome, however, looked sharp and in control throughout the day and claimed a second stage victory after successfully fending off attacks from Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin).
“Chris is still not at 100 per cent,” added Portal. “He still has some training to do before the Tour and some improvements to make but today was really special with hot weather.
“When you see half the bunch getting dropped so early on the climb with an average gradient of around four per cent you know it’s a really tough day.
“The team are really happy because we took control today and the team deserved the stage win. Chris did nearly all the work, either attacking or riding on the front and he deserved the win.”
The 29-year-old current Tour champion praised the efforts of his teammates after the stage.
“It was a really, really tough day today but the team did a really big job,” Froome told Team Sky's website.
“It was hot out there, you could see a lot of the guys salting up, I think this is the first real hot day we’ve had this year in these kind of conditions, but the team did a really good job, so I’m really happy to be able to get the stage victory to be able to say thank you to them.
“It’s shaping up to be a really exciting race, when [Mikel] Nieve pulled off I thought ‘ok’, this is the first time I’ve done a mountaintop finish against my biggest rivals in a really long time now so let’s open things up and let’s see where everyone’s at and it seemed that Alberto came after me.
"He was able to hold my wheel, I wouldn’t say easily but I couldn’t shake him and it’s interesting to see a few other guys jumping around, Talansky, Kelderman, they put in a few good attacks there.
“I think in the final, Alberto and I coming up to the line, I think both of us were going as hard as we could. I like to think if he’d had any more he would have come around me but he’s definitely in really good condition.”
Portal also accepted that Contador is riding really strong at the moment and suggested the Spaniard will be even more aggressive when the steeper climbs occur later in the race.
“Alberto was good," said Portal. “All I saw was that he was on Froome’s wheel and that’s probably because he was on his limit but there wasn’t a big difference. When the roads get steeper maybe we will see Alberto try something but he was strong."
Those hoping Contador will be able to challenge Froome in this year's Tour will feel encouraged. Last summer, Froome dominated his rival and the Spaniard had no answers to the Briton's aggressive riding and sharp accelerations and it seemed the Tinkoff – Saxo rider's career was nearing its conclusion.
This season, however, it seems Contador has recaptured some of his best form earning him victories at the Tirreno – Adriatico and in the Tour of the Basque Country.
The Spanish climber was pleased that he managed to hang on to Froome's wheel although he was unable to claim the stage win.
“Today was hard with a high tempo all day and some difficult roads as well but that’s okay because this was really good training for next month and the Tour,” Contador said.
“That’s why we’re here, no? Of course if we could have taken a stage win today we would but at the moment Chris is very strong so congrats to him. Now we’ll take it day by day and we’ll see how it goes in the final.”
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