Alberto Contador may be out of contract at the end of the season but Tinkoff-Saxo manager Bjarne Riis has no intention of letting his star pupil go as the pair plot their course for the Giro d’Italia–Tour de France double, with the Dane calling Contador the ‘best rider he has ever seen.’
Contador is currently building up to his season debut, which will take place later this month at the Ruta del Sol. From there he will tackle Tirreno-Adriatico before lining up at the Giro d’Italia.
“He’s training well and he’s doing well. The preparation has been great and he’ll be ready to race at Ruta,” Riis told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Qatar, where he is currently directing his other star rider, Peter Sagan.
“Alberto’s not needed a slower warm-up this year. He’s started around the same time and he’s had a good winter. I’d say the preparation has been perfect and his level has been where it needs to be for this time. He’ll be ready to race and then he’ll start preparing for the Giro.”
The Giro and Tour double is a project Contador and Riis have tackled once before. In 2011 the Spaniard – with his Clenbuterol doping case from the previous year still to be resolved – claimed an emphatic win at the Giro before slipping out of contention and the Tour de France and finishing fifth. His Giro crown was retrospectively stripped when the Court of Arbitration for Sport later applied a ban for his earlier Clenbuterol positive, but the blueprint for that 2011 campaign has given the rider and his manager confidence that the feat can be achieved.
It’s a tall order. No rider has managed it since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 and few riders have even attempted it since.
“He’s one of the few guys who can try and do this but it’s one thing trying to do and another trying to be among the best in both races,” Riis told Cyclingnews.
“So much depends on the rider. A guy like Valverde can race two Grand Tours. A guy like Froome would be able to do it and there are a few others."
Froome and Valverde have won one Grand Tour each in their careers, while Contador has forged a reputation as the stage race rider of his generation. There remains, however, unfinished business with the Tour de France, a race he has not won since he defeated Andy Schleck and members of his own team – including Lance Armstrong – in one of the most memorable Tours in recent history in 2009.
“In 2011 we learnt that he was able to do it but I believe that he’s stronger now. He’s better prepared, he’s training well and he has a stronger team,” Riis said.
That last point, about the strength and depth of the team, is vital in Riis’ eyes. In 2011 Contador was often left isolated in major races. Riis had brought the Spaniard into the team but had lost the core of his team to Leopard Trek. It was a time of transition for the Danish team. Now, though, Tinkoff-Saxo boasts one of the most complete Grand Tour squads in the world.
“When you take on a project like this, the team is really important. If you go to the Giro and you go for the win you can do it in a number of ways. You can go win by as much as possible or you can win and be safe. It also depends on the last week and how much you need to do yourself and how much you can rely on your team and how much protection they can give you. In 2011 he had to make the difference and that’s different now because I think that he has a stronger team.
“Then this leads into how you come out of the Giro and how much time you have to recover. If you come out of the Giro like this [Riis raises his thumb to his chin - ed.] or if you have still some energy, then your recovery will be different.”
At the age of 32, Contador is in the final year of his contract with Riis. They have amassed a trophy cabinet that most would envy in their time together but, as a partnership, the Tour crown has eluded them.
The future for Contador is not yet clear. He has talked about retiring at the top of the sport – something that he would achieve should he hit his marks in May and July – but Riis is understandably keen on keeping his rider for the foreseeable future.
“Of course we have plans and who wouldn’t want to keep him? That’s the project. The final decisions don’t rest with me but I hope it happens,” he said.
“And when you’re as good as he why would you retire [soon]? I don’t see the point in that. It doesn’t make sense. When it comes to that point it’s all about motivation and finding your new goals. If you have that, and the dedication to sacrifice at that level, then why stop?”
For Contador it’s now all about legacy, it’s where the idea of the Giro-Tour was first planted and nurtured. For Riis, it’s the same, a driving ambition to get the best out of the Spaniard’s talents. After such a draining and unsuccessful 2013 campaign, it’s a mark of how far they have come in the intervening period.
“We’ve seen in the last two years how much he’s trained and worked. How keen he’s been to work on any weak points and it’s brought him to a new level and it’s beautiful to watch,” Riis said.
“The Tour, well, that’s something we’ve been working for. We thought we were there last year but there were circumstances. After what he’s been through, when he joined with the team. He came with a ban, then racing, then a ban. It’s been a tough period. You can’t avoid that and it’s taken energy, physiological energy. We’ve brought him back and I think he was at his best ever level last year. That’s just the sport.”
Finally, with legacy comes the question of who is the best. Where would Contour’s completed ambitions leave him in the pantheon of cycling history? Perhaps it’s too early to tell but Riis is unequivocal when it comes to one thing.
“He has class and he has willpower. He’s the best I’ve ever seen. It’s different when you compare different eras. Who can you say is better that Merck for example? It’s a different time but I see how good Contador is and it’s just fantastic.”