"We might have the battle that everyone dreams of"
Bjarne Riis stood near the podium area at Tirreno-Adriatico and savoured the moment Alberto Contador celebrated his stage victory and then pulled on the race leader's blue jersey.
2013 was a season of struggle, tension and disappointment. For lots of reasons, including Anti-Doping Denmark's investigation into Riis' past as team manager. So far this season, everything is going to plan and Contador appears to be back to his very best and ready to challenge Chris Froome at the Tour de France.
"I think that we might have the battle that everyone dreams of," Riis told journalists at the finish line, clearly up for a battle with Froome, Team Sky and anyone else during the rest of the season.
Riis revealed he has been working hard with Contador to learn from the mistakes and problems of 2013.
"Alberto's a winner, what happened last year wasn't easy for him," he explained.
"People can imagine that it's been tough mentally to come back. He had to reset his focus. We agreed that we'd try to approach it differently this winter. He worked hard, it paid off and now this is the guy I know he can be."
"He'd probably not agree that it's a comeback. I think he's always been there, even if he's not been on the top level. The problem is that we expect this from him all the time but he's just not able to deliver all the time."
More structured training
Riis refused to give details on how he has changed Contador's training. When the Tinkoff-Saxo team gathered in Gran Canaria in January, Contador stayed for the official team photograph but left before Oleg Tinkov arrived so he could train at altitude on Mount Teide.
"I'm not going into details about how he trained and what we do but maybe it's a little more structured," Riis said.
"It's not that he never trained before but it’s a little more precise and we worked on the things I wanted him to work on. He's done that and he could see the result the whole winter in his testing. That's what's important. He feels good and he's happy."
Contador trains with a power metre but Riis was happy that he raced on instinct, not by looking at his data.
"Alberto has a lot of experience, he doesn't look at his numbers all the time. He knows where he is. In races, if you want to beat the rest then you need to beat them, not sitting looking at your power."
"I think it's important for him to be able to win with a long attack. It's a demonstration. He kind of needed that. He wanted to show that he's there and strong."
Contador will face Chris Froome at the Volta a Catalunya later this month. It will be the next chapter in their clashes as they prepare for the big-match in July in France.
Rivalry with Team Sky
Riis loves a battle as much as Dave Brailsford and knows that Team Sky will be watching and analyzing Contador's impressive performances at Tirreno-Adriatico.
"I bet they are sitting home and watching, no doubt about that," Riis said.
"Are they worried? I don't know. But this is competition. If you want to win you need to be good. If you want to beat the rest you need to be the best."
Riis also believes that Contador is not at his best. There is still more to come at the Volta a Catalunya, then at the Tour of Basque Country and then later at the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour de France.
"He's worked hard, focused a lot and only done one race before this, I think there's still progressing but he's definitely not bad at all," Riis said.
"Catalunya and Pais Vasco are the next steps, we will go for that and try. We will stop after that and prepare for the Tour, Alberto won't ride Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The Vuelta is also in his programme, it's going to be a long season…"
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