On his last appearance at the Tour de France in 2011, Alberto Contador faced repeated doping questions as he rode under the shadow of an impending sanction for his positive test for clenbuterol at the previous year's race.
Two years on – and after belatedly serving his suspension last season – Contador has returned to France to find that while the questions still remain, they are now directed primarily at his rival, race leader Chris Froome (Sky).
Contador could scarcely hide his irritation when the first query at his rest day press conference in the Saxo-Tinkoff hotel in Avignon concerned Froome's credibility rather than his own chances of overhauling his considerable deficit of 4:25 in the overall standings, and he immediately looked to bat that line of questioning away.
"I will give you two questions about doping, no more. I'll just go to my room if you want to ask more than that," Contador said wearily, before continuing. "There is no reason to doubt Froome's performance. He is a great professional. He is at a very high level and has been all year. His performances are because he works hard. Sometimes you are stronger, other times you are less strong, but I believe in his performances. And in any case, there are the controls."
Contador has been emphatically defeated by Froome on both of the Tour's summit finishes to date, a sequence of events that would have been wholly unimaginable as recently as two years ago. He has acknowledged that Froome is simply on another plane this July, but with two Tour victories to his name (and a third expunged from his palmares), Contador seems unlikely to ride conservatively simply to defend a place on the podium in Paris.
"It's true that my aim was to win the race but it's also true that the leader is on a level above everyone else and in a face-to-face battle, it's impossible to beat him," Contador said. "But there's a hard and tactically complicated week of racing ahead of us. And yes, it is true that for me it's the same to finish second or 10th."
Repeating the past
Contador emerged victorious at last year's Vuelta a España even though for much of the three weeks he appeared to be the third strongest rider in the race behind Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde. The Spaniard's inventiveness and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of willing allies in the peloton combined to see him dramatically turn the overall standings around with a surprise attack on the road to Fuente De in the final week, however, and he hinted that he had a similar move ear-marked for the finale of the Tour.
"It's true that there is a stage where I want to see what happens, it could be a day to try and look for an opportunity," he said enigmatically. "There is a very important stage and in a week's time, you'll know which one it is."
Contador acknowledged that the majority of riders near the top of the general classification might be more inclined to defend their own positions rather than look to topple the seemingly unassailable Froome, but along with his teammate Roman Kreuziger (who lies three seconds behind him in third), he believes that he could find common cause with Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
"I don't know what each rider's ambition is during the race but I think Quintana is one guy who is interested in attacking and I could benefit from that," Contador said. "I don't know about the rest, they might be more interested in controlling the race."
As Contador faces into the Alps and the final week of racing, however, he is all too well aware that he is stepping into a very different arena to the one he faced at last year's Vuelta. "There are two big differences: the gap wasn't as big at the Vuelta and in the head-to-heads here, the leader has always shown himself to be stronger than me," he said. "At the Vuelta, we were all more or less at the same level."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.