Gunslinger Contador has redemption in his Tour sights
Alberto Contador is preparing to outgun his old nemesis
Tuning in to the final stage of this year's Criterium du Dauphine, the key warm-up event for the Tour de France, you could easily have been deceived as to who was the Tour favourite and who was the outsider. While the yellow-jerseyed Alberto Contador played a full-throttle role in the final showdown against the eventual winner, Andrew Talansky, ending up 27 seconds behind overall, Chris Froome languished well to the rear, dropping from second to 12th.
Taking into account the fact that Froome was below par on the final weekend of the Dauphine due to a crash, the 2013 winner will be most followers' favourite when the Tour starts in Leeds on Saturday, but the Dauphine result is a reminder that Contador is his most doughty challenger.
The Spaniard is on a run of fine form. He is the most experienced Grand Tour contender at the moment, and - as the Dauphine showed - has an unmatched nose for an opening.
That last stage of the Dauphine was a reminder of something else.
Tactically, Contador was on the back foot, well behind an early escape that included Talansky. His team - a far weaker squad than the one he will lead at the Tour - was not up to the mark and he had no option but to attempt a late, lone chase. He failed, but by a tiny margin, underlining that he has no fear when it comes to adopting unconventional tactics that are light years from the controlled way that Froome and Team Sky like to race.
This season, Contador has not finished lower than second in any of the five stage races he has contested - he was runner-up in the Tour of Algarve and Catalonia and the Dauphine, and dominated the Tour of the Basque Country, and Tirreno-Adriatico.
Froome, meanwhile, has enjoyed a less consistent build-up, winning the Tour of Oman in February, missing Tirreno due to back problems, skipping Liege-Bastogne-Liege with a chest infection, winning the Tour of Romandie, then suffering at the end of the Dauphine - where he had won the first two stages - after his crash.
The signs are that the 2014 Tour could be much closer than that of 2013, when Contador looked like a shadow of the rider who had taken the Vuelta a Espana the previous autumn. Up against Froome he was powerless, but there were mitigating factors for that lack of oomph.
Those close to Contador believe he spent too much of the winter of 2012-'13 on the road, and that he raced too often in the spring when he tends to suffer in the poor weather. Another obvious factor was that the Spaniard had endured a lengthy legal battle - from September 2010 to February 2012 - as he contested a positive test for the banned steroid clenbuterol, found in a minuscule quantity in his urine during the 2010 Tour.
Contador always claimed the substance was present due to eating contaminated meat; the Court of Arbitration in Sport invoked the rule of strict liability and ruled against him, imposing a retrospective ban and stripping him of his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro d'Italia victories. With the verdict in abeyance, he rode the 2011 Tour, but was greeted with boos when he turned up at the team presentation before the start. He fought his side, lost, had a brief ban, returned to racing and won the 2012 Vuelta, then could hardly be blamed if he flopped mentally.
Contador has always seemed one of the less flamboyant members of the peloton, and he has become more closed in on himself since the clenbuterol episode. Like the great Miguel Indurain, he speaks in platitudes, but those close to him point to his passion for his sport. "He's neither a communicator nor a calculating character," says one insider. "He looks into things, he snoops around, he examines this bit of kit and that bit, ponders technical developments. He pays attention to every detail." They also cite his creation of his own under 23 team in his home region near Madrid.
Ask El Pistolero (the Gunslinger) - through his helpful press officer - about his form this year, and he replies: "All I can say is that I hope to be a little better than last year and will try to fight for victory." And the route of this year's Tour? "The parcours is what it is and you have to deal with it. Perhaps the only thing I would change is that the time trial could be a little tougher. As far as the English stages go, I haven't looked over them, but I have been told about them by the team." As revelations go, 'Big Mig' Indurain would be proud.
One key to Contador's improvement is a simple house move: from his home in the town of Pinto, near Madrid, he has shifted 1,000 miles away to Lugano, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. "I've found some extraordinary places to train, I have very long mountain passes near home and also tranquillity to be focused on the bike 100 per cent - that is what is needed when you are dedicated to professional cycling."
"In Pinto there are always people knocking on his door, an old friend, someone in his family. Alberto struggles when it comes to saying no," the manager of his Tinkoff-Saxo team, Philippe Mauduit, told the French magazine Velo earlier this year. "Moving has done him good - he's got a more regulated lifestyle, built around rest and training."
Another factor has been a new trainer: the Dutchman Steven de Jongh, recruited by Saxo boss Bjarne Riis at the end of 2012 when he was made to leave Team Sky - where he had been directeur sportif - after the team's re-examination of personnel in the light of the Lance Armstrong scandal that led to De Jongh confessing to doping in his time as a racer.
'These are the classic stages where you cannot win the Tour, but you can lose it'
De Jongh and another ex-Sky recruit, the Australian Mick Rogers, have clearly brought some of the British squad's methodology to Saxo. Contador has cut his racing programme this year a la Bradley Wiggins and Froome and he has begun altitude training camps similar to the ones that were the most radical element in Sky's Tour preparation. Contador had never been an advocate of training at altitude but in January he moved in to Sky's - and before them Armstrong's - favoured venue: the Parador Hotel at Mount Teide in Tenerife.
"Steven came with the knowledge he had acquired at Sky and gradually adapted it to Alberto's needs," Mauduit said earlier this year. Before the Dauphine, both Froome and Contador, as well as the third favourite for the Tour, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, were in residence at Mount Teide, while in the final run-in to the Tour this month, the Spaniard spent a further 10 days at altitude in the Italian ski resort of Livigno.
Ask about beating Sky as a team, and Contador prefers to divert the question to his own squad, who looked cohesive in the 2013 race, if not as well-drilled as Froome's sidekicks. "It's not something I'm worried about at all. My team will also be at a high level in the Tour, as we showed last year," he said. In 2013, Contador was lacking a domestique with the climbing ability of Sky's Richie Porte and Peter Kennaugh, although on the flat, he and his men put Sky on the rack on the flat stage to Saint-Amand-Montrond.
This year, on the other hand, at least two Saxo riders look to be stronger than in 2013: Rogers has won a brace of stages at the Giro while Nicolas Roche took the Route du Sud last week. Sky have been beset by niggles: the questioning about whether Wiggins should ride, the controversy over Froome winning Romandie while having a Therapeutic Use Exemption for a corticosteroid, prescribed to counter breathing troubles after a chest infection, and health issues for key riders such as Ian Stannard - who will not start due to a fractured vertebra - Peter Kennaugh, Porte, and another absentee, Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Contador will be favoured to outmanoeuvre Froome on stage five, which includes nine of the cobbled lanes that feature in the Paris-Roubaix Classic. On the last Tour stage of this kind, in 2010, the Spaniard lost relatively little time.
"Everyone knows it's a matter of good luck and riding attentively," he said. "These are the classic stages where you cannot win the Tour, but you can lose it." Behind the platitude, there's a certain amount of truth: Dave Brailsford, for one, believes this will be a difficult Tour de France to keep a grip of. And as the Dauphine showed, let that grip slip one iota, and Contador will pounce.
Sunday Indo Sport