It’s been six months since Alberto Contador last turned a pedal in anger, apart from criteriums and invitation races. This week’s Tour of the Algarve has seen the Spaniard making his first competitive steps towards the defence of the Tour de France title he claimed last July in what promises to be an epic Tour pitting him against Lance Armstrong, the brothers Schleck, Bradley Wiggins and a number of dark horses.
Speaking to Cyclingnews after his first day of racing at the Algarve, the 27-year-old Astana rider said he is pleased to be back. An attack very late on in that first stage as the sprinters were preparing for their final fling underlined the relish Contador clearly feels about being back in the saddle after some very difficult times for his Astana team.
“It was just a test, just a way of seeing how my legs felt, to find out what the sensations were,” he said. “I felt very good.”
Good is also how he feels about the latest reincarnation of the Astana team. Apparently on its last legs when Armstrong and team manager Johan Bruyneel secured backing from RadioShack and took many of Astana’s riders along with them as the Kazakh-backed outfit looked set to implode, the team has undergone its second major overhaul and Contador is pleased with how it is shaping up.
“The atmosphere in the team is great, it’s very relaxed, there are lots of new guys but we all get on very well. There’s lots of joking and laughing between us. On the road too I’m very happy with them,” said Contador.
Asked about the widely stated observation that the team lacks strength in depth, Contador admits: “We may not have the riders here to enable to us to compete in all the major tours, but we have a very strong core group for the Tour. And it was good on today’s stage to see how well the team worked. I was pleased to see how well they worked for me, keeping me out of the wind, keeping me well placed in the bunch. It was a really good start for us.”
It’s been all change too on the management side. Former Festina boss Yvon Sanquer has steadied what was undoubtedly a sinking ship. “He has brought a feeling of tranquility to the team,” Contador said.
At the same time, highly experienced Italian directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli has started to mould what he expects to be a Tour-winning outfit. “Things have started very well with Martinelli. He likes his teams to be organised in a typically Italian way where there is one clear leader and all of the other riders understand that they will be working for that man. He also listens closely to what the riders want. I’m not lacking for anything at all,” explained Contador.
Of course there is no escaping the Armstrong question, but absolutely no chance of luring Contador into saying anything the slightest bit controversial about his former team-mate. Contador is well aware that the media want to stoke up the rivalry between the two riders, but won’t be drawn into that. He has huge respect for Armstrong, he says, and for former boss Bruyneel.
Pushed for his thoughts on what he makes of Armstrong’s comments about the wholesale exodus of last year’s Astana Tour de France team from this year’s roster, including Contador’s room-mate Sergio Paulinho, the Spaniard is diplomatic. “I understand all too well the way that cycling works. The future was very uncertain at Astana last summer and many of the riders had offers from RadioShack and took them,” he said. “At that point I didn’t have anything that I could offer them and of course racing is job like any other so it is no surprise when riders move. I understand that they are doing what is the best thing for them.”
For Bruyneel he has nothing but positive words. “I learned huge amounts about the sport and racing from Johan,” he said. “He was always an excellent director in the years that I spent with him. I realise how hard it was for him to balance the needs of riders on the team last year, and I still have a very respectful relationship with him.”
In fact, the only thing that is able to disturb Contador’s serene start to what does look like to be an epic season is the weather that has dogged pretty much every European-based professional so far this year. Day two at the Algarve brought a day more suited to the Belgian Classics than southern Portugal.
“Uffff, a very difficult day,” Contador Tweeted after the stage. “These days make cycling epic. Congratulations to my team who take responsibility [for chasing] during the race.”
Even in the midst of a freezing downpour, Contador reflects on the positive aspects of the stage. It’s been a hard six months for the Spanish champion and it’s going to take an awful lot more to knock him out of his confident stride than a day of dismal weather.