Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) has insisted that although the spotlight at the start of the Vuelta 2016 is very much on himself, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Chris Froome (Team Sky); in his opinion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is as much as a key overall favourite for the final grand tour of the season.
So far, Valverde, having raced and completed the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, has played down his overall goals in what will be his third Grand Tour of 2016. However, whilst Contador’s track record in the Vuelta is hugely impressive - three wins from three starts - in the current peloton Valverde’s level of experience in the Spanish Grand Tour is second to none.
The Spaniard took part but abandoned his first Vuelta way back in 2002, won by Kelme teammate Aitor Gonzalez -before Contador had even turned professional. Since then Valverde has racked up one overall Vuelta victory in 2009, two second places overall, three third places, a fourth and a fifth place, with his worst performance seventh (and the points jersey, and a stage) in 2015. Although there is the huge question mark over whether he will still be able to perform so well when racing his third Grand Tour in one season, Contador clearly feels that such a glittering Vuelta palmares means that Valverde’s rivals underestimate him at their peril.
“If we’re talking about favourites, then Valverde has to be in there,” Contador insisted.”
“He was very strong in the Tour, he’s won the Vuelta before, the route suits him far better than it does me, it’s got a lot of summit finishes where Valverde can take time in the time bonuses. In fact, I think of all the favourites, the route is best suited to Alejandro.”
As could be expected after his victory in the Vuelta a Burgos, regarded as Spain’s main warm-up race for the Vuelta, and given his own palmares, too, Contador refused to rule himself out for the overall win. But he was keen, too, to emphasise that as well as Valverde, both Froome nor Quintana were present with more serious ambitions than they were revealing.
“If Nairo and Froome are here, it’s because they want to win,” Contador said. “I can’t be called the top favourite. Okay, I’ve won the race before but Froome’s been on the podium twice before and he’ll want something more than that. Nairo finished the Tour and got straight on with building for the Vuelta, we’ve not even seen him racing since then he’s been so focussed on it.”
Playing down his own chances
It is one of the oldest pre-Grand Tour tricks in the book to play up your rivals’ chances and to play down your own. So perhaps unsurprisingly, Contador, having highlighted the reasons why Quintana and Froome were so big a threat, was non-committal about his own possibilities of adding a fourth win to victories in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
“Retiring from the Tour was a pity because I was in brilliant shape, apart from the injuries,” he pointed out.
“So I had to stop totally, and I started training again before I had been advised to and I performed well. But even if San Sebastian and Burgos were partly like my first training events for the Vuelta, I’m much less ready for the Vuelta than other years, so that’s why it’s all going to be a bit of a voyage in the dark for me.”
Contador’s playing down his chances clashed with his quietly insisting he was there for the win, - “a fourth victory would be amazing,” he said.
Indeed, the one unconventional element touch to his usual press conference backdrop of Tinkoff posters and a racing bike wheeled out for the occasion was a laptop computer screen on the table in front of Contador. This repeatedly played through a series of images of the Spaniard wearing the yellow jersey in the Dauphine and in other gung-ho racing pictures, as if to remind the media of what he was capable of doing.
On the plus side, Contador admitted, too, that winning the Vuelta a Burgos had “been good for my confidence, particularly after having to stop riding.”
“But the day after you win, you’ve got to forget everything and keep going again. Psychologically wins like that are always good for the team’s morale, but you have to bear in mind the Vuelta is a lot longer, the rivals are different and we all start out from zero.”
“I’ll go for things day by day, if the situation looks promising, then I will try to win it. But I’m also conscious that Movistar and Sky have stronger teams than mine.”
Perhaps with that in mind, Contador played down his team’s chances of a strong start to the Vuelta at the team time trial on Saturday. He refused to say what kind of time loss on the other favourites would be acceptable and simply concluded, “I hope they’re not too big.”
As for the future, and whether he would now confirm his new squad for 2017, Contador continued to refuse to comment. “This is my last Grand Tour for this team, Tinkoff is my team for now and what better way of saying thank you than fighting for the victory,” he argued. “When the time comes for announcing where I will race next season, I will let you all know.”