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Although Chris Froome was in dominant form in the recent Tour de Romandie, taking the general classification and beating Tony Martin to win the final time trial, Tinkoff Saxo team owner Oleg Tinkov has said that he believes Alberto Contador is in better condition.
“If the Tour started tomorrow, I think Alberto would beat him. He is stronger right now, from what I have seen, even with Romandie,” the Russian told CyclingTips on Thursday evening. “But the Tour is in two months time so we never know, of course. In two months’ time anything can happen. But right now he is stronger.”
Contador has been spending periods of the year at altitude, following the example previously set by Froome’s Team Sky. He is interspersing such camps with racing, and thus far things have gone very well. His quiet 2013 season has been eclipsed by what he has achieved this year, with the Spaniard taking a stream of good results.
He got things off to a strong start in the Volta ao Algarve in February, winning a stage and taking second overall. He then took two stages plus the general classification in Tirreno-Adriatico, was second overall in the Volta a Catalunya and finished 49 seconds clear of closest challenger Michal Kwiatkowski in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
Those combined results put him well clear in the UCI’s WorldTour ranking and mark his best sustained period of form since before his doping ban.
Asked if he believes if Contador can continue to improve between now and the Tour, Tinkov admits that he is not sure. However he feels it may not be necessary for the Spaniard to gain more. “He is very strong right now. I hope he will stay at least at this level of form,” he said. “If he stays like he is now – he is super strong now – he is going to win, normally.”
Tinkoff and his star rider had tense exchanges last year, with the former criticising the latter over what he said was a lack of desire and professionalism, and not delivering on what he was being paid to do. At one point it looked like a working relationship had become impossible, both with Contador and also with the-then team owner Bjarne Riis, but things settled down over the autumn and in December Tinkov announced the agreement to buy the team.
He suggested that some tough love was needed last summer. “He needed to prove himself,” he said, reflecting on some of the things which were said to spur Contador into motion. “He started to train a lot and differently, and this year he is much, much stronger, which is good.
“Anybody can have a bad year…he definitely had a bad year last year. The good thing is that he realised that he had a bad year and now he has to be better.
“He changed his preparation programme and he changed his racing programme. He learned from the mistakes he has made and he is doing very well. I am more than happy.”
Asked what went wrong last year, Tinkov rules out any suggestion that Contador was not as lean as he should have been. “It was definitely not weight; I didn’t see he had any issues with weight last year,” he said. “I cannot really say what was the problem.
“Actually, he suffered a lot as the summer was very late…he suffered from allergies until the end of June. Then the Tour came. I think you should ask him directly why he was not himself last year but there are different reasons for that.”
As regards their dealings with each other, Tinkov insists that all is good and that no tensions remain from a difficult summer. “I have no problem with Alberto and he has no problem with me. We are actually have a very good relationship,” he said. “We sometimes call each other. Obviously we have a language barrier because his English is not strong and I don’t speak Spanish, but it is okay.”
Tinkoff said during last year’s Tour that he didn’t back a team to finish second in the Tour, suggesting that it was all or nothing in terms of his sponsorship. At one point he even suggested that if Contador couldn’t beat Froome that he would buy the Briton to ensure that his team could take the final yellow jersey.
He’s now the team owner and has even greater control. So what happens if Contador is unable to beat Froome this time round – could their partnership end?
“We have a two year contract with Alberto,” he responded. “I am confident. It is not the case that if he doesn’t win I will not continue. It goes by the contract. We have a two year contract, so we don’t discuss this for another two years. Then after two years we have to come to an agreement together which satisfies him and me.”
Yesterday was a difficult day for the team in the Giro d’Italia, with one of the co-leaders Nicolas Roche crashing, having to spend a long time waiting for a replacement bike and losing his general classification chances. He had started the stage seventh overall but ended up placing 171st and dropping to 80th in the overall standings.
It was clearly not what Tinkov wanted to see, but there was the consolation that Rafal Majka rode well and ended up fourth overall.
“I feel the Giro is not started yet, it is warming up,” he said, when asked to reflect upon the race thus far. “So far the warm up period has not gone so well for our riders but it is early. We will talk about the Giro in one week from now.
“I think Majka is making good progress, he is improving. Last year he was 7th and he is going well. Roche is also progressing and developing. Unfortunately he crashed badly today and is in the ambulance now. He has a lot of cuts. He will be able to stay in the race but the GC is gone for him. He will probably need a few days to recover, then he can ride for Majka and also go for stage wins in the third week.
“Majka is our GC captain now, he is the only one with a chance for the overall.”
Another rider who is doing well in the overall standings is Michael Rogers, the Australian who recently returned to competition after missing several months due to a positive test for Clenbuterol. The UCI has accepted that the substance got into his system through food contamination and there was no sanction for him.
Tinkoff is pleased by how he has been going and is confident that he will be ready for the Tour. “Rogers is riding well. He was our best rider today, he was 17th,” he said. “He has form and also a lot of experience. Experience is what is really important in the Grand Tours and he has plenty of that.”
Looking further down the line, Tinkov reaffirms that he wants the biggest team in the world and is working towards that moment. “Of course I want that. We have the budget,” he said. “I think it takes one or two years more to build the team. We are already buying some good riders. We are looking good to be the best.”
He refused to name any riders who are of interest to him, but did say that he was looking beyond the Grand Tours too. “We will improve in Classics, definitely. If you see the spring campaign, we were not strong. So we need to improve there.”
Tinkoff is a fan of the sport but also has commercial interests. He wants his team to succeed in sporting terms and also to make money. He is clear that he believes things need to change within cycling, in terms of finances and the way it is structured.
It can be argued that the sport has also suffered due to doping issues, affecting its growth, but he would not discuss this topic.
He said that at least two big changes need to be made in the way the financial side of the sport works. “I think it needs to be commercialised. There should be transfers implemented, you have to sell the riders and buy the riders. That creates income for the team,” he asserted.
“The race organisers should start to share their revenue from the TV rights. For sure the sport needs to become commercialised. What happened in cycling in the last ten year is the people fought for the cake, for the pieces of the cake.
“I am glad that a lot of Anglo-Saxon mentality and Anglo-Saxon approach came into cycling. It is time now to enlarge the cake, not to just cut the cake into pieces. I believe that is what cycling needs.”