MOGAN, Spain (VN) — Tinkoff-Saxo is counting on a return to form from star rider Alberto Contador to challenge Chris Froome (Sky) for supremacy in the Tour de France.
In 2013, Contador was on his back foot throughout much of the season, and found himself in the unfamiliar position of being out-gunned by a superior rival.
It’s Froome who has surpassed Contador as the rider of reference in the peloton the past few seasons, a designation Contador hopes to regain in 2014.
“Froome was unbeatable last year. When a rider is better than you, you have to assume that, and work harder,” Contador told VeloNews. “We are changing a few things in my approach to the Tour this year. I am optimistic that we can arrive at the Tour in top condition to fight for everything.”
Last year, Contador struggled through a relatively flat season, at least by the 30-year-old’s standards, winning only once, and missing out on the Tour podium with fourth place only for the second time since his first victory in 2007.
After watching Froome rip through the Tour, Contador realized he must up his game if he hopes to win another yellow jersey.
Contador said he couldn’t put a number on how much he needs to improve to reach Froome’s level; he simply admits he wasn’t at the winning level last July.
For 2014, Contador is talking about not only the Tour, but also the Vuelta a España. He will debut at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal in mid-February.
Team boss Bjarne Riis expressed full confidence that Contador will take the battle to Froome in 2014.
“Alberto will be better than last year, I am sure of it,” Riis told VeloNews. “You can already see he is more concentrated, that he is motivated. He will be ready for the Tour.”
Contador takes confidence in his team, which arguably was the strongest in 2013, and tried time and again in vain to throw Froome off balance.
Froome might have been the better rider in 2013, but Riis’ troops fought to the end, earning the best team prize and demonstrated some old-school tactics by attacking in crosswinds and ambushing relatively easy stages to put Froome on edge.
“Without our team last year, the Tour would have been a very boring race again,” Riis said. “That is what our team stands for. We fight every day. Alberto wasn’t racing to defend second. He was racing to win, so it didn’t matter to him if he was second, fourth, or 10th. I was very happy with how we raced last year.”
That fighting spirit motivates his teammates to keep the faith in Contador.
Nicolas Roche, who confirmed he will race the Giro d’Italia and the Tour this season, said Contador fought more than any rider he’s ever seen.
“Alberto never gave up last year. Even when he knew Froome was stronger in the mountains, Alberto kept fighting all the way to the end. Every morning we talked about how we could attack the race,” Roche told VeloNews. “That might have caught up with a bit in the final mountain stage, and it probably cost him the podium, but he’s only interested in the victory.”
The core of the 2013 Tour team remains in place. Along with Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Jesus Hernández, Sergio Paulinho, Matteo Tosatto, and Daniel Bennati are all back. Benjamin Noval, one of Contador’s closest friends in the peloton, retired at the end of last season.
Kreuziger, who rode to a career-best fifth last year, said the team will rally around Contador’s push for yellow despite his rising profile.
“I have some early season goals, but for the Tour, we will all ride to support Alberto,” Kreuziger said. “He is a rider who makes everyone work harder. We all believe he can win, and we see how hard he is working. In training rides, he is always very focused, and takes his work very seriously.”
The exception is Michael Rogers, who ironically tested positive for clenbuterol after winning the Japan Cup in October, the same product that torpedoed Contador’s career in 2010.
Contador was disqualified from the 2010 Tour as well as his victory in the 2011 Giro as part of a back-dated two-year ban that allowed Contador to return to racing in time to start — and win — the 2012 Vuelta a España.
Whether Rogers — who claims, as Contador did, that traces of the banned product entered his system after eating contaminated meat — can clear his name remains to be seen, but the team can only hope that he resolves his case before the Tour begins.
Of course, there’s not just Froome. Vincenzo Nibali will come to the Tour with a loaded Astana team, and there are another half dozen rivals who will be aiming for the podium come July.
Contador is determined to reassert himself.
“As a person, I choose to look at things with optimism,” Contador said. “I am not frustrated or lose enthusiasm. Instead, I see it as a new challenge, and I have nothing but motivation at the start of 2014.”
Contador also brushes off backroom drama, including the arrival of new owner Oleg Tinkov, who bought out Riis, and insists the Russian will provide the team with a solid financial footing moving forward.
For Contador, who has seen his fair share of challenges to overcome throughout his career, taking on Froome is just one more battle that he vows to confront.
Whether he manages to take Froome down remains to be seen. It could be the biggest battle of his career.