The 2009 Tour de France was as tough a battle for Alberto Contador off the road as it was on it. A year on, the 27-year-old Spaniard is the only rider from an imploding Astana team still with the Kazakh-backed outfit.
Even he agrees there are question marks against the riders brought in to replace the big names who have left. But as the sport's preeminent stage race rider, Contador insists, "With my characteristics as a climber, this year's route will suit me a lot more than last year's did," and feels he can win a third Tour title.
But with an untried Astana squad behind him, is he being realistic?
Alberto Contador gives you some idea of what his rivals have to deal with on the road. Try to ambush him by leading him in one direction and he's ready with a move of his own that quickly brings the conversation back to ground on which he feels more comfortable.
Push him on issues where he knows he's going to have to yield, such as the much-discussed strength of his Astana team, and he accepts the point but insists they will learn, that they will be up to the challenge at the Tour.
Try to provoke him with the latest reported barbs from Lance Armstrong and he dead-bats the subject, steadfastly staying clear of anything that might lead him into difficulty. As his rivals must surely feel, you end up thinking, "I tried my best but Alberto was one step ahead."
Although he's not as flamboyant with his words as he is with his performances on the road, Contador is both engaging and very likeable. He's the type of team leader who would instinctively put an arm around a team-mate's shoulder and quietly encourage them in a moment of difficulty rather than bawl them out. He's more Miguel Indurain than Lance Armstrong. He's a rider at one with the world rather than believing it's against him.
"What I like about him is his humility," says Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli, the man charged with plotting Contador's progress towards a third Tour de France triumph after two successes achieved with Johan Bruyneel. "He's a person who likes to talk and to listen.
"He confides in me, or at least he doesn't make me feel inferior when I talk to him," adds Martinelli. He knows what he's talking about, having guided Marco Pantani to the Tour and Giro titles in 1998 but regularly finding himself wrong-footed by the mercurial yet temperamental Italian.
But don't be fooled. There's steel behind Contador's ready smile and easy-going nature. Bruyneel talked about it at the start of the 2009 season when he described how the Spaniard was unlikely to be intimidated by Armstrong's return. Back then, the Belgian boss insisted having the two most likely winners of the Tour on his team was an enviable position to be in. He was right to an extent, but still ended up caught between the rock that is Armstrong and the hard place that is Contador.
The two riders have a good deal more than hard-headedness and immense ability in common. Their back-stories are similar. Both were billed as prodigiously talented as they broke into the pro ranks. Both were affected by life-threatening illness before they won the Tour. Both returned, when many doubted them, to win cycling's most illustrious prize.
The question this July will be whether both are in their cycling prime; it may be that neither is, that Armstrong's peak has passed, while Contador's best may still be to come.
Will we see Contador in yellow again this July? Probably...
The prodigy delivers on abundant talent
Martinelli has only worked with Contador for a few months but has known since his early moments at Astana that the Spaniard is something very special. "When he wants to win, he sets about the task with incredible determination. In Italy they would consider him a phenomenon," the Italian directeur sportif says of his team leader. And Martinelli is far from the first to be extremely impressed.
Former ONCE and now Garmin-Transitions physiologist Iñigo San Millán has clear memories of Contador's initial tests when he joined the powerful Spanish team in 2003 as a 20-year-old. "He was just a young kid but he was the one who went the furthest in the effort tests to the point where he exceeded the protocols," San Millán told El País. "He suffered and he suffered, but he did not stop."
Contador's personal coach, Pepe Martí, told the same paper that what impresses him most about the Spanish champion is how well and how fast he interprets the signals his body is giving him. "Every season he knows himself better and better. He knows how to regulate his performance depending on the information he is given," Martí said, giving an example relating to Contador's victory in the Annecy time trial in the Tour last year.
"He worked out that to beat Fabian Cancellara, taking into account the defeats he had suffered to him in Beijing and in Monaco, he had to have an advantage of 46 seconds over the Swiss rider when he topped the climb," continued Martí. "He told me before he started 'If I go over it 46 seconds ahead, I will win.' He was exactly 46 seconds ahead at the top of the climb and won by three seconds."
Contador plays down any talk of being a "phenomenon". Just as Indurain used to, he talks about "hard work", "sacrifice" and "the support of my team-mates". In fact, the only thing he will describe as "phenomenal" is the atmosphere in the Astana team since Martinelli and Yvon Sanquer were brought in to patch up the wreck of a team that barely made it to the end of last season.
Indeed, the resuscitation of the Astana team is one of the topics he's keen to discuss, recognising, as everyone does, that the comparative weakness of his team is likely to be his own biggest weakness in July. "I've been really delighted with the way the team have been riding," he tells Procycling at the Tour of the Algarve in February, just as he continues to tell everyone else.
