Spaniard Alberto Contador grabbed the lead in the Criterium du Dauphine on Saturday with a desperate attack on the final climb of stage seven that leaves Britain’s Chris Froome trailing by eight seconds.
The double Tour de France winner, laid down a psychological marker for this year’s race, as he attacked Froome with 2km to go on a brutal beyond-category climb, the Sky rider desperately clinging on but unable to protect his overall lead.
“It’s a result that gives me confidence and confirms all the work I’ve done. I’m on the right track but there are still 20 days until the Tour de France which is the big objective for the season,” said Contador.
“The most important thing is to improve every day. Today, Froome was behind me but that can change from one day to another.”
Dutch rider Lieuwe Westra won a sensational stage as he collapsed across the line with Russia’s Katusha rider Yury Trofimov second and teammate Egor Silin just behind in third on a 160km run from Ville-La-Grand to Finhaut-Emosson, just across the Swiss border.
The Dutch time-trial champion overtook the two Russians in the final 200m after the trio broke away from an earlier 14-man escape.
Contador arrived 1min 31secs later in fourth while Froome settled for seventh and may have been hampered by a nasty crash in Friday’s sixth stage with less than 8km to run.
“I’m obviously disappointed to lose the yellow jersey but I took a knock in the crash Friday and I lost a bit of energy because of it,” said Sky leader Froome.
“As a team, we’re still in a really good position.
“Two stage victories, six days in yellow and the green jersey for points.
“There is only an eight second difference in the standings and for me it will depend on how I feel.”
Contador was modest after his win and said he hadn’t been thinking about overall victory when he turned up at the start line.
“I came to the Dauphine without thinking about the victory but now I’m in the yellow jersey although that doesn’t change too much because yellow is the colour of my team jersey.”
The 31-year-old took off with 2km to race and went into his trademark dancing style in the pedals as Australian Sky rider Richie Porte worked relentlessly to keep teammate Froome in touch.
With 1km to the finish, Froome went off alone in a bid to catch Contador but although he could see him just ahead, the 2007 and 2009 Tour de France winner did enough to gain 20 seconds on the day and eight overall.
American Andrew Talansky had a strong day and came home fifth two seconds ahead of Froome which puts him third overall as he overtakes Dutchman Wilco Kelderman who finished 12th at 2min 32secs.
Sunday’s eighth and final stage is a 131.5km run from Megeve to Courchevel and will provide a chance for Froome to still win the race on a route littered with three category one climbs including another summit finish.