Based on their performance at the Criterium du Dauphine so far, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador will be the men to beat at the Tour de France

The 2014 Tour de France will be decided between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador -  judging by their performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné so far.

“Froome and Contador have the first two spots in the Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali can be third, followed by a handful of other riders,” Astana team manager, Giuseppe Martinelli told Cycling Weekly. “At this point, no matter who you ask, they will say it’s that way.”

Martinelli cautioned the situation could change between now and the start of the Tour de France on July 5 in Yorkshire. Considering their performances on the Col du Béal, though, he agreed that Froome has a good chance of defending the title for Sky, team Tinkoff’s Contador could upset him, and Nibali may take the podium’s third step.

Froome said after winning the stage to Col du Béal on Monday that if anyone can beat him then it is El Pistolero from Madrid. Contador already won the Tour de France twice, lost one title due to a doping ban and returned to his best this spring.

On Monday, Contador followed every one of Froome’s attacks. He could not come around him for the stage win, but he was the only one to follow. Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) trailed further behind.

“By the looks of it, [Contador is] shaping up to be my biggest rival at the moment,” said Froome, “for both [the Dauphine and Tour].”

Contador suffered when he returned from his doping ban and didn’t seem as brilliant as when he won his second Tour title in 2009. Last year, however, he still took home a respectable fourth place. Afterwards, he skipped the Vuelta a España and ended his season early to be ready for his 2014 comeback.

Already this year, he won the Tirreno-Adriatico and País Vasco stage races. He finished second overall in Algarve and Catalunya. He has his first test of the season against Froome this week at the Critérium du Dauphiné in south-east France.

“He’s had a more successful first part of the season than last year. Just looking from the outside, his preparation has been better,” Froome said. “I wasn’t able to drop him on the climb [on Monday], but then again, that wasn’t a very selective climb. We’ll have a better idea [of his possibilities] on Saturday, when we have more selective climb.”

Contador admitted his performance on the Col du Béal surprised him. He had not raced since the País Vasco, so he was unsure of what he could do against his rivals.

“I’ve not been training for those high accelerations. I also know that I still have work ahead of me after the Dauphiné. We’ll have to see what happens in the Tour, but I’m hoping that my condition will be even better then,” Contador said.

“Will it just be me and Froome battling for the Tour title? The Tour de France is 24 days long. It’s also important to note that there are not riders like Alejandro Valverde here at the Dauphine and that Nibali should also be going better than he is now.”

Froome continues to lead the Dauphine by 12 seconds on Contador. The race takes the riders to their next and final big pre-Tour test this weekend, when they face back to back summit finishes.