Strange but true. Whenever Alberto Contador talks about which races he has enjoyed the most, he rarely refers to the Tour de France. He will highlight instead, for instance, the joy he felt at taking part and winning a stage in the 2005 Tour Down Under, his first race back after a long illness, or the 2007 Paris-Nice, his first major career win outside Spain.
But what about the Tour that he won the same year, in 2007, after Michael Rasmussen was excluded from the event and Discovery manager Johan Bruyneel came into Contador’s hotel room one evening to tell him he was the race leader? Or the 2009 Tour, when he managed to fend off teammate Lance Armstrong to take his second big win? Rarely mentioned. As Contador puts it, “The Tour de France is the race which has given me most grief.”
Behind this sentiment is Contador’s sometimes tumultuous relationship with the Tour: in 2006 and 2008 his respective teams, Liberty Seguros and Astana, were barred from the race (through no fault of his own), and in 2010 and 2011 his overall results – first and fifth, respectively – were wiped from the record books because of his two-year sanction for a clenbuterol positive. And in 2012, that sanction also prevented Contador from racing the Tour altogether.
There were those who thought that Contador would make a huge impact on the Tour in 2013, as a way of bouncing back from that sanction. After all, as he showed in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España in 2008, and once again in the 2012 Vuelta, Contador’s response to a setback tends to be of the race-winning variety.
Yet 2013 was largely a flop. Barring a stage victory in the Tour de San Luis in January, Contador failed to shine in any of his targets. There were some superb near misses – like the second place in the Tour’s hilly time trial – and an insistence on attacking Froome, uphill or downhill, wherever or whenever he could throughout the Tour. That tenacity and aggression helped produced some of the race’s most exciting moments, like the stage 13 mass ambush and echelons on the flatlands of central France. But ultimately, too much time by Contador was lost on the set-piece mountain top finishes – Ax-3 Domaines, Mont Ventoux, Semnoz – for it to matter. Froome was stronger: end of story. And so, for that matter, were Nairo Quintana, second overall, and Joaquim Rodriguez.
On the plus side, while the ‘Pistolero of Pinto’ might not have been firing on all cylinders last July, he wasn’t completely out of bullets either. Fourth overall was hardly a poor result, and last year Contador’s squad, now re-branded Tinkoff-Saxo, won the Tour’s Best Team’s prize, a sure-fire sign of collective strength. Sky manager Dave Brailsford might have argued last July that he’d prefer to have a strong leader and a weak team than the other way round, but that particular victory for Contador‘s Tour de France squad bodes well, in some ways, for 2014.
The big question, of course, was whether Contador himself would bounce back, and all the signs are that he has done so. From the moment he launched a blistering attack on the toughest mountain stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, the portents this season have never been less than good. Victories in Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al País Vasco have been added to his palmares, with second place in the Volta a Catalunya and in the Critérium du Dauphiné showing that his consistency of 2013 has not only been maintained, he’s now operating several degrees higher.
For further proof, take the UCI WorldTour rankings: Contador is ranked number one, which for a stage race specialist to manage prior to the Tour de France, particularly when he hasn’t done the Giro d’Italia, is exceptional.
“I would say that he is at least as strong as in the Giro 2011 [which Contador won, although he later was stripped of the victory as part of his two-year suspension – ed.],” Philippe Mauduit, his sports director in all his races at Tinkoff-Saxo tells Cyclingnews. “He’s back to that level.”
“What hasn’t changed at all is that he’s always ready to be in the thick of the action, to give it everything – that’s in his character. I’d have to say my career’s been pretty brief in cycling so far, but he’s the strongest rider I’ve ever seen. He’s got the physique, a strong sense of tactics and the mentality of a winner.. Some riders lack one of these elements, some have got two, but he’s got all three. And with all three you can go a long way.
“It’s not easy, everybody wants to get on his wheel, everybody knows he’s the guy to follow. But he still manages to blow them away. And that’s something that puts him in the realm of the greats.”
What’s different to 2013, then, on a practical level? Previously no fan of training at altitude, this year Contador has been a regular visitor for weeks at a time to the Mount Teide Parador hotel on Tenerife, alongside rivals Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali. His move from Spain to Switzerland has made his personal life, insiders say, “more straightforward, without a constant stream of visitors like he’d get in [his home town of] Pinto.” On top of that, Contador has cut back on his race program, avoiding both long trips away – to San Luis, or the Tour of Oman – starting his season later, and skipping the Spring Classics altogether.
“It’s partly to be fresher for the Tour de France, and partly because he has a much denser second half of the season,” Mauduit comments. “Obviously what happens in the Tour de France could change this, but all being well, Alberto very much wants to do the Vuelta – and try to win it – as well as the Tour.”
Contador’s pollen allergies, although affecting him slightly in races like the Dauphiné, have not been as bad as previous years, either – another factor which set him back in 2013. “Last year it was a lot wetter through the spring and early summer, and this year we could say we’ve had a ‘normal’ spring,” Mauduit points out. “That’s made a difference, too.”
Is he closer to Froome in terms of form and pure strength, though? The way he stayed glued to Froome’s back wheel on stage two’s summit finish of the Dauphiné – but could not get ahead – would suggest he is much closer. But Froome’s time trialling in the Dauphiné, albeit on a short distance, was unquestionably superior. What remains to be seen is if in the three weeks between the end of the Dauphiné and the start of the Tour, Contador has continued to close the gap.
“Froome is the top favourite, and then there’s a whole group of us,” Contador said in a recent interview. “[Vincenzo] Nibali, [Alejandro] Valverde, Purito [Joaquim Rodriguez].” Although Rodriguez has ruled himself out of the GC battle, Contador believes that is not strictly the case: “He’ll be up there.”
Contador’s team will be lacking one factor that Mauduit would have liked to have been there: Roman Kreuziger, fifth overall last year and currently awaiting a decision on anomalies in his biological passport. Apart from a possible role as a GC option, should Contador fall back, Kreuziger was a powerful climber and a huge support in the high mountains.
“We just have to accept this situation. Roman is a rider who’s always there, very good at reading races, and also a very nice person, too. We’ll miss him. On the other hand, we have Rafal [Majka] as his replacement, and we know he’s a good climber, too. That doesn’t change so much, in the end.”
Overall, though, he recognises that Contador “was overtired and ill for parts of last year. This time round we’ve taken a much steadier route towards the Tour, much more in his ‘normal’ line, and it seems to have worked. He’s in line, now, for, this July. He can win. Maybe in 15 or 20 days we’ll know better, but he can win.”