Slovenian Janez Brajkovic likely put a smile on the face of team leader Lance Armstrong again Saturday after countering every attack by Alberto Contador on the climb to Alpe d'Huez.
Reigning Tour de France champion Contador is racing the Dauphine Criterium this week to fine tune his bid for a third yellow jersey on the July 3-25 Tour de France.
After winning the prologue last Sunday, the Spaniard added a more prestigious stage to his list when he beat race leader Brajkovic in a two-up duel for the finish line of the race's sixth and penultimate stage.
Contador was tackling the 21 hairpin bends of the legendary 13.8km climb for the first time. And he admitted he had a sneak preview to see just how it's done.
"I had a look on the internet last night to see what the climb to Alpe d'Huez was like, and so ended up watching how (Marco) Pantani and Lance (Armstrong) did it," said the Spaniard.
"It's a mythical climb, so of course I'm happy to have won here."
Brajkovic emerged just as happy as Contador after a 151.5km stage which featured a mammoth 55km of climbing including the 19.5km ascension over the Col du Glandon.
Had Brajkovic not proved so untouchable, it could have all been so different.
The pace set by Astana early on the final climb proved fatal to a group of early escapees, and forced the remainder of Brajkovic's RadioShack team to steadily drop off the back.
Contador launched his first attack with just over 8km remaining but was comfortably countered by Brajkovic.
Again and again, the Slovenian closed the gap each time Contador accelerated. In the end, he emerged with his 1:41 lead intact although Contador claimed the stage win was his only objective.
"The (Astana) team really worked hard and put down a good rhythm on the climb but when I attacked I wasn't trying to close my deficit to Brajkovic," said Contador.
"The wind conditions were quite difficult and Brajkovic proved he was strong. My main objective was to win the stage."
The seventh and final stage of the race is a hilly 148km race from Allevard-les-Bains to Sallanches.
And with a final day duel unlikely, it appears Brajkovic will claim the biggest stage race win of his career -- and perhaps cement his own place in next month's Tour.
That impending achievement is likely to boost Armstrong's morale.
Earlier this week the American, who is racing just over the border at the Tour of Switzerland, posted congratulations on his Twitter site when Brajkovic won stage three's time trial to take the yellow jersey.
Contador and Armstrong raced together in the same Astana team at last year's Tour de France, but that was a tense experience which, since the seven-time Tour de France champion moved to RadioShack, has only intensified.
The pair will line up next month as major rivals, but this time in different teams.
Contador admitted he still has work to do before he can truly declare he is ready to defend his Tour de France crown.
"It's been an important test for me personally and to see how my team is developing, but I'm not quite there yet," he said.
"This week I will go the Alps to look at the stages on the Tour, then head back home for a training camp in Seirra de Madrid."
Prior to his second Tour triumph last year, Contador finished third overall at the Dauphine. And he warned: "I came here to look for form and I've won two stages. Last year I finished third, and didn't win any."
© AFP 2010
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