"They are really motivated, they are very focused on my needs and defending my interests, making sure that I don't lack for anything and that they keep me out of the wind. Races like this are less about preparation for me but about the team preparing itself to work well, with clear ideas on the way that they will need to work at the Tour."
He says new team manager Sanquer "transmits a feeling of calm", as does Martinelli. of the latter he adds that, "he's got a more Italian philosophy when it comes to team management, where there is one leader and the rest of the team is built around him. This mentality is really good."
Does this mean that life at Astana is more relaxed now than at the same time last year? Contador laughs, already expecting the comparison to be made. "Yes, things are a lot more relaxed now. There's lots of laughing and joking between the riders and that makes everything a lot easier for me."
Astana: Version '09 vs Version '10
Contador won't be drawn too far on what he thinks went wrong at Astana last year but does confess, "I think there was a situation where everyone started to think about themselves to a large extent. Johan had a lot of work to do in order to sort out what he was going to do next, just as I had a lot to do in order to get my future worked out.
"I think after the Tour we only spoke a couple of times, we swapped some text messages. But we've still got a very respectful relationship with each other even though we're both focused very much on our own projects."
He readily acknowledges he owes a huge amount to Bruyneel, describing the Belgian as "an excellent director, who knows how to read a race extremely well". He then adds with another smile, "one of the key things that I will want to do now is to make use of a lot of that experience with the team we have now because it's invaluable."
Contador rides away from the leaders on stage 15 of last year's Tour
Contador constantly sidesteps the potential for controversy. When asked for his thoughts on Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters's comments that Bruyneel's 2009 Tour tactics were designed to put a brake on Contador while simultaneously assisting Armstrong, he deflects. "I think the tactics that were ultimately employed were based around benefiting everyone in the group," he says, but does hint that he wasn't entirely happy.
"For me, at a personal level, I was interested in the race being faster as against other riders whose interests were in it being slower," he adds. "But I don't think that Johan went about this with the sole idea that Lance would get on the podium. He was simply protecting the interests of the team as a whole."
He smiles again when asked about the widely reported psychological conflict that the media has been happily promoting between the Spaniard on one side and Bruyneel and Armstrong on the other. "As far as I'm concerned, there is no kind of psychological war going on between us. As far as things that come out in one place or another, I don't really give them any importance at all.
"What you've got to remember is that a lot of the comments that come out are taken out of context and don't correspond in any way to reality. I'm not going to get into that kind of thing at all. It doesn't interest me. All I'm concerned with is focusing on the training that I've got to do to ensure that I reach the Tour in the best possible condition."
Pressed on what he makes of Armstrong's comments on, for example, the "yes-men" that the seven-time Tour champion has said his double-Tour-winning rival is surrounded by, Contador does get testy. "I think that's what he believes but I have a different opinion on this. You can't get overly concerned with whatever he might be saying about you especially because I don't think that's the case.
"I think that things are actually completely the opposite because a lot of those people who are around me just see me as they always have and they can say to me, 'No, you're wrong, this is how this is or this is how that is.' I'm very happy with the way that my life is right now.
"I feel content, I've got the same friends that I've always had, the same people around me, I like it where I live, and this isn't down to the fact that I've got a lot of people around me who just say ‘yes' all the time. These people keep my feet very much on the ground and tell me, ‘This is the way things are...'"
Does Contador think that Armstrong has become obsessed by him? "Not at all. He's got much more important things on his mind."
He also denies downplaying any perceived dispute between the two Tour stars as being down to diplomacy. "It's not really a case of being diplomatic. I'm someone who doesn't like disputes. I like to get on with people. My focus is very much on myself and on those people who are close to me, whether they be friends, family or team-mates. That's simply the way I am. I'm not going to change."
He does admit that he's getting used to this line of questioning and understands why there is so much focus on his relationship with Armstrong. He also acknowledges this focus explains his refusal to do interviews in any other language but Spanish. "My English is okay, I can get by," he says. "But I want to ensure that I know exactly what I'm saying, that my words can't be misinterpreted, and that's why I stick to Spanish."
While Contador refuses to be drawn into any kind of controversy relating to Bruyneel and Armstrong, his close friend and Astana teammate Benjamín Noval has no such qualms. The Spaniard says if anyone is to blame for the breakdown between Astana's co-leaders last year, it's his former boss Bruyneel.
