Spain’s Alberto Contador, the winner of the Vuelta a España in 2008 and 2012, has finally confirmed in a press conference on Monday that he feels in good enough condition to try to capture his home Grand Tourt for a third time in 2014. It is the first time since the race departed from Jerez 10 days ago that the Tinkoff-Saxo rider has definitively stated that he now feels confident enough, following his Tour de France injuries and recovery, to go for the overall in this year's Vuelta.
In a good mood, chatting to journalists both before and after a press conference in which he spoke at length, Contador explained that he feels that even if his form is an incognito compared to other top favourites like Chris Froome (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) he feels confident enough to say he will now battle for the overall.
“Right now, I can say I will try to win it, but it’s not so clear if I have the legs actually to do that,” Contador said. “Tomorrow’s time trial will be a big test, and we mustn’t draw big conclusions from a stage like yesterday’s.” - where Contador attacked close to the summit of the final ascent to Valdelinares, dropping both Froome and Quintana.
He explained how overnight, his attitude to the Vuelta has now changed. “Up until yesterday, and even up to the last climb, I only thought about getting through each stage," Contador said. "But time has gone past and I haven’t lost time. At no point before yesterday has it been a question of thinking I can win the Vuelta and keeping that thought to myself.”
The doubts, of course, as to whether Contador could battle for a Vuelta win came after his appalling Tour de France injury, breaking his tibia, and whether a comeback in time for the Vuelta was practical. However, after nine days of racing, Contador is lying second overall and he was on the point of taking the Vuelta lead yesterday - which means he feels he can up the stakes on his chances in the Vuelta, even if it remains a hefty gamble.
Spaniard considers the stage 10 time trial
The crunch moment for Contador - and for all the overall favourites - is tomorrow’s stage 10 time trial from Real Monasterio de Santa María de Veruela to Borja. “I will see what I can do, my case is more of an incognito than Froome or Quintana, who will come here fresher and in better race shape. But the time trial will decide a lot of things, and I will study what cards I can play after that.
“I think the big favourites are still the same: Quintana, Froome, who has a time trial which really suits him and you can’t forget Joaquim (Rodriguez) and Alejandro (Valverde). Look at the classification and there are lots of people still in the frame, there’s so little time between us and so many hard stages to come.”
He paused to think for a little when asked if he felt better than in 2012, when he last won the Vuelta, on the first rest day, before answering “No. Joaquim was really on top of his game then and we have yet to see how he is going and how I am going here in the really hard stages. But I think he’s in better shape than he was in 2012.”
“I’m getting better every day, but perhaps I am lacking in the confidence that having some good work and a solid build-up gives. But I am sure that riders like Froome and Nairo, who haven’t raced for quite a while, are going to get stronger.”
Quite apart from rivals with steadily improving form and a lot of tough stages to come, just to make matters even more complex, Contador recognised, too, that “time trials coming straight after a rest day are always special, we never know what’s going to happen under those circumstances, and although it’s something simple to say, the possible effects are never clear. This morning I went to see the time trial to work out which gears to use and not much more. The key is to rest as much as possible, and that’s what I’m doing for the rest of the day.
“The time trial course itself is simple, but harder than it looks on the map. First off, it climbs gradually upwards, then there’s a part with poor tarmac where you are exposed to the wind, then there’s a fast, technical descent and a last, fast part to the finish.”
But even if he comes through the time trial in as good a position - or better - than when he starts it, Contador insisted that his form is in no way as good as when he was in the Tour. “Everything I can get here is a bonus, you look at it very differently. You know that it’s up to the rest of the riders, who have worked harder for this race and who are more favourites than me, to do what they can.
“I haven’t forgotten my injury, it still bothers me, the pain’s very slight but that’s normal. When I took the decision to come to the Vuelta, I imagined that the most probable outcome was that my injury would get worse, but luckily that isn’t the case.”
How far Contador can go from this point onwards remains to be seen, but one thing is now certain: in terms of challenging for the Vuelta, for the Pistolero of Pinto, the gloves are definitively off.