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Knocking on the door of history, or flirting with failure? It’s been five years since Alberto Contador last stood on the top step of the Tour de France, a victory he would later lose courtesy of a doping control sample containing traces of Clenbuterol, but rather than following the most straightforward path towards another assault at the yellow jersey he’s taking a rather more circuitous route.
The Tinkoff-Saxo rider will line out Saturday in the Giro d’Italia and begin a campaign that he hopes will see him become the first rider to win the Giro and the Tour in the same season since Marco Pantani in 1998.
Although recent history has shown that doing both Grand Tours often mean that riders are weaker in the second, Contador is gambling that he will be strong enough to defeat Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru and the other contenders in Italy, and then conserve enough strength to be able to pummel Chris Froome and others in the Tour.
It’s a risk, but one which could seal his place in history and usher him into a very select club of Giro/Tour winners.
Only Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain and Pantani have taken the two races in the same season; despite the near-two decade time gap and a raft of changes to cycling over that time, Contador has faith.
“I’m equally motivated for the Giro and the Tour,” he said on the eve of the race. “I give the same importance to both because for me the two are only one thing.”
Explaining the reason behind his willingness to risk losing the Tour in order to try to win both, Contador said that it is a question of the challenge, the difficulty and the scale of the task.
“In the past years the motivation for the Tour completely fulfilled me,” he explained, “but now maybe the Tour alone doesn’t motivate me a hundred percent.
“The double is something new and it will always motivate me more.”
A crash as a confidence booster
Contador took his first Grand Tour when he won the 2007 Tour de France. He followed that up with victory in the 2008 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, then returned to the Tour the following year and won again.
His successes in the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro were expunged due to the Clenbuterol positive, but he bounced back to pick up the 2012 Vuelta and did likewise two years later.
In all he has secured six Grand Tour titles, more than any other in the current peloton. Once tipped as a rider who could perhaps set the record for most Tour de France victories, he’s now looking at other goals, including the Giro/Tour double.
Team owner Tinkov also wants to see him try for an unprecedented sweep of all three Grand Tours, but it remains to be seen if the Spaniard would take that on.
Either way, joining the six riders who have taken the Giro and the Tour in the same season would be very significant.
Interestingly, if he does go on to achieve it, one reason for his attempt of the double is due to a setback last summer.
Contador went into the 2014 Tour hoping to win but crashed heavily on the tenth stage, falling during the descent of the Col du Platzerwasel.
While that was undoubtedly a setback, he took one positive from it. “I can say that it had a great influence on my decision to do the Giro and Tour,” he stated. “Because after the fall I went to the Vuelta a España not at my full strength but in the end I got a great victory. It gave me confidence to try this.”
Rivals all at the same level
Returning to the Italian Grand Tour for the first time since taking, and then losing, the 2011 title, Contador said that he believed his condition is better than four years ago. He said this is borne out by test results, and added that he also has more experience to draw upon.
Those factors will be important as he will be up against a number of dangerous rivals when he tries to take the final Maglia Rosa.
“In the end, they are all the same,” he said when asked to size them up. “If we talk about Porte, Uran and Aru, I put them all on the same level. Richie has been amazing in the beginning of the season, but Uran and especially Aru have had a preparation tailored for the Giro.”
Contador will be watched closely by those three riders plus the other contenders, including former winner Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin).
Keeping tabs on all of them is crucial; in order to make that possible, his team has selected a lineup which its management believe will give him the best possible backing.
Contador seems to agree.
“I can talk about my team because I know everything about it,” he said. “I don’t know the other teams in detail.
“We have three riders of great quality and experience for the mountains in Basso, Rogers and Kreuziger, two multipurpose riders in Rovny and Paulinho and three for the flat parts in Boaro, Chris Juul and Tosatto.
“I have a great squad and I am very happy. It is true that Jesús [Hernandez] is not here, but you cannot be in every race.”
“I should be the one to attack”
Contador and his team spent the day before the start of the Giro checking out the course of the 17.6 kilometre opening team time trial. Becoming familiar with the roads, they also tried out the equipment they will use on Saturday.
He and his team then went on told their pre-race press conference where, as expected, he fielded multiple questions from the press.
Those included the inevitable questions about recovering from the Giro in order to be strong in the Tour. Given that Froome and last year’s Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) are deliberately missing the Italian event in order to be fresher in July, the topic of recovery is a very relevant one.
Contador knows this more than most; when he came out on top during the 2011 Giro d’Italia, he didn’t get back to his full strength before the Tour and had to be satisfied with fifth place overall.
Still, Contador said that he was trying to put such considerations out of his mind for now.
Asked if he would change his strategy in order to be as sharp as possible in the French event, he dismissed such thoughts.
“I could say yes, but when you are at the race you cannot ponder over anything,” he explained. “In a Grand Tour you don’t have many tactical options and I will be fully focused on the Giro.
“Then I’ll have time to concentrate on recovering ahead of the Tour and thinking about it.”
That approach means that he won’t hold back on his usual aggressiveness. He could be sparing in his efforts in order to try to keep as much in the tank as possible, but doesn’t feel he can realistically do that if he’s chasing the pink jersey.
“I think I should be the one to attack,” he said. “In the end, it’s the race that affects your tactics depending on the classification, but initially I’ll have to attack.”
Team owner Tinkov will be encouraging this from the team car, with the Russian set to take the place of Bjarne Riis in telling the rides what to do.
Some feel that he puts too much pressure on the riders. Peter Sagan is held up as an example, with the Slovakian rider thus far unable to deliver upon his potential after signing for the squad.
Although he has in theory stronger backing now than when he was with Cannondale in recent seasons, he has not been able to clock up the expected results.
Some have suggested that the pressure of satisfying Tinkov’s expectations are a likely element in this.
So, what about Contador? He too has Tinkov watching him closely, bigging him up in the media and expecting him to win.
Could this level of expectation be a liability?
He suggests it is not. “During the last nine years, whenever I’ve been in a Grand Tour, I have had a lot of responsibility. That motivates me,” he said.
“Oleg Tinkov surely wants to win, but I want it just as much.”