By Shane Stokes, with additional reporting by Gregor Brown
Following the seventeenth stage of the Tour de France, Alberto Contador was presented with the first Tour de France maillot jaune of his career in Castelsarrasin. The Spaniard had started the day first in the general classification but due to the circumstances around that race lead, the organisers decided that a yellow jersey should not be worn during the stage.
Contador was happy to have a yellow jersey on his shoulders on the podium, adding the maillot jaune to the maillot blanc that he already holds. He was pleased about this, and also to have a break from racing hard during the stage. "I wanted to relax because it [stage 16] was a difficult day. I was happy because I had performed well in recent days with my attacks."
However, perhaps unsurprisingly given the nature of the race thus far, he faced a tough grilling at the post race press conference.
First off, Contador was asked a three-pronged question, namely if he was clean, if he had missed any pre-Tour out of competition tests and what his role was as regards the Operación Puerto investigation. "Yes, or else I would not be here," he replied to the first. "As regards the second question, I have done absolutely all the controls. I have done the doping tests, those during the races and also outside the races. There is not any sort of problem."
As regards the Puerto question, he said that the appearance of his name in initial reports was a mistake and said that he was fully cleared. "My team has studied this issue, from every angle," he stated. "There is no connection with Puerto. I was simply in the wrong team at the wrong moment [when the story broke]."
With his current lead in the overall standings, Contador could be poised to win the Tour de France on just his second time in the race, but any win would be achieved under less than ideal circumstances. Contador wouldn't say if it was fair that Rabobank pulled his main competition, Michael Rasmussen, from the race, but skirted the issue rather than expressing an opinion. "I can't say if this is correct or not because I don't know the exact circumstances about it," he answered. "It was as a decision the team took... I can't say anything about it."
The troubled recent history of the Tour plus the scandals of this year's edition have meant that there is a climate of suspicion. Perhaps trying to diffuse the situation, a Spanish journalist asked Contador how he felt to have to face questions from journalists as to whether he is clean.
"I think in truth it is very sad because I like cycling, there are lots of supporters who love it and it is a wonderful sport," he answered. "There are thousands of spectators along the roadsides. It is it is a big pity to have these questions all of the time."
However, those questions were not going away. "Who is your doctor – is it Ferrari?" he was then asked. "I have never met Doctor Ferrari," he answered, smiling. "I haven't spoken a single word to him before, and I don't work with him. My doctors are the [Discovery Channel] team doctors, and I only work with them."
Contador will start stage 18 with a lead of 1'53" over his closest rival Cadel Evans (Predictor Lotto), and he lost just 1'04" to Evans in the Albi time trial. This was just 1.5 kilometres shorter than that what will come on stage 19, but the Australian may have an additional advantage in that it is flat.
Contador will himself have the psychological boost of wearing the yellow jersey, but he is taking nothing for granted. "55 kilometres is a lot," he said of his chances. "It depends on the day. I think it will be fairly hard to keep the yellow jersey but I believe my condition in this third week is good. "I saw from the results of the last time trial that I have a chance. I will do everything I can to keep my jersey."