Tour de France champion Alberto Contador may have given fans a shock when he was kept in check Thursday as the Criterium du Dauphine soared upwards on the fourth stage to Risoul ski station.
But the Spaniard, who is using this key Tour warm-up event to finalise plans for a third yellow jersey, was given moral support after the race by none other than his previous director, RadioShack's Alain Gallopin.
Ex-Astana man Gallopin has worked with Contador extensively in recent years but at the Dauphine this week he is trying to help young Slovenian ace Janez Brajkovic keep hold of the race leader's jersey.
On the first of four days in the French Alps Contador stretched his climbing legs late in the 12.8km climb to Risoul, where Frenchman Nicolas Vogondy of Bbox-Bouygues stunned the specialists to claim the stage honours. On each occasion Brajkovic was up to the task, countering Contador and even finishing just ahead of him at the finish line.
Gallopin, however, believes there's a lot more to come from the Spaniard.
"Let's put things in perspective - sticking on Alberto's wheel when he's 100 percent (on form) is not possible. Today, he wasn't at 100 percent," said Gallopin. "Today we didn't see a fully fit Alberto."
Lance Armstrong is not racing the Dauphine but the seven-time Tour champion should be among Contador's big rivals next month when the American outfit, however, could be without experienced Spanish campaigner Haimar Zubeldia.
Zubeldia crashed out of the Dauphine with a fractured wrist earlier in the week, and is still uncertain for the July 3-25 Tour.
Gallopin admitted they could have done with the Spaniard's help late to try and stretch their lead on Thursday's mountain climb.
"We missed Zubeldia at the end, he could have made all the difference for us," added Gallopin. "But we did what we could."
Brajkovic has another three days in the mountains, notably Saturday's climb to the summit of Alpe d'Huez, to score what would be the biggest win of his career - and with it a possible spot on the Tour de France.
But Gallopin, admitting his team had to dig deep in what were difficult wind conditions, said they are taking nothing for granted.
"We're very happy with today. There's still another three difficult days left," he added. "Janez is going good. This race is his objective and today we managed to contain things in what were difficult circumstances. There's another three difficult days, and we'll just have to see how he recovers from the mountain stages day by day."
Friday's fifth stage is a 143.5km ride from Serre-Chevalier to Grenoble and kicks off with a 15.5km climb to the summit of the Col du Lautaret, with the 17.5km climb over Chamrousse coming later in the stage.
© AFP 2010