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Inside the Tour de France with John Wilcockson: Can Contador extend his reign?

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Jul. 25, 2010

In the end, Alberto Contador’s third Tour de France win was the hardest of the three. To overcome a highly motivated Andy Schleck in Saturday’s time trial, the 27-year-old Spaniard from the Madrid suburbs had to dig into his reserves and call on all the skills he has learned in winning five grand tours over the past four seasons.

His victory in this fascinating 97th Tour brings Contador level with legendary champions Philippe Thys of Belgium (winner in 1913, ’14 and ’20), Louison Bobet of France (1953-55) and Greg LeMond (1986, ’89 and ’90). And with five-or-so seasons still remaining for him at the top level, people are starting to wonder whether Contador can join Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Induráin as a five-time winner … or even equal or exceed the seven taken by Lance Armstrong.

Judging by Contador’s performances over the past three weeks and, more importantly, the progress made by a quickly maturing Andy Schleck, the Castilian will hard pressed to reach either target — especially when his likely future is put into a historical context.

For instance, when a gifted 23-year-old Jan Ullrich came second to teammate Bjarne Riis in his debut Tour in 1996 and then won the following year’s Tour by a nine-minute margin, the young German was lauded by a media that predicted he’d go on to win at least five Tours, maybe six. Instead, he didn’t win another one, mainly because from 2000 he hit his head against a brick wall called Armstrong.

Similar hopes were placed in the youthful LeMond when he began his Tour career with third place (behind teammate Laurent Fignon), second (to teammate Hinault) and first (ahead of Hinault). But two months before defending that first title (in 1987) LeMond almost lost his life in a hunting accident, and he never recaptured his scintillating climbing speed — even though he would go on to win two more Tours.

Contador has already lived through adversity, having, in 2004, suffered a congenital aneurysm during a Spanish stage race at age 21. He returned to racing in 2005 and finished a distant 31st in his first Tour. His grand-tour winning streak started two years later with Bruyneel when he defeated Cadel Evans by 23 seconds after race leader Michael Rasmussen was excluded for breaking the anti-doping regulations.

Contador has now had another close Tour victory, almost losing the race on Saturday, so it looks certain that Schleck or some other talented individual (perhaps a Denis Menchov, a Ryder Hesjedal, or the upcoming U.S. phenom Tejay Van Garderen) will beat Contador in the near future. But the three-time winner needs to make some sort of changes before he defends his title next July.

A necessity for a Tour champion to keep on wining is a strong organization behind him. Armstrong established an impregnable group of people with sports director Johan Bruyneel at U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel during his reign. Induráin spent his whole career with the Reynolds/Banesto squad under directors José Miguel Echavarri and Eusebio Unzue. Hinault had similarly strong backing, first with Cyrille Guimard’s Renault team and then Paul Köchli’s La Vie Claire organization. And Merckx habitually had the peloton’s most powerful team riders at Molteni and Faema.

In winning his first two Tours (along with the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España in 2008), Contador was part of the dominant Bruyneel-led Discovery and Astana teams; but with a weaker Astana set-up this year the Spanish star was very close to being beaten by an inspired Schleck. So what lies in Contador’s future?

Asked on Saturday whether he was going to renew his contract with Astana, the Tour champion gave an evasive answer. Astana has apparently offered him the highest-ever salary in pro cycling, while there’s talk that the guru-like Bjarne Riis wants Contador to replace Andy and Fränk Schleck, who will be part of a new, well-sponsored Luxembourg-based team in 2011.

Neither of those options is ideal. Contador would much prefer to race with his own handpicked team, but finding a major sponsor has proved impossible in Spain: the economy there is in a deep recession and the popularity of pro cycling in his homeland is at a low ebb, despite his own successes. The public is far more into soccer (thanks to Spain winning the World Cup), tennis (with Wimbledon champ Rafael Nadal) and motor racing (with F1 pilot Fernando Alonso).

So where should Contador go? On paper, it makes sense for him to join the Riis organization that has already won the Tour (with Carlos Sastre) and is one of the very best ProTour squads.

Because some key (as yet unnamed) team riders are moving with the Schlecks to the new Luxembourg team, it’s unknown how strong the revamped Riis team will be. But knowing the wily Danish team boss’s success with Team CSC and Saxo Bank, and with an important budget (it’s believed that Pennsylvania-based IT company SunGard will be joined by Italian industrial giant Mapei as principal sponsors), Riis looks sure to come up with another winning formation.

As for Astana, it’s said that road captain Alexander Vinokourov will retire from racing to take charge of the team and that his ultimate goal is to find and develop a Kazakh capable of winning the Tour. Should Contador remain as team leader, he might be able to attract some more Iberian riders (he sat next to RadioShack’s Sergio Paulinho on the TGV train from Bordeaux Sunday morning) to help him continue winning the Tour.

Another possibility — though Bruyneel said Sunday he has yet to decide on a leader to replace Armstrong — is that Contador will return to the fold. This theory is not so far-fetched as it seems because RadioShack’s current team leaders are all at or near racing-retirement age. The team’s top-placed rider at this Tour, Chris Horner in 10th, will be 39 by next year’s Tour, Levi Leipheimer will be 37 and Andreas Klöden 36, leaving Jani Brajkovic, 27, as the team’s youngest GC hope. Short of signing another team leader (but who?) Contador would fit right in.

At this point, the smart money is on Contador staying with Astana. If so, he will likely have a big fight on his hands next July. Andy Schleck (and his brother) will be heading a strong new team; Menchov will likely be with his Russian countrymen leading a reinforced Katusha squad; and BMC Racing team boss Jim Ochowicz said some major signings will be coming to the American-Swiss squad to give Evans his best shot at the title.

So can Contador step up from a three-time to a five-time winner? Clearly, he has the ability to do so, but with all his opponents gaining confidence and stronger teammates, but it won’t be easy!

Click here for Complete Video Coverage of 2010 Tour

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