Like him or not, Alberto Contador is all but sure to be back at the Tour de France next season.
Saxo-Tinkoff Bank’s final-hour ProTeam license awarded this week assures that Contador will return to the Tour for the first time since 2011 — and will be able to prepare fully for the first time since 2010.
Barring injury or another major setback, the Spanish superstar will be the centerpiece in the battle for the yellow jersey after being sidelined this season due to his backdated clenbuterol ban.
And his rivals know that when Contador is in the race, things get electric very quickly.
“Contador will be back in the Tour next year,” said Sky’s 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins. “Alberto changes any races he’s in.”
Contador’s aggression in the mountains dramatically alters the dynamics of any race when he’s at the start line. Unlike many pros who target only certain events, the Spaniard typically races for the win in just about every race he starts.
Riders inside the peloton admit that this year’s Tour — and even 2011 when he was not in top shape — simply wasn’t the same without the Contador factor.
“Alberto will be back next year and you know he will be extra motivated to win,” 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) said at the Tour presentation in October. “He is always a hard competitor. He always races to win.”
The WorldTour license for 2013 will ease anxiety within the Saxo camp.
Last month, when Saxo was not included in the first round of 18 licenses, Contador voiced concerns that he might not have time to properly prepare for the Tour if the team were forced to wait for a wildcard entry.
However, with Saxo Bank safely within the 18-team league, Contador can plan his season with everything built around hitting peak form for the Tour de France in July.
Whether everyone will cheer his return to the Tour remains to be seen.
Perhaps no rider in the peloton today is as divisive as the “Pistolero del Pinto.”
Fans love his aggressive and attacking style, while detractors say there are simply too many question marks about his past to embrace him.
His clenbuterol case, which led to disqualification of his 2010 Tour de France win, as well as his 2011 Giro d’Italia victory, was loaded with controversy.
Contador has passionately insisted his wins have come clean and said that his clenbuterol case was triggered after eating tainted Spanish beef.
Other complications could be on the horizon as well.
Though he was not named in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into the U.S. Postal Service-Discovery Channel-Astana doping legacy, links between Contador and former trainer Pepe Martí — who is facing a lifetime ban — could mean some uncomfortable questions for Contador going into next season.
An expected trial involving Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, Manolo Saíz and other key players in the Operación Puerto blood doping ring dating back to 2006 will also raise old questions about Contador, who, while racing with Liberty Seguros at the time, was among nine riders not allowed to start the 2006 Tour.
Renewed pressure on Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis, with fresh accusations leveled by Tyler Hamilton dating back to links between the Dane and Fuentes, will mean that 2013 will be anything but tranquil.
On the sporting side, however, Contador should see smoother sailing.
Gone is longtime sidekick Dani Navarro (to Cofidis), but the arrival of several quality riders, including Nicholas Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers, U.S. champ Timmy Duggan and Rory Sutherland, will mean Contador will see the best support in years.
Roche said he’s excited about the prospect of riding for Contador despite giving up on his own GC chances at the Tour.
“Maybe I will lose my own chances in the short-term for the Tour, but I think I will learn a lot from riding in support of Alberto,” Roche told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “When you have a rider like Alberto, it’s natural that everyone will ride to support him. I have no problems with that. I will have chances in other races. And the chance to win the Tour with Alberto will give everyone extra motivation.”
What’s sure is that Contador will have no shortage of motivation for 2013.
He says his clenbuterol ban was an injustice and promises to set the record straight by taking back the yellow jersey from 2010 that was stripped in the wake of the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling against him in early 2012.
With a climber-friendly route on tap for the centennial edition, Contador is doubly motivated for the Tour.
“It’s a balanced Tour, one that should go right down to the wire,” Contador said when he saw the route for the first time. “Of course, I will fight for the win at the Tour. I know it won’t be easy, but it’s the race that motivates me most.”
With the WorldTour license in the bag, Contador and Riis can start planning to hit Corsica with certainty that they will be there.