Plateau de Beille - Alberto Contador looked nothing like his usual brilliant self in Saturday's 14th stage of the Tour de France but the three-times champion found comfort in the fact that he followed the pace all day.
The 28-year-old Spaniard, who was dropped in the final kilometre in the first mountain stage on Thursday, finished sixth at the top of the Plateau de Beille, two seconds behind Luxembourg rival Andy Schleck.
Contador crossed the line in the same time as Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck and Ivan Basso after never being dropped despite Andy Schleck making several attacks on the final ascent.
Contador, who still has to make up for a gap of some two minutes behind his main rivals, quickly turned his sights towards the two tough stages in the Alps next week.
"It (the Tour) will be decided in the Alps, when everybody will be more tired," the Saxo Bank-Sungard rider told reporters seconds after crossing the line.
"The climbs are bigger (than in the Pyrenees), at a higher altitude and I like it when we go over 2,000 metres."
Next week, the 18th stage will go to Serre Chevalier, 2,645 metres above sea level, and the 19th stage to l'Alpe d'Huez will go through the Col du Galibier at 2,556 metres.
Although he looked better than on Thursday, Contador, who has been nursing a knee problem since he crashed last week, was not able to attack on Saturday.
"It's not my style of racing," he said. "But it's still a long way to Paris and I think I'm getting better every day."
Saxo Bank-Sungard team manager Bjarne Riis also noted that his protege was in better shape than in the first mountain stage to Luz Ardiden.
"He has improved, he's better. It's important," the Dane told reporters.
"He did not have any problem, that's what is important. Nobody (among the favourites) managed to pull away, expect (Samuel) Sanchez."
Contador's brother Fran, who has been following the defending champion on the French roads, believes that the man who is unbeaten on every grand Tour he has entered since 2007 is improving as the race progresses.
"Alberto was better than in Luz Ardiden. It was a harder climb, a harder stage," Fran Contador told Reuters.
"We will see if he gets one day with the same legs as on the Giro d'Italia," he added in reference to Contador's impressive win in May.
"He is on the way up, we have yet to see the true Alberto Contador."