This year brought the most dominant of his four Grand Tour victories thus far, but Alberto Contador fully expects the push to add a fifth – namely another Tour de France win – to be a more difficult one.
The 27-year-old Spaniard heads towards the new season with a reduced-strength Astana team, after his arch-rival Lance Armstrong brought many of the team's chief riders with him to RadioShack.
"I am realistic and I know that I have a weaker team than in previous years,” he told the Spanish newspaper Marca. “For that reason we'll have to work hard on motivation in training so that we know what we can achieve and how to do it.”
“I know that it will be a difficult year; it's possible I won't be able to win the Tour even if I am in good shape. People will be focussing a lot on me, but my rivals know that the team I will have is not the same as before.”
Contador had one remaining year on his contract with the team and despite stating on several occasions that he wanted to leave, he was unable to do so. A delay in the Kazakh squad’s licence registration with the International Cycling Union (UCI) appeared to give him a way out, but ultimately he declared that he would stay for 2010.
Part of his increased confidence in the team was due to the signing of new staff, including General Manager Yvon Sanquer and Directeur Sportif Giuseppe Martinelli, as well as signs that the squad will be more financially sound from this point on.
In fact, he doesn’t rule out remaining there beyond next season.
"We'll have to see how everything goes because Astana could be a great team and I may decide to stay, though I may also change teams or set up my own,” he said. “[That’s] something that would be highly motivating, but would tax my energy."
Contador and the rest of the Astana are currently training in Pisa, Italy, and will be joined today or tomorrow by the latest signing Oscar Pereiro.
They are likely to have another camp in the new year, prior to the start of the racing season. Contador is expected to follow a similar programme to 2009, eschewing the Giro d’Italia in favour of shorter stage races. He said that he may also consider riding the Vuelta a España later in the season.
Armstrong stated yesterday that he is likely to compete in the Vuelta a Murcia and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, two Spanish events which Contador may also do. That would given them a chance to compare their form early in the season, before a big push to hit peak condition in July.
The rivalry between the two is certain to be intense, particularly after the much-publicised tensions that existed during this year’s Tour. Contador acknowledges that the experience was a stressful one, but believes that it will stand him in good stead in the future.
“I am thinking about the 2010 Tour, not the 2009 one, even though I admit he pushed me to the limit in all areas, psychologically and physically," he said.
"But it helped me a lot to mature and I hope to exploit that experience next year."