"You would expect groups to form within a team of 15 nationalities but when we're racing, we're all professional enough to deal with that," Noval told Spanish newspaper Meta2Mil. "But as I've always said, much of the blame for the relationship between Alberto and Lance reaching the state it is in now lies with Bruyneel. "I know that it's not that easy to manage two champions simultaneously, but if anybody could manage that, it should have been him."
Three times a member of a Tour-winning team, twice with Armstrong and once with Contador, Noval also offered some insight into the splits that were already occurring within Astana even before the race kicked off in Monaco last July. Certain he was going to be selected, Noval was devastated when he missed out. "I wasn't expecting it because I'd been working hard and was set to reach the Tour in good form," he says. "The team knew that and that was precisely the reason for my exclusion.
"The explanation they gave me was that I missed out because I was so close to Alberto and my presence could lead to splits in the group if he closed ranks with me and the other Spanish riders."
Noval added that Bruyneel indicated his non-selection was going to be balanced by the absence of American chris Horner from Astana's nine-man Tour team, preventing the possibility of an American split forming.
The Tour - time to shine
There will, of course, be no similar problems at Astana this summer. Rather than being spoilt for choice with regard to prospective Tour selections as Bruyneel was, Martinelli has a much smaller group to mould into a potentially winning team. only injury or illness will prevent Noval from being involved this year.
Alongside him, the key support crew will be fellow Spaniards Dani Navarro, Jesus Hernandez Blazquez and David De La Fuente, seasoned Italian campaigner Paolo Tiralongo, plus Alexandre Vinokourov and Maxim Iglinskiy. Add in Ukraine's Andriy Grivko, and the final line-up looks merely solid and decent rather than dominant.
Contador recognises his team is likely to be the weak link in his campaign. "Johan used to build his teams based on very experienced riders but Martinelli can't work that way because a lot of the riders don't have that level of experience," he says. The paucity of Astana's options are underlined when he confirms the strong possibility he will miss the Vuelta later in the season.
"It's difficult, not for me but for the team," he confesses. "Our team is not as powerful as other teams. We've got an important team if we train well and if we hold ourselves back for the Tour, we will have a strong team. But for the Tour and then the Vuelta? We'll have to see whether we have the capacity to do both. Whenever I do a major tour, the team that's around me has a lot of responsibility, so it doesn't just depend on me but also on the team."
Contador knew exactly what he had to do in order to win the final time trial of last year's Tour de France - and did it.
As for the possibility of some kind of action being taken to prevent key team-mate Alexandre Vinokourov from starting the Tour following his ban for blood doping at the 2007 race, Contador retorts, "Hombre, I certainly hope not. He's completed the sanction that was laid down and now he has another opportunity.
"I think he's going to be a very important rider for me in this Tour. He's not got any ideas of going to the Tour to win. He's going there to work, which is something that he knows extremely well how to do, and he'll no doubt be looking for a stage win somewhere, which is very important for him."
Underpinning Contador's ascent to the pinnacle of the sport has been a philosophy of viewing both good and bad moments as experiences from which positive lessons can be drawn. In this he resembles another Madrileño who's won the Tour, Carlos Sastre. Looking back at 2009, Contador recognises the turmoil he was embroiled in, confesses he struggled to cope with it at times but insists that because of it, he's a stronger cyclist and person.
"I found myself in a lot of situations that you could say were delicate. lots of things have happened to me as a rider in the past, of course. Winning a Tour, a Giro, a Vuelta, suffering a serious illness and then winning another Tour last year. But last year I think I had more than a year's worth of experiences, it was more like two or three.
"I found myself in situations that I had never imagined would occur, in situations that were very delicate in terms of how they needed handling and also put a lot of pressure on me. I think going through all that has made it so that I see things with more tranquillity, with more sang froid. I think all those experiences will serve me well in the years to come."
But what about this year and a Tour that has been described as 'very Contador'? "They always say that," he says, laughing again. "It's a much tougher Tour than 2009. There's no team time trial and last year, the team time trial had a huge impact on the overall classification. I think there are stages where you can attack from a long way out. It's a Tour where there's a lot to play for and that, with my characteristics as a climber, will suit me a lot more than last year's."
Equally, Martinelli's focus on building an Italian-style group around contador is sure to suit the Spaniard more than last year's confusion. Armstrong, the Schlecks and the rest of an impressively long list of podium contenders are sure to cause him some difficult moments, but the likelihood is that the Astana team leader will ride into Paris on 25 July wearing the yellow jersey for the third time.
If this proves to be the case, Contador will have three Tour titles to his credit at an age when Armstrong was still viewed as very much an outsider to win his first. It would also be his fifth major tour victory in just six starts. Such statistics will certainly ensure that Martinelli will be far from the only expert describing Contador as "a phenomenon".