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UTRECHT, The Netherlands (CT) – He’s said that he is in the closing stages of his professional career, with a retirement at the end of 2016 possible. Now, two days before the start of the 2015 Tour de France, Alberto Contador has made clear that taking a certain major achievement before hanging up his wheels is a big motivation for him.
The Spaniard is amongst the most ambitious competitors in the bunch and knows that he has limited time to secure a place in the history books as one of the best riders. When he took the 2007 and 2009 editions some predicted he could take the all time record of Tour wins, but his Clenbuterol positive in 2010 Tour de France put paid to that, costing him that title and ensuring he missed the 2012 race.
Instead, joining the list of Giro d’Italia/Tour de France winners is his new target. Some speculate that if he achieves this he might try to take an unprecedented triple and also target the Vuelta a España this season but, for now, joining Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain, Stephen Roche and Marco Pantani as the only Giro/Tour winners in the same season is his new goal.
“The most important thing for me is motivation,” Contador said at a packed Tinkoff-Saxo press conference on Thursday afternoon. “For me, I am motivated to try to achieve his double.
“If I win another Tour without taking the double, it is not something that can change my career a lot. But if I achieve the double, I can change something. It is something that people can remember. So that is another motivation for me.”
Of course, the fact that the last time the double was achieved was back in 1998 shows how difficult the task is. Contador admitted that he felt stronger prior to the 2014 Tour than he does now, but isn’t reading too much into that subjective feeling at this point in time.
“If I have to choose between last year and this year, maybe I take last year’s sensation because I did very intensive preparation and I did not have to worry about my recovery,” he said, discussing the matter when asked to compare how he felt on the eve of both races.
“The most uncertain thing for me is because it is something new how my body will respond during this race. In this year, especially, maybe this Tour is the toughest in my life with a lot of mountains. Also the first nine days are maybe the most difficult of the last [most recent] years with six very intensive stages.
“So it will be a Tour without rest, and regularity will for me be the most important thing.”
“I have been flying, between training and rest”
The recognition of Contador as one of the very biggest favourites for the race was reflected in the packed turnout for the press conference. Camera operators, photographers and journalists thronged the allocated room in the team hotel, spilling out of the door and into the corridor.
Inside, it was mostly standing room only, with those present keen to hear how the Spaniard felt he was after the Giro.
He gave an indication of that recovery recently when he won the Route du Sud, beating Tour rival Nairo Quintana thanks to a daring descent to the finish on stage three.
“I recovered well,” he said when asked how he believed his body has coped since the Giro and, indeed, since the Route du Sud. “I have been flying, between training and rest. I am well recovered at the moment, physically. Also mentally…that can probably be more important.”
However he knows that the real test of his recovery may come in the final week of the Tour, with fresher rivals potentially gaining an edge then. It’s difficult to predict whether or not he could get into difficulties, and he admits as such.
All he can say is that he has done everything he can to be ready.
“This is something new for me. We will see how I am recovering but I know before that I had 33, 34 days before the Tour and I did everything for that,” he said. “Each day I did things optimally with the Tour in mind. I was absolutely focussed on the bike.
“I hope that everything we did will help now. Mentally I am fine. As for my body, we will see.”
As many commentators have noted, if anyone is to do the double in the modern era it will be Contador. He has clocked up numerous Grand Tours thus far, including taking the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España in the same season in 2007.
As a result few would rule out the possibility of him performing strongly in both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour. The consensus amongst many is that his talent gives him a chance of recovering from the first in time for the second.
However what is somewhat unexpected is the sheer number of riders on the Tinkoff-Saxo squad who will also aim to be at their best in the French race.
Including Contador, a total of four riders will do the Tour after riding the Giro. The others are Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers, Ivan Basso and Matteo Tosatto.
“Each team has its own planning, but it is true that we have five riders from the Giro,” he acknowledged. “But all of them are veteran riders with a lot of experience and a lot of strength. I hope that they have the capacity to recover well from the Giro.”
“I have a lot of confidence in them and I hope that the level of the team will be better than that of the Giro.”
So too will team owner Oleg Tinkov, although effective strategy may prove to be equally important – if not more so – than a rider’s own experience in the Tour.
Tinkoff-Saxo management was so determined to dominate the Giro d’Italia that Contador’s team-mates were instructed to lead the peloton even before he took the race lead in the race.
It meant that they were already burning matches in the opening week; it was of little surprise then that, come the third week, his team was fading badly.
A more intelligent approach would serve the team and its leader well; fortunately for him, the fact that Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana are also big favourites means that their teams should also share the pace-setting in the early part of the race.
Sagan: ‘The most important thing is the Tour de France yellow jersey. I think everybody knows this’
A particularly surreal part of the press conference occurred after a journalist asked Contador to confirm if he kept budgies when he was younger. When he said this was the case, a bird in a cage was presented to the rider.
“It will bring you luck,” said those who handed over the bird.
Contador smiled, then said of the animal’s colouring: ‘but he is not all yellow, eh?’
It seems that even when discussing animals the Spaniard’s thoughts are centred around winning Grand Tours.
In fact, his tunnel vision is such that he hinted he tried not to celebrate too much when he took the Giro.
“I have prepared for the Giro/Tour thinking only about one victory, not thinking about victory in the Giro and victory in the Tour,” he said. “For me all together is the same. I think that can help me to get the objective, but I know also it is very complicated.”
Team-mate Peter Sagan knows how seriously the team considers Contador’s mission. He is a three-time winner of the green jersey but while he said he’d love the idea of taking another Maillot Vert while helping the Spaniard win yellow, he said everything was secondary to the latter.
“The most important thing is the Tour de France yellow jersey. I think everybody knows this. For me, it is very nice to be in the team and to be fighting for the yellow jersey would be very nice. But it is a possibility that I can do the green jersey. If it comes easy, that is okay, but yellow is more important.
“I am very happy and it is a pleasure for me to ride with Alberto on one team. For sure we can do a very nice Tour de France and I hope we can battle for the yellow jersey with the other teams.”
If it sounds like Sagan is backing off from the green jersey fight too easily, fear not. He affirmed more than once that he will be chasing stage wins on the days that suit him to do so
“Last year the whole team was [riding] for me,” he said, referring to his then-place in Cannondale. “This year it’s a different story. For sure I want to do my best – to win some stages will be very nice but we will see how the race goes.”
Contador, too, will adapt that wait-and-see approach. He knows after last year’s race and his subsequent fracture that nothing is guaranteed.
“The first objective is to try to avoid crashes. That is the most important because especially this year, the start of the Tour is complicated,” he said. “The first day with time trial, the second day with wind, probably. Then Huy and after cobblestones. The most important thing now is not to lose the Tour.”
Despite those high stakes, he promises not to take a conservative approach.
“I want to play it like other years, to be aggressive. I arrived well prepared for the race. I have been thinking about this for three and a half months.”