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by Shane Stokes
July 3, 2017
Photography by Kristof Ramon and Cor Vos
Well into his 30s and with the Giro a stated aim for next season, this year’s Tour almost certainly represents the final chance for Alberto Contador to return to the top of the podium in Paris. Thanks to a different approach, he believes he is on track.
LIÈGE, Belgium (CT) – Changing habits isn’t easy, but Alberto Contador is counting on a new tactic to bring him success.
It’s ten years after his first victory in Tour de France, and he is seeking to turn back the clock. Now 34 years of age, and two years since his last Grand Tour win, he is squaring up to younger competitors with one goal in mind: returning to his best and winning a third Tour de France.
In order to do that, Contador has gone against his natural instinct this year: namely, that of going for victory in every race that he does.
The Spaniard has certainly had a good season, placing second in the Vuelta a Andalucia, Paris-Nice, the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
However he then backed off, making clear prior to the Critérium du Dauphiné that he wasn’t riding for the general classification in the event. He sat up on some of the climbs and ended up 11th overall, a full five minutes and 20 seconds behind overall winner Jakob Fuglsang.
That was a change from recent years. Consider his past results in the race: in 2007, prior to that first Tour win, he was sixth in the race. Two years later, a month before his second Tour win, he was third. In 2010 he was second; in 2013 he was 10th, in 2014 second and in 2016 fifth.
Every time he has ridden the race he has aimed to be in the results. However this time around he held back on that goal.
“Basically, by this approach to the Tour I think I can arrive with more guarantees to the race,” he said in the Trek-Segafredo pre-race press conference. “Cycling is very difficult and for me always I prefer to win each race and also to be competitive in training. But I understand that thinking of my main objective, it was better to choose this way to approach the Tour. I think in this moment I feel better than last year.”
Contador moved to Trek-Segafredo last winter, and that’s key to his new approach. Luca Guercilena is the team manager there and he was one of the people who convinced him to hold back on his ambition in June. Not only would he have to be willing to not go too deep during the race, he also would need to be less sharp going into it.
The idea was to bring him to the boil more slowly, ensuring he is both at a higher level at the Tour but also having greater reserves than in recent years.
“It is clear,” said Guercilena, “that if you want to try to do your best in a three week Tour, you should change the approach you have a bit as your age is going into the higher numbers. That is why we decided to have a softer approach to the Dauphiné, because we know that a three-week race is quite long.
“In cycling, you really need to arrive in a proper way on the first day and then just progress during the race.”
Even though there’s a logic to what he says, Contador had a long-running pattern of wanting to ride aggressively in races. It’s hard to undo habits, particularly when the stakes are high.
Was it difficult to convince him to change his approach?
“No, not really,” Guercilena answered. “Simply because, as you know, last season I worked with Fabian [Cancellara] in his last season. Obviously even for him the approach to the races was different than before.
“Age is a factor. Big champions are not changing the quality of their performance but, let’s say, the training to arrive at this quality is different. You need to take care about that.”
“I think I’m in similar shape to 2014”
Contador’s need to trust in the process, to believe the new approach will pay off came under an early test on day one of the Tour de France. He said on Friday that he wouldn’t take chances in the technical parts of the course if there was rain, but that he would give it his all in the other sectors.
He was aware he could lose some time, but didn’t expect to be as far back as he was. He ultimately finished 68th, 54 seconds behind the winner Geraint Thomas (Sky). He also yielded 42 seconds to Thomas’ teammate Chris Froome, who was sixth.
He said afterward that the bad crash of his fellow Spaniard Alejandro Valverde played a factor in the time lost.
“I heard that Alejandro had fallen and we decided to go very carefully in the corners,” Contador explained. “My priority was to go in the corners with great care, and in the straight lines I think went quite fast.
“In the parts where I had to pedal I felt good, although 42 seconds is a lot for 14 kilometres. But this has just begun. Obviously, Froome has made some great differences, he is ahead, so there’s no other way but to go on the offensive. But until we get to the first mountain stage and see how the legs are, you cannot say what tactic to adopt.”
As the race progresses it will become more clear if Contador was hampered by form or by caution. It’s certainly possible he played this more safely than others: after all, he retired from two out of the past three Tours either solely or partially due to crashes.
In that light, staying upright was hugely important to him in Düsseldorf.
But how does he think he is going? Prior to the 2014 race, Contador said that he was in his best Tour de France form in years. Asked at this year’s pre-race conference to compare his condition then and now, he was optimistic.
