Make no mistake, ‘El Pistolero’ – a.k.a. Alberto Contador – is back with a bang. And if, as he claims, he’s not at his best now, then may God help those when he is.
The situation therefore plays perfectly into the hands of Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, whose team has been structured more to help Contador in the mountains than the flats, and allows their leader to ease into the rhythm of the race without the pressure of leadership. Oh. My. Goodness.
That’s what I thought when, after just three days and the first of seven classified mountain stages, it appeared this year’s Vuelta a Espana had already come down to one of four riders. And that Alberto Contador, returning after six months without competition, would possess the audacity to launch seven full-blooded attacks on a climb just five-and-a-half kilometres in length, placing all and sundry on the rivet.
Before the 66th edition of the season’s final Grand Tour left Pamplona’s Plaza del Castillo last Saturday and traversed the same route where, each July, bulls chase men with a penchant for a near-death experience, Contador, the 2008 Vuelta champion, surmised his form as thus: “I’m supposedly fresher than my rivals who have done the Giro or the Tour but that’s debatable. Sometimes it’s harder to train than to compete.
“The main difference between me and the other contenders is that I might be mentally more relaxed than them. They might be physically better than me at the beginning and I’ll possibly be fresher towards the end. The doubts I’ve got about my form is in relation to my (race) schedule of the past two weeks: riding the Eneco Tour, I haven’t done any long climb during that period. I might not be at my best during the first week of the Vuelta, but I expect to be better later on.”
If Monday’s third stage to Arrate Sanctuary was Contador in second or third gear then I fear for his rivals.
Because whatever you think of him – and I have made my opinions known on the sheer ridiculousness, utter mismanagement and protracted nature of the whole affair – Bertie was bloody awesome. “I’m with spark and that’s a sign that I’m fresh. We have to be optimistic for next stages,” he said post-stage, after finishing fourth to compatriot and 2009 Vuelta champ Alejandro Valverde, who, in the space of twenty-four hours, went from race leader to ninth overall following Tuesday’s fourth stage to the Valdezcaray ski resort. Though Saxo Bank -Tinkoff Bank sport director Brad McGee appeared to contradict himself somewhat when he observed, “I don’t think we can draw any conclusions after this stage but seemingly three riders are worth keeping an eye on.”
Again, whatever you think of Contador, that is something you have give him credit for. Because to come back after a half-year layoff requires more than a modicum of mental fortitude, and in this respect, I believe the 29-year-old Spaniard has held his head high – never once saying he wants revenge but on the bike and in those affable chestnut-brown eyes, emitting a ferocity greater than a simple will to win, it seems.
Clearly, he has lost none of his race nous, either.
Did you notice last Sunday, on the opening road stage to Viana – considered a benign day for GC riders and one destined to end in a bunch sprint – Contador pilfered two bonus seconds after placing third on the second intermediate sprint, thus placing him on equal time with Christopher Froome? “It was absolutely not my objective but I saw how the others were positioned and I told (my teammate Nicki) Sorensen. It was slightly uphill and we decided to give it a try because it wasn’t a big effort to produce and, who knows, it might be decisive for the (overall) victory.”
I suspect riders like Contador and current race leader Joaquim Rodríguez of Katusha to continue in such a vein over the next two-and-a-half weeks. After all, this is how defending champ Juan José Cobo beat Christopher Froome last year, and as mentioned in my previous blog post, if it were not for the abundance of bonus seconds in the 2011 edition, the latter would’ve won the race.
The next mountain stage is Saturday and another hilltop finish, this time to the Collado de la Gallina in Andorra. Albeit with a tenuous one-second advantage Rodríguez may well hold onto the lead for the next three days and, with just the one and only individual time trial Wednesday week, quite possibly till then, too.
The situation therefore plays perfectly into the hands of Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, whose team has been structured more to help, or more accurately, set up, their leader in the mountains than the flats, permitting him precious time to ease into the rhythm of the race without the pressure of leadership. “Better others do any (of the) work than us,” Contador said, maintaining that despite showing ominous form, “the legs need more kilometres of competition”.
“The goal,” he said, “is to arrive in Madrid (first on GC).”
From what we’ve seen so far, it would take a deranged dimwit to say Contador couldn’t do just that. Nevertheless it is early days and Froome is a formidable foe, so anyone within a minute of Rodríguez – seventeen riders make that cut – still has a chance of causing ‘El Pistolero’ to misfire. “The gaps are still very narrow and anything can happen,” Rodríguez noted Tuesday in Valdezcaray.