The pressure is on Alberto Contador at the 96th Tour de France. By general consensus, Team Astana’s 26-year-old Spanish star is the clear favorite to wear the yellow jersey into Paris in three weeks’ time — but the 2007 winner could lose the chance of taking the Tour for a second time as early as Sunday’s opening stage: a demanding 15.5km time trial.
Contador has developed into a fine time trialist, and the opening climb of the tricky Monaco course plays to his physical strengths. But whether he will have the mental fortitude to win is another story.
At Friday afternoon’s Astana press conference in Monte Carlo’s Forum Grimaldi, Contador, skinnier than usual, looked more scared than the haunted, thin-faced figure in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” the iconic painting that’s said to represent man’s perpetual anxiety.
Contador said he was comfortable fielding the questions of a packed crowd of 500 journalists; but the pressure will be infinitely greater when he wheels out of the start house on Saturday evening just after 7 o’clock local time. He will have the eyes of the world’s 800 million television viewers on him … and he knows that he will most likely have to overcome the potentially fastest times set by his teammates Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer almost three hours earlier.
While Contador was being grilled by the media Friday, Armstrong and Leipheimer were relaxing at their $600-a-night Fairmont Hotel, after earlier riding the time trial course several more times. It’s a course that the better you know it the faster you’ll be able to go — especially on the main downhill section where riders have been hitting 90 kph in training!
Many are tipping Saxo Bank’s Olympic TT champ Fabian Cancellara to win the Monaco stage after his scintillating victory at last week’s Tour of Switzerland; he will start 90 seconds ahead of Contador Saturday, so the Spaniard will have little or no chance of getting the big Swiss in his sights up the twisting, 7.5km-long Beausoleil climb, which has been given a Cat. 4 rating.
The earlier riders start at one-minute intervals, so it’s feasible that Armstrong (starting at 4:17 p.m.) will have the incentive of catching the rider one ahead of him, Norwegian champ Kurt-Asle Arvesen of Saxo Bank. Leipheimer starts at 4:37, one minute behind the man who just beat him out of the 2008 Olympic silver medal, Gustav Larsson (Saxo Ban). If Leipheimer can catch Larsson he could well win Saturday’s stage.
Why have Leipheimer and Armstrong been given early start times, people have been wondering? The reason is that, other than the man each team director names as his top choice to start at the end of the field, the team can place their other riders wherever they choose as long as the various teams keep their same rotation in the starting order.
Astana manager Johan Bruyneel was smart in placing the two Americans as his first two starters, because there is always the chance of the weather changing during the day — so with Contador forced to start at the end of the day (when an evening rain shower could slow him down), Armstrong and Leipheimer may be able to race in better conditions. If they do set fast times, and Contador is slowed by his own anxiety at trying to match them, many questions will be answered.
Alongside Contador at Friday’s press conference was Bruyneel, who commented on the much-written-about (but not entirely true) rivalry between the Team’s Spanish leader and seven-time Tour winner Armstrong. Asked who would be the strongest of his men, Bruyneel said, “We’ll have a good idea after the time trial tomorrow.”
Besides Cancellara and the top three Astana riders, another serious stage-win contender is Silence-Lotto’s Australian leader Cadel Evans who knows he can’t concede much time Saturday if he wants to finish on the Paris podium for the third year in a row; Evans starts 90 seconds behind Contador and 90 seconds ahead of defending champion Carlos Sastre of Cervélo TestTeam on Saturday.
Other riders that could finish in the top 10 of the TT include the Russian Giro d’Italia winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Garmin-Slipstream’s Brits David Millar and Brad Wiggins, and their U.S. teammate Dave Zabriskie; Liquigas’s enigmatic Italian Franco Pellizotti and his teammates Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali; Columbia-HTC’s Aussie Mick Rogers; Astana’s solid German Andreas Klöden; and Lampre’s Italian veteran Marzio Bruseghin.
The time trial promises to be a vital test of all the top contenders’ capabilities, with major consequences for those that fail.
And all eyes will be on Contador.
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