“We will see in the race,” he said. “But at this moment, I think I’m in similar shape to 2014.”
Questioned further, he elaborated on how he knew he was on track.
“Basically it is a question of how many watts I move. It is a question of climbing times, and it is a question of weight. All of these give me these answers. I feel more or less like 2014.
“At the moment I can say that my preparation has been very good. I think I have done the right thing. So we will see.”
Guercilena said that he was similarly optimistic.
“I have to say that I am convinced that he can fight for yellow,” he stated. “It is true that the competitors are younger. Someone last year [Froome] proved that he was stronger [then].
“As usual, I always say to the riders that you need to know your limits if you want to be competitive. And I think that this is the case. That is why we changed our approach to the Tour, because we know that it will be a tough race and the competitors are really strong. We are not coming here saying, okay, we will just take the start and win.”
Still, even if he underlines the dangers of any complacency, he also stresses that he believes Contador is where he should be.
“I think he is in shape. We respect his past data – he is on a good level. Then we will see what is the strategy of the race and how the other teams are riding and working. And we will try to do what we think is good for us to do to get the yellow.”
At his strongest in week three?
Even if the time trial dented his morale, the memories of that slippery, rain-saturated day will soon fade. The stages ahead will give a much clearer picture to Contador. Indeed, given that he was further back on his racing form than his competitors in the Dauphiné, it is possible that he may need a few days to sharpen up.
The uphill finish on Monday’s third stage to Longwy should give him the first indication, even if the climb is less than two kilometres in length. A clearer picture will likely emerge on stage five to La Planche des Belle Filles, which is 5.9 kilometres long and reaches gradients of 20 percent in steepness.
By Wednesday evening, he will have a far better idea of where exactly he is at.
“Stage five is one I am curious about,” he said. “In 2014, on stage 10, I felt very well and was eager to go there [to the same final climb] and try to win. But unfortunately I crashed on the road.”
This time around, he’s got a chance to exorcise those ghosts with a strong performance there. Should he do so, he will know that he is indeed where he needs to be to chase yellow.
After that, tactics will be vital. As both Contador and Guercilena note, this year’s Tour is atypical: there are climbs dotted throughout, for example, with the race visiting five mountain ranges. There are quite a few shorter, steeper climbs, and there are also mountain stages that finish with descents.
Fortunately for the Spaniard, he has shown time and time again that he is strong on improvisation on the road. An attack on the rode to Fuente Dé in the 2012 Vuelta a España saw him wrest the race lead away from Joaquim Rodriguez and paved the way for his final victory in that event.
Last year, another surprise attack forced a large break clear and helped Nairo Quintana (Movistar) establish what would prove to be a crucial buffer on Chris Froome. Quintana went on to win the race as a result.
Because of this racing instinct plus the atypical course, a fit Contador would be doubly dangerous for his rivals.
Guercilena is hoping for one more thing. That is, that Contador’s lighter June will give him more reserves in July. As the race grinds on, as the kilometres tick down and the summits clock up, fatigue will set in. In theory at least, the rider with the most reserves should remain strong as the days tick by.
“Our plan is that his form will progress,” Guercilena says. “Of course, if you aim to progress in the third week but the first two weeks are really, really hard, then it is complicated to arrive well in the third week. But, normally, his form should progress during the three weeks.”
Contador confirms this approach, but is also quick to remind that he has been going well earlier this year.
In contrast to Froome, for example, he has regularly been on the cusp of a stage race win.
“When Luca spoke with me [early on], put his confidence in me for the Tour de France, he was thinking of fighting for the Tour,” he said. “The objective was always to arrive here in optimal condition.
“But, for sure, we have fought also at the beginning of the season. I think in total I lost four races only by 20 seconds. That means a lot. Still, it is true that we have been focussed on the Tour, for sure. Everybody knows how important this race is, and is for us.”
Ten years ago Contador won his first Tour. A decade later, he’s still fighting for yellow. There have been many peaks and troughs along the way, with highs such as his victories in races like the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, and lows such as crashes, injury and his positive for Clenbuterol.
But, at 34 years of age, he believes – he hopes – that he’s still got what it takes.
He’s certainly still got the same burning ambition he showed as a younger rider.
“I am very eager to still be here after ten years,” he said. “It means [a lot] that, after many generations of rivals, I can still be a favourite for the Tour.
“I didn’t change too much during this time. I have more experience, for sure, that can help me.
“But about motivation, about being eager to fight for the race … nothing has changed.”