Anyone riding up Box Hill in the pouring rain on Friday afternoon might well have done a double-take if they'd noticed two-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff team manager Bjarne Riis tackling the climb that was the main difficulty in the London Olympic road race.
In London on the last leg of their 'European tour' of main sponsor Saxo Bank's various offices, the pair took the opportunity to stretch their legs on one of the UK's best-loved climbs in the backyard of British rivals Team Sky.
Contador's visit to south-east England came the day after he'd accompanied Riis and Saxo Bank CEO Lars Seier Christensen to a Madrid press conference to announce that the company would next season take up the slack after having lost 2013 co-sponsor Tinkoff Bank, and that the team would be known as Team Saxo Bank in 2014 — unless a new replacement co-sponsor was to come aboard.
"The last time I was here was for the start of the 2007 Tour de France, in London," Contador told Cyclingnews. "But this is my first time riding Box Hill — a climb I saw on TV during the Olympic road race.
"Today's rain made it quite hard, but it's not too difficult a climb," he continued, his familiar dancing-on-the-pedals style having helped him make short work of two ascents of the famous 2.5km-long Zig Zag Road.
"What makes a climb like that so tough is when you have to climb it lap after lap."
Together with a number of Saxo Bank employees, two laps were, given Friday's weather, quite enough — but the 30-year-old Spaniard will need to up his intensity if he wants to unseat reigning champion Chris Froome at the Tour de France next summer.
"Froome is very, very strong, and will be difficult to beat," said Contador, who won the race in 2007 and 2009. "But then if I don't believe I can win, then I won't be able to win. I'm feeling extra motivated for next season, and will work hard, so we'll see what happens."
Anything can happen at the Tour, Contador pointed out, and one of the best examples of that came at the 2013 race when Saxo-Tinkoff split the race apart in the crosswinds on stage 13 between Tours and Saint-Amand-Montrond, forcing Froome and his Sky team-mates onto the back foot, while Contador took over a minute out of them. He eventually finished fourth overall in Paris, 6:27 down on Froome.
In Madrid on Thursday, Riis stated that he didn't think that Sky had the strongest team at the 2013 Tour, but that they had the strongest rider in Froome. Fittingly, it was the Dane's Saxo-Tinkoff outfit that topped the overall team rankings last July.
"Around the dinner table, all the riders are good friends, which isn't always the case on other teams," said Contador, who is contracted to the Saxo Bank squad for the next two seasons. "Bjarne commands a lot of respect from all the riders and staff, and he works hard to ensure that everyone works well together, which all adds up to make me think that I'm on the best team to help me win the Tour again."
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