• Contador: "We have just entered the mountains and the race is not concluded yet." (Getty) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
If ever there was a time Alberto Contador needed inspiration now is it. Can the absence of a team-mate and close friend make his heart beat stronger, asks Anthony Tan?
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15 Jul 2015 - 6:36 PM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2015 - 9:29 PM

After the Stage 9 team time trial, Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzué said that "the Pyrenees will offer some surprises, and we will have to wait until the Plateau de Beille climb (on Stage 12) to really know who are the biggest candidates (for overall victory)."

Clearly, he - and, judging by their tactics on the stage to La Pierre-Saint-Martin, perhaps the entire Movistar squad - underestimated the never-before-used Pyrenean climb, which, after the events of yesterday, will never happen again.

Same goes for Tinkoff-Saxo leader Alberto Contador, who said on the first rest day in Pau, when his team-mate and friend Ivan Basso announced he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer and would thus be leaving the race post-haste, "I'm sure we will be together soon in Paris to celebrate the Tour."

Did Contador really believe that, or was it more encouragement for a friend in need?

Sunday in Plumelec, his sport director Steven de Jongh said: "We still have much terrain where we can try to turn the (general) classification around, and with the mountains coming up, it will be up to Sky to control the race. I still think that (in Basso's absence) Alberto can realise his goal (of winning the Tour de France), and we will definitely be looking for opportunities."

"Do not forget what happened the day after Stage 8 of the 2013 Tour de France, when, under very smilar circumstances, Team Sky bossed the race en route to Ax-3-Domaines and Chris Froome and Richie Porte went 1-2 on the stage and GC..."

However the same day, after Tinkoff-Saxo finished 28 seconds off the pace to BMC racing in the final time test of this year's race, Contador appeared to let the cat out of the bag.

"On the first rest day of the Giro (d'Italia) I was a bit more certain, as I knew the status of my body. Now, there is more uncertainty. What I've noticed in this first part of the Tour is that I lack the spark that others have. I hope that this spark will not have importance, when we look at the Tour as a whole."

Of course it will; so far, of course it has, and will continue to do so... Spark is precisely what you need to win Le Tour!

Still, as Robert Millar wrote in his July 13 blog on Cyclingnews, "One thing about Contador is his powers of recovery. Every day that goes past where the others haven't got rid of him is another day where he might just have got stronger. In terms of reading the race and positioning himself, he's still right up there with the smartest."

Which Bertie said so himself - albeit before Stage 10: "There are many stages at altitude and it's a (Grand) Tour, where consistency will be important. This can favour me. We'll wait and see how everyone is in the mountains. Everybody will have less good days - hopefully we won't - and we will have to benefit from that. Regularity is very important and that encourages me."

Nevertheless, already on the first major mountain stage of this year's race, Contador was without team-mates in the final eight kilometres, whereas Team Sky and Movistar, despite having driven the pace for much of the day, still had numbers.

Clearly, he was missing Basso. Yet that was not all that was troubling him.

"I knew it was going to be a climb where you could lose a lot of time if you weren't in form, and that's what happened. It was the stage after the rest day, where one could lose a lot of time. I couldn't breathe and I still can't – so I couldn't get rid of the lactic acid in my legs and I couldn't follow the pace. It was a bad day, and we've seen that Froome was better than everybody else. I was unable to follow the pace, not only of Froome but also of other riders."

Prior to le massacre de la Pierre-Saint-Martin, Sean Yates, another of Tinkoff-Saxo's directeurs-sportifs, told British journalist Lionel Birnie that a stage with just the one climb at the end is not really Contador's cup of tea; the more climbs, the more the post-suspension Bertie - Pistolero 2.0, if you will - prefers it.

For the 32-year-old from Pinto, good news is, there are no more stages like the one we saw Tuesday: every other mountain stage in this year's race has at least two climbs.

Also, do not forget what happened the day after Stage 8 of the 2013 Tour de France, when, under very smilar circumstances, Team Sky bossed the race en route to Ax-3-Domaines and Chris Froome and Richie Porte went 1-2 on the stage and GC: the British outfit was ambushed by Movistar and Garmin; Porte paid for his efforts the previous day and was dropped on the first climb (much to the chagrin of team principal Dave Brailsford, who asked the Tasmanian to save himself the previous stage); and Froome, even though he held firm in the front group, was completely isolated.

Granted, the Kenyan-born Brit did not relinquish the maillot jaune and went on to win the Tour by almost four-and-a-half minutes from second-placed Nairo Quintana, and the Froome of July 2015 is so far looking as good, if not better, than the one we saw two years ago.

But with so much racing and so many climbs yet to be traversed, to discount the mountain prodigy that is Quintana and the greatest Grand Tour rider of our generation, I, for one, am not going there - yet.

"We saw in previous races that he struggled a bit at the end in races finales and at the end of the three weeks; we will hope he cracks some day or that I find myself better than I did today," said the 25-year-old Colombian, who sits 3'09 off the lead of Froome, in third overall.

"I can also be in a situation where my shape is much more similar to the shape Froome had today," Contador, beaten but not broken, said after Tuesday's stage, "so I don't take it for granted that he will win the Tour. We have just entered the mountains and the race is not concluded yet."