Britain’s defending champion Chris Froome of Team Sky made it two wins in two days when he won Monday’s second stage of the Criterium du Dauphine ahead of Spanish arch-rival Alberto Contador.
After victory in Sunday’s opening time-trial stage, Froome ensured himself of the race leader’s yellow jersey on the 156km second stage that ended with a gruelling 13.6km climb of the Col du Beal.
“It’s the first time this year that we’ve both battled,” said Froome of his “duel” with Contador.
“I gave it everything. It was block to block. I tried several times to attack but he (Contador) is very strong. It was really tough between us.”
He added: “Here everyone is almost at the level of the Tour de France. I’m very happy with this victory.”
Tinkoff rider Contador, 31, admitted it was a close battle throughout the day.
“The engine was turning at high speed but I’m getting better and better as the days go by,” he said.
A breakaway by Alessandro de Marchi was eventually reeled in with 7.5km to go despite a 2min 40sec lead the Italian had going into the final ascent.
Froome was followed home by Contador, with Dutch rider Wilco Kelderman in third, 4sec adrift.
The Kenyan-born Briton, the reigning Tour de France champion, now stands 12sec clear of Contador, himself twice a winner of the Grand Tour, in the overall classification.
Contador’s team sporting director Philippe Mauduit said he was satisfied with the Spaniard’s form.
“The day was quite difficult for everyone even though the stage was short,” said Mauduit.
“When Froome attacked Alberto remained on his wheel. He was never in real difficulty and he chose to stay on his heel until the line.
“I’m happy with his form, it bodes well for the Tour.”
Kelderman and American Andrew Talansky, who finished fifth, two emerging riders, as well as Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck, fourth, vainly tried to make the most of the rare moments of respite offered by Froome in the final kilometres.
But it was a group of six riders, still lead by the Briton, which emerged going into the final kilometre.
Among this group, Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali finally conceded 27sec to Froome and Contador to cross in sixth.
Kelderman, well oiled by the recent Giro d’Italia, resisted better without being able to rival the yellow jersey winner for the second time in two days.
Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski and American Tejay Van Garderen, both Tour de France hopes, lost two minutes to Froome.
If he could count on Wales’ Geraint Thomas and Spaniard Mikel Nieve in the first part of the climb, Froome’s usual trusty lieutenant, Australian Richie Porte, struggled throughout the day to finish more than ten minutes off the pace.
Tuesday’s third stage covers 194km from Ambert to Teil and gives the sprinters a race opportunity in the mostly mountainous race.