Stage 4 on paper was a straightforward day for the sprinters but saw the first shake-up in the general classification with race leader Contador ceding nine seconds to rival Chris Froome (Sky), who jumped from third to second overall ahead of Richie Porte (BMC).
Contador was apparently gapped when Borut Bozic (Cofidis) and Alexis Gougeard (AG2R) crashed at speed in the final 2.5km of the 176km stage, which Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) won in a bunch sprint.
“We’ve lost races by less than the amount Froome gained today so every second lost in a situation like that is not good because ultimately it can be the difference between winning and losing,” Yates said.
“It’s guaranteed to be nip and tuck all the way to the finish line. At the end of the day, the strongest rider should win, and normally does, but we’ve lost races by not getting the bonus sprint, or being in the wrong half of the bunch.”
The battle for the general classification intensifies from Friday with the first of three mountain stages that will decide the race.
Froome said he did not expect to make-up time on stage four in which Sky was prominent at the front of the peloton in the final, clearly communicating.
"Just how sketchy those run-ins can be, you’re constantly communicating with each other as to which side to sit, where to sit, who to follow,” Froome said. “Communication is everything in a stage like today.”
The defending race champion Froome has identified Contador and Porte as the men to beat at the Dauphine this week as the trio prepare for respective maillot jaune assaults at the Tour de France next month.
“If the prologue is anything to go by then Alberto and Richie are the guys to watch tomorrow,” Froome said. “Alberto has got to defend the jersey. It’s up to myself, Richie and other climbers to try and get some time back.”
Yates on Thursday was evasive when asked about tactics for the first mountain stage.
“We’ve got to not jeopardise the jersey, which often means defending it against who we think is going to be the biggest threat, which [is] Froome and Richie Porte, principally,” he said.
“Obviously neither of those teams are going to throw away the race so, you know, if we get to a situation where we can’t control, then obviously they will not let the race go out of control. We’ve all got common interests and that’s to win the GC at the end of the week.
“When you have the leader’s jersey the onus is on you to defend it but in reality it doesn’t really change much because everybody wants to win the bike race. It will be the favourites looking at each other.”