Alberto Contador is back for the Vuelta, and this changes everything.
Hang on a second, does it? Can the Spanish superstar really be expected to be competitive only a few weeks after fracturing his tibia?
Let’s wind back a bit. You may recall Contador crashed out of Stage 10 of the Tour de France in spectacular fashion, hitting the deck at 77km/h while trying to eat on a descent. He fractured his leg, and rode another 10km on adrenaline and emotion (Australian rider Zak Dempster describes it in his Roar interview with Felix Lowe) before the pain became too much.
Initially he planned to return for the Vuelta, causing journalists and fans to begin salivating over the Spanish race like a hungry rider might over a fat, juicy chuleta.
But on July 23 Contador tweeted that his wound was healing too slowly and that his Vuelta hopes were gone:
“Bad day,the wound healing gets complicated,I’ve no date to take the bike.Goodbye to the Vuelta.”
But by the 8th of August, Cycling Tips was reporting sightings of Contador out training near his home in Lugano in late July (http://cyclingtips.com.au/2014/08/contador-recovery-moving-quicker-than-rider-and-team-have-claimed/).
The training must have been going well, because this week he announced that his tilt at the Vuelta is back on, albeit in a different capacity than usual:
“I know it’s a Tour of Spain that I’ll have to take in a very different way than I had thought earlier in the season, or as I planned the Tour [de France], but I think it can be very good for me thinking on the end of the season and either to start next year with guarantees, and perhaps in the last week I could be fighting for a stage win. Now I’ll try to do my best in this last week until the start, see you all in Jerez!”
So, Alberto Contador, el Pistolero, a man who can win Grand Tours when he’s not even in top shape, is going to the Vuelta for pre-season training.
Can you believe it?
I must admit I am struggling to see it. Whatever you think about him (and mentioning that he “divides opinions” is an understatement on par with “Gee, these American cops are enthusiastic about crowd control”) he always – always – races to win.
Most years you could reasonably expect Contador to turn up to the Vuelta slightly off his best levels, but still carrying all the training he put in to peak for the Tour, and still be a real podium threat.
Remember when he won the 2012 Vuelta, defeating Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez in one of the most gripping GC battles in recent years? He’d hardly raced all year after coming back from his clenbuterol ban. Still took the win.
But this Vuelta is absolutely stacked. Can a recovering Contador match a determined Chris Froome, a Nairo Quintana brimming with confidence and rested after a commanding Giro d’Italia, or a fresh Rigoberto Uran?
These three are all going to come in red hot, although Froome has had his own injury concerns, he’s been training in the US and is reportedly moving pretty well.
Judging from Contador’s public statements, even he doesn’t think he can match the favourites for this race.
What do his words “a very different” way imply? That he’ll be content to roll around with the grupetto logging miles for the first two weeks, dropping enough time that he’s given freedom to attack in the hectic final week?
That he’ll be drilling it on the front as a super-domestique for a different leader? Tinkoff-Saxo’s preliminary Vuelta squad doesn’t have any obvious GC leader apart from Contador himself.
Or will he hang on to the leaders for as long as he can, and hope he comes good at the right time?
It just doesn’t sit square with me that Contador, as proud and aggressive as he is, will be happy to creep around Spain mid-pack, riding his legs into shape in between pressing the flesh for his sponsors before and after every stage.
The first week is pretty flat, and he’ll have some time to find his racing legs. By the time the serious mountains arrive, he’ll have nearly two weeks of racing covered and all the training he did before the Tour should be kicking back in. If he’s still in the race by then, I feel that things could be more interesting than Alberto is willing to let on.
What do we think? Are his public statements a true representation of his goals, or is Alberto playing possum?