Alberto Contador (Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) may be a strong favourite with the odds compilers for the 2012 Vuelta a Espana, which starts in Pamplona on Saturday, but the Spaniard has insisted that Team Sky's Chris Froome will be tough to be beat when the grand tour gets underway.
Contador returned from a six-month doping related suspension at last week's Eneco Tour and performed solidly by finishing in fourth place overall after his enforced absence. It looked at the time like an effective warm-up for the Vuelta, which has been Contador's redemptive target since his dramatic fall from grace in February. Having been forced to sit out the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France and the London 2012 Olympics, the thought of victory in his homeland at the final grand tour of the season has been the light at the end of the tunnel.
The 29-year-old has long been considered the best stage racer of his generation and is one of only five riders to win all three grand tours. He will be hunting his second Vuelta title, having won it for the first time in 2008, but he has identified the threat of Team Sky's Chris Froome as being potentially the most potent over the next three and a bit weeks.
Froome was the surprise runner-up at the Vuelta last year behind Juan Jose Cobo, eclipsing the performance of his teammate and Sky's number one Bradley Wiggins, who finished third. This year Froome has proved that his performance in Spain was no fluke by finishing second at the Tour behind Wiggins and winning bronze at the time trial at the Olympic Games. Many observers were of the opinion that Froome was the strongest rider at the Tour, especially in the mountains, and had he followed his own game plan rather than team orders he might have won. It's a theory not lost on Contador.
"Froome showed last year that he could have won the Vuelta, where he had the freedom to do so," Contador told his official website.
"In this year's Tour de France he showed a spectacular performance and proved that he was the strongest. I think Froome comes [to the Vuelta] with a goal to win, and he will be a tough competitor to beat."
Contador also declared himself happy with his fourth place at the Eneco Tour and stated that it was good preparation for the Vuelta, despite the lack of mountain stages. He also revealed that he would be extra motivated at the Vuelta in front of his own fans.
"The Eneco Tour was a good preparation for the Vuelta," he said. "And I had a good feeling, even though the route was completely flat. When it comes to the Vuelta a España, the goal is to fight for victory. I am aware that there will be many others with similar goals, but sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I worked hard, and I'm extra motivated because it's a race in my own country."