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Tomorrow is the first major GC showdown of the Tour de France, a difficult stage over some of the same cobbles of Northern France as traversed by the legendary Paris-Roubaix Classic.
Alberto Contador is one of those who is aiming to gain time on his rivals, with the Spaniard hoping to perform solidly and also knowing that others could get caught out.
The Tinkoff Saxo rider has come into the Tour as one of two big favourites; defending champion Chris Froome is the other and, after today’s withdrawal of Andy Schleck, the duo are the only former winners of the race left in the peloton.
Contador has taken first or second in every stage race he has entered this year, clocking up six individual wins including the overall classification in Tirreno Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. The performances are markedly better than those of 2013 and, as a result, the rider appeared calm and self assured in the pre-race press conference last week in Leeds.
Irishman Nicolas Roche is one of eight team-mates who will be supporting Contador in his bid and while he plays down any suggestions that the 2007 and 2009 winner was not concentrated on the task last year, he recognises an improvement this time round.
“I think he has always been focussed and confident. I just think that this year he is stronger,” he told CyclingTips. “You can actually feel that he is that much more self-confident.
“Alberto is someone who is very, very focussed, a very hard trainer. It would be unfair to say that he wasn’t focussed last year, it is just that this year he as a little bit of extra confidence that maybe he didn’t have last time.”
Contador had hoped to challenge last year but was never on the same level as Chris Froome. He faded in the last week and ended up fourth in Paris; the performance was solid, but not spectacular, and it led to public criticism from the team’s second sponsor Oleg Tinkov.
Twelve months on, much has changed; Tinkov now owns the team, former chief Bjarne Riis is working directly with the riders as a directeur sportif and Contador feels he is back to the same level as in 2009.
Roche said that this has rubbed off on the other riders, ensuring that their motivation is higher than before. “Last year we were really motivated and we hoped that everything was going to go right. We were defeated, but the winning attitude was there.
“This year is exactly the same, but I think the whole team has that little extra boost that he is able to share with us.”
Roche made clear that he has no thoughts of personal ambition in the race. He said that he had been given opportunities earlier this year, such as in the Giro d’Italia, and will get others after the Tour, but for the duration of the three week event he is required to be one hundred percent focussed on helping his team-mate.
“It is everything for Alberto. That has always been very clear,” he said.
For him, satisfaction will come if he can ride strongly in support and help Contador to take the Maillot Jaune to Paris. It’s going to take some time to see if that is possible, but he believes that the Spaniard is riding strongly and has a real chance.
He also knows that he is going well, with the recent Route du Sud resulting in a solo stage win plus overall success for him. The latter was the first such victory of his career, and came as a big relief after years of trying.
“That was nice. It was about time,” he said. “I have had a few close ones but never enough. So it was nice to be finally say, ‘phew, I’ve won a stage race.’
“t has been a good year if you think about it,” he continued, referring to the 2013 Vuelta a España, where he won a stage and finished fifth overall. “I have had some mixed feelings and some hard times at the start of the year with the injury and everything, but if we look at it on a kind of higher scale, it was a great Vuelta.
“The Giro wasn’t great but it wasn’t that bad. I did my work for Rafal and had a couple of chances on stages and was able to win a race after that. So it was good enough.”
Things will be even better if he is able to help Contador achieve his big goal. The cobbles will be crucial; after that, the gradient rears up and Roche, Michael Rogers, Rafal Majka and others will give their all in support.
“I am looking forward to hitting the mountains,” he said, thinking to the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees, “and seeing how things go with him.”