SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain (VN) — These are not easy days in the world of Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff).
After a disappointing Tour de France, where he failed to win a stage, reach the podium or seriously challenge Chris Froome (Sky), Contador and Saxo boss Bjarne Riis are taking a hard look at what happened in July — and why.
Contador raced the Clásica San Sebastián on Saturday, but everything about his future, both in the short term (whether he’ll defend his crown at the Vuelta a España) and in the long term (how to beat Froome and the Sky juggernaut), remains in doubt.
On the Champs-Élysées, Contador said he was disappointed not to be on the individual podium, “but content to be there as [part of] the best team. That leaves a good taste in the mouth.”
“We have to analyze what went wrong going into next year,” he added. “We will do everything to beat Chris Froome.”
Saxo is spinning the Tour as best it can, citing the team’s exciting tactical plays, highlighted by catching out Froome and Team Sky in the crosswinds in the Tour’s second week, as well as that team prize and the trip to the podium in Paris.
Yet in terms of what really mattered most to Contador and Riis — the yellow jersey — this year’s Tour was nothing short of disastrous.
Team boss Bjarne Riis told VeloNews that Saxo will to have to up its game if the team expects to beat Froome and Sky.
“Sky has their way of doing things. We can only be impressed in the way they are working. They are very professional,” Riis said. “A new Froome domination? Maybe. I think Alberto can be better than he was this year.”
Contador lined up in Corsica as the most dangerous rival to Froome, yet seemed to be constantly on the back foot as Froome rode imperiously toward the yellow jersey.
Despite having perhaps his strongest and most unified team ever at a Tour, Contador was unable to match the Sky captain.
The Spaniard lost time to Froome in every major showdown, in the Pyrénées, the Alps or the time trials. Contador was blown out of the water at Ax 3 Domaines, the Mont-Saint-Michel time trial, and Mont Ventoux.
After taking back time in the crosswinds and coming close to victory in the second time trial, Contador held out hope that he could still turn around his Tour in the Alps.
That proved to be a pipe dream. The only time he could attack was when the road dropped, first on the treacherous descent off the Cat. 2 Manse climb into Gap, and then on the Cat. 2 Col du Sarenne after the first of two passages up L’Alpe d’Huez.
Though thrilling for the viewing audience, both displays of bravado backfired.
Contador crashed low on the Manse, banging up his right knee, which bothered him throughout the remainder of the Tour.
And the effort he used roaring down the Sarenne bit him on the final climb up the Alpe, when he was popped midway up the 21 switchbacks, and then was later unable to turn the knife when Froome suffered his lone hiccup during the entire Tour when he suffered the beginnings of a sugar bonk with 5km to go.
Riis admitted Saxo threw everything it had at Froome.
“Froome was extraordinary, no doubt about that,” Riis said. “After that, we can be happy, we rode a great Tour in our way. It was not enough to beat him. Alberto is accepting of this.”
If there’s a bit of tension behind the scenes between Riis and Contador, it’s hard to say, but what is sure is that Riis and Contador will have to go back to the drawing board after the beating they took at the hands of Froome and Team Sky.
Vowing to come back
Contador, who famously beat back Lance Armstrong in a nasty fight in the 2009 Tour, is never one to simply walk away from the battle.
For Contador, who is accustomed to winning, riding for the podium just isn’t in his DNA.
Though he was on the back foot for much of this Tour, he was the lone rider who had the “cojones,” for a lack of a better word, to keep pushing Froome.
Rather than ride to defend his podium position, Contador kept taking jabs at Froome, hoping one of them would at least knock Froome off his game, and give himself and Saxo an opening.
That posture ultimately hurt him in the podium battle.
While Contador was targeting Froome, Movistar and Nairo Quintana were targeting Contador. And Froome was more than happy to help Quintana in the Colombian’s quest for a stage win in the penultimate stage up the Semnoz, collaborating with him and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) to drop Contador one more time.
“Defending a second place is not the same as defending the lead,” Contador admitted last week. “It’s always better to finish second, but the goal was to be first. It was not possible this year. There was one rider who was stronger than everyone else.”
