Romain Bardet has played down his Tour de France hopes ahead of a crucial three-day block of climbing in the French Alps which he says could put Team Sky firmly in command.
A runner-up to Team Sky leader Chris Froome in 2016, Bardet underlined his Grand Tour credentials with a third-place finish behind the Briton in 2017.
But after losing his second teammate within the space of a week, Bardet knows his chances of keeping pace with Froome and his Welsh teammate Geraint Thomas over the coming days will be fully tested.
Thomas is second overall at just 43 secs behind race leader Greg Van Avermaet, with four-time champion Froome 49secs further behind.
Bardet, who sits in 17th place overall at 2:32, lost AG2R teammate Alexis Vuillermoz to injury on Sunday and Axel Domont abandoned last week.
“We all know how valuable Alexis is and how important he is to the team. He’s taken me a long way through the mountains,” Bardet said during the race’s first rest day Monday.
“It’s bad news for us. We’re down to six riders, so now we can’t afford any more slip-ups. I have a big deficit already, and we haven’t been on the first climb yet. It’s simple, I have to take back time.”
The Tour de France peloton tackles three tough days in the Alps, culminating in stage 12, a 175.5km trek from Bourg d’Oisans to the legendary Alpe d’Huez.
But Bardet believes the overall “high level” among the yellow jersey favourites means most will play a waiting game and attack when they “see a weakness in others”.
Ultimately, they “won’t make any big moves until the Pyrenees”, he believes.
“I hope I’m mistaken, but it’s in the third week that we’ll see some big time differences, even though the Alps are harder than the Pyrenees this year,” he said.
With overnight leader Greg Van Avermaet expected to lose the yellow jersey on Tuesday’s 10th stage from Annecy to Le Grand Bornand, the scene is set for Team Sky to take over.
Although Froome is targeting a fifth title, Bardet believes Thomas is worth his tag of co-favourite.
“As far as being possible Tour winners, they’re on the same level for me,” said Bardet. “We saw how well Geraint Thomas raced the (Criterium du) Dauphine, he’s come through the first week well, he’s the best-placed favourite so things are looking good for him.
“But Froome is a great competitor and if he can win the Tour de France, he will. They have a team capable of controlling the race.”