As he heads towards Paris and his third Tour de France victory, Alberto Contador confessed that there had been moments during the Bordeaux-Pauillac time trial when he had thought the yellow jersey was slipping from his grasp. "I was scared that I might not beat Andy [Schleck] in the time trial. At one point I got information that I was five seconds behind him and I did think, 'Oh my God, this could be over for me,' when he was just a couple of seconds behind me. I had to go through a lot of suffering. But I kept very focused and held it together."
Asked how he had felt as he crossed the finish line and realised that he had gained some key seconds on Schleck, Contador said, "The truth is there's a lot of emotion. I think it's the first Tour to give me this much emotion. You can't imagine how much I've given. Yes, there were few days when I wasn't in my best form, and that might be why I'm so emotional."
"The last year has been difficult for all kinds of reasons," the Spaniard said. "This year I've not been at my best all the time and that was the case today. But of course in the end I'm very happy with how the year has now turned out. All the victories this year have been the result of a lot of hard work. It's been said that I've not competed in a lot of races but I've spent a lot of time away from home preparing for this objective."
Asked why he had struggled, Contador said: "You never really know why things don't work out as you hope after the preparations you've done. There are so many aspects to the sport that you have to take into consideration. Cycling is not like math. You can't plan things exactly.
"But this year I've not been in my best shape. Today I didn't feel too well. I didn't sleep well and woke up with stomach ache, but ultimately the day turned out pretty well for me, although I suffered more today than at any other time this year."
He would not be drawn on how far he was below his best or what his worst days had been. "I can't really say what percentage I was below my best, but there were some moments that I had the same good sensations as last year. I wasn't at the same level as last year, but I still managed to win. I won't say which my bad days were. I'll keep that to myself for obvious reasons.
"This year it rained a lot in Europe and I think that might have had some impact on my preparation because of the affect it had on my allergies. Certainly I was on antibiotics just before the Spanish championships in late June and that may have had an influence on my form."
It was no surprise given their friendship that Contador had kind words for his closest rival. "Andy is a great rider and he is getting closer to me. We spend a lot of time together and I know his mindset and the way he works. I think he is going to be a major rival for many years to come. He's very young and I'm quite young too."
As well as happiness, Contador admitted to a good degree of relief having put himself right on the verge of securing a third yellow jersey. "When I started riding a bike as a kid it was my dream to win the Tour de France because it is the most beautiful race in the world. I can see what it means to so many people and I've felt under so much pressure, which comes not only coming from outside but also from myself. So it's such a huge relief to have won the title."
As for his future plans, Contador said: "I'm going to go away, rest and relax, and think about what I'm going to do in the future. At the moment, I'm evaluating several different options for next year. I hope to have a quiet winter, after which I'll set my objectives. The Giro and the Vuelta might be a possibility for next year. As for this year's Vuelta, I will rest and relax for a bit and then see how it looks with the team. However, the most likely scenario is that I will not take part."
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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).