Rather than wave the white flag, Contador vows to return next year better prepared.
But what can Contador do?
Contador was clearly not at his best this season. His lone victory this year came back in January, a stage win at the Tour de San Luís in the season opener in Argentina.
Since then, he said, he was later hampered by allergies and poor European winter weather, which he cited as reasons why he could not prepare at a high level.
Contador is a fighter — but at 30, he’s two years older than Froome. Dedication and motivation are two driving factors in making the sacrifices needed to be a Tour winner, and those close to Froome at Sky say the Kenya-born rider is as ambitious as he is nice.
And Froome can afford to be ambitious. Sky employs an army of coaches and performance managers who use high-tech computer modeling to measure what it takes to win the Tour. They then design training programs based on calculations of the power it takes to scale the most important climbs as fast as possible.
Every detail, from diet, to training, to equipment, to tactics, is taken apart and reassembled to find margins for improvement in keeping with Sky’s philosophy of achieving “marginal gains” — a concept backed by one of the biggest budgets in the peloton.
While Sky continues its relentless quest for incremental improvements, Saxo must search for money following the exit last week of co-sponsor Oleg Tinkov. The Russian businessman brought with him 6 million euros, money that Riis used last year to bolster the Saxo lineup, bringing on such riders as Michael Rogers, Roman Kreuziger, and Nicholas Roche. Riis is confident that he can find new co-sponsors, but the distraction is not exactly welcome at the moment.
And the dissimilarities between Sky and Saxo involve more than just men and money.
Sky boss Dave Brailsford isn’t afraid to delegate, and leans heavily on lead coach Tim Kerrison and his sport directors to create training plans and deploy day-to-day tactics.
Riis, on the other hand, likes to be in control of everything, from bikes to coaching to calling the tactical shots during the race.
One example that stands out is the second time trial starting in Embrun. Froome and nearly all the other major riders decided to ride lighter bikes with easier gearing up the first two climbs, then switched to a heavier, deeper-geared time trial setup for the final 12km.
Advisers also urged Contador to switch bikes, but Riis overruled them, insisting that his man ride a road bike with a disk wheel and handlebar extenders.
The upshot? Froome erased a 11-second gap to Contador to win the stage by nine seconds.
Riis shrugged off the debate, insisting that at the end of the day, the strongest rider won.
“I hoped and expected Alberto to be stronger, to be able to challenge Froome more, but he couldn’t,” Riis said. “It wasn’t the tactics. We needed better legs.”
Despite his struggles, his teammates rallied around Contador throughout the Tour, and also vow to bring the fight back to Sky next year.
Rogers, who rode for Sky’s Tour-winning team in 2012 with Bradley Wiggins, said Contador’s never-give-up character will help fuel the team’s ambitions going into next season.
“We got a great team, and a great bond, and I really hope we can build on that for next year,” Rogers told VeloNews. “We’ve learned a lot and we will reinvent ourselves for next season. Alberto’s a fighter. We haven’t seen the last of him.”
In fact, Sky’s lineup was where Riis saw Froome’s lone weakness in this year’s Tour. Riis and Contador tried to crack Froome by attacking his flanks, but that too failed.
“Everyone expected Froome to be strong. That was not to be surprised,” Riis said. “Maybe the big surprise of this Tour is that their team was not stronger, but Froome was so strong, he handled it alone.”
Doubts about the Vuelta
More immediate is the question of whether Contador will defend his Vuelta crown. Contador told Belgian TV that he’s too fatigued to race the Vuelta next month.
“The [Tour] has left me exhausted both physically and psychologically,” Contador told reporters in Paris. “Now I want to rest and recover.”
But Riis told VeloNews that the call has yet to be made.
“We will have some talks after the Tour,” Riis said. “Nothing is decided yet about the Vuelta.”
Perhaps another reason why Contador is hesitant to race the Vuelta is that he doesn’t want to face another possible drubbing, this time at the hands of a fresh and confident Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who skipped the Tour after winning the Giro d’Italia in May, and plans to start the Vuelta with full intention of winning.
After having Froome take it to him in the Tour, that would be the last thing Contador needs.