The first race day of what is shaping to be his last as a professional cyclist was a safe affair for Alberto Contador, who finished the opening day of the Volta ao Algarve em Bicicleta in 29th place on the same time as stage winner Marcel Kittel (Etixx-Quick Step). The Tinkoff rider previously won the Portuguese season opener in 2009 and 2010 and is well positioned after the opening day to add a third title to his palmares.
"It was a good day but this being one of the first races of the season," said Contador, who won a stage and finished second overall at his season opening race in 2015, the Ruta del Sol.
"There is always some tension. With a peloton of nearly 200 riders the race can be tense. I understand there were some crashes but, fortunately, the Tinkoff squad wasn't affected. Last year, the start at the Ruta del Sol was quite similar, again with crashes and falls. It was windy but that didn't cause much trouble. The field in the Volta ao Algarve is strong, with excellent sprinters and very good time trialists, and the race level is similar to that of the WorldTour," he added.
While two late crashes on the 163.6km stage from Lagos to Albufeira ensured a tense finish to the stage, Tinkoff sports director Steven de Jongh explained his experienced group of riders came through with the goods to ensure Contador was safely embedded in the front group and remained upright.
"Today, for us, it was a stage where the goal was not to lose time in the general classification," said de Jongh who was also wary of the weather as he added, "It was obvious that the sprinter teams would take control of the stage and that we would have a bunch sprint. Luckily the wind was not very strong. The team worked hard to keep Alberto in front and the guys did a very good job again. There were a lot of crashes but we were able to stay out of trouble."
Stage 2 of the race is the first test for the GC contenders with the finish on top of the second category 7km Alto de la Foia climb that averages 5.5 per cent. Contador recently told Cyclingnews that he hadn't yet seen the climb, but having since ridden it in a recon, explained that he expects it will "be tough, although, in my opinion, the main GC contenders will reach the finish together."
Contador previously explained that he believes the race will be decided in the coming days, highlighting former winner Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick Step) as a rider to watch.
"I think as ever the [stage 3] time trial and the Alto de Malhao climb on stage 5 will be the real deciders, particularly the time trial because it’s 18 kilometres of flat riding. If the stage 2 climb isn’t that hard, then a time trial that long is where guys like Tony Martin could really make a difference," Contador told Cyclingnews.
Supporting Contador on the Alto de la Foia climb be will be long-time lieutenant Jesus Hernandez Blazquez, along with Sergio Paulinho and Robert Kiserlovski. The 33-year-old will look to ensure he again finishes in the front group in order to fight for overall victory.
"For tomorrow it will be exciting to see the final with an uphill finish and the riders fighting again for the first split in the GC," said de Jongh.