News feature, March 12, 2006
One of Spain's most promising young cyclists, Liberty Seguros' Alberto Contador, has started his 2006 season with the French 'race to the sun' about a week ago. Being an excellent climber and a good rouleur, the 23 year-old would have been a candidate for a good overall placing or a stage win in Paris-Nice, but Contador was a little short of luck after finishing a solid fourth at the prologue in Issy-les-Moulineaux.
In the second stage from Villemandeur to Saint-Amand-Montrond, the young Spaniard punctured at a crucial moment of the race. "It was a little bit of bad luck, that's true," Contador told Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kröner in the evening of the fifth day of racing. "We were chasing down the break when I punctured, so the race was really fast at that moment. I lost time there, although two teammates were with me - one of them had to give me his bike."
The winner of last year's Setmana Catalana also recalled the time when another mechanical ruined his then good chances of a stage win in the 2005 Paris-Nice: on the last day, he went on a very promising solo breakaway in the hinterland of Nice when his chain slipped. "I rode that stage in front all day, and I almost made it hadn't my foot slipped out of the pedal in the descent - I almost crashed very badly that day, it could have been much worse."
Contador has learned to put things into perspective after a aneurysm almost cost him his life in May 2004 during the Vuelta a Asturias. After a long recovery from multiple fractures and cerebral surgery, he made his comeback to the top level of the sport in early 2005, winning the fifth stage of the Tour Down Under.
But heading into Paris-Nice, the 23 year-old knew that his preparation over the winter hadn't been optimal, again because of a health problem. "I still lack a little bit of form," he said. "I could start to train only after Christmas because of a a groin hernia operation I had to undergo in the first week of December. In previous years, of course I started much earlier. Plus, the weather in Spain was bad this winter, so I didn't get to do many climbs."
Nevertheless, his form was good enough to finish only three seconds down the prologue winner Bobby Julich (CSC). When asked about it, Contador toned it down again: "Yes, but this kind of prologue doesn't demand to be a 100 percent fit physically. It's a very short, explosive effort, and that suits me, so I could do well there without being at a 100 percent - a 200 km-stage is still different."
And the cold weather in central France also was a factor last week, when he lost four minutes in stage three to Saint Etienne, this time not due to a mechanical. "That's true," Contador commented. "It's like I said: The prologue went well, and I felt good in that first mountain stage, too. I tested myself, and I thought that I was a little better than that - but the weather also plays a part when you're not at a 100 percent yet.
"After that, stage five looked like a good course to me, and if it had been further down in the season it might have turned out in my favour. That last climb suited me perfectly. But as I'm not at the top of my form yet, ultimately I couldn't keep up with all the attacks," added the Spaniard, who was again in a breakaway that day, only to be caught by the bunch with just a few hundred metres to go.
After a stage win of his teammate Andrei Kashechkin on the penultimate day of the 'race to the sun', and keeping in mind his unfinished business on the last stage around Nice in 2005, it was no surprise to see Contador riding up front again last Sunday. Looking extremely focused at the start, it was clear that the Liberty rider was going to attack - and he did, the only one being able to follow being Caisse d'Epargne's Joaquin Rodriguez.
"On the last climb, Rodriguez was very strong, too, and we played poker for the stage victory: trying to scare each other and drop one another," Contador said post-race. "And we still had a little advantage left, but when Rodriguez' teammate Antonio Colom came back on us in the descent, I had been driving hard, my legs were hurting and the race was pretty fast. Of course, I took my chances and tried in the sprint, but as I'm not at a 100 percent of my form yet...
"I'm still happy, this race is always good to test oneself, to see how far the preparation has gone. For this time of the year, this is the level of fitness that I want, as my real objectives begin in the month of April. So I'm doing alright, but there's still some fine-tuning work to do to be 'a tope' in about a month," he added. Contador's next races on his 2006 program are the Critérium International from March 26-27, then the GP Miguel Indurain in Spain, the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, the Northern Spring Classics Amstel Gold Race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne and the Tour de Romandie at the end of April.
"I would like to be in good shape for next month, moreso for the Vuelta a Pais Vasco and for Romandie than for the Spring Classics - which I will discover for the first time this year. But cycling is not like mathematics - you never know. In principle, I'm up for the Tour de France again this year. Last year, my schedule before July was a little too unpredictable, and I came to the Tour after an accident [At the Dauphiné Libéré, the Spaniard fractured his finger - ed.]. So this year, we've planned in several short breaks to recover, to make up a good preparation. The objective for the Tour is of course to help Vinokourov, and maybe I can feel a little better than last year."