Another strong performance by Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) in last week’s Volta a Catalunya confirms that the Spanish star is back on good form.
Contador battled through harsh conditions in Spain’s Pyrénées to finish second, just four seconds behind winner Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), just two weeks after taking an emotional victory at Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy.
Team boss Bjarne Riis said the results show Contador, who struggled through the 2013 Tour de France, is back at his best.
“He’s better than he was when he won the 2012 Vuelta a España,” Riis told VeloNews. “Alberto has the head, the legs, the heart. It’s good to see him at this level again. He really worked hard for that.”
The weeklong Catalunya tour saw the first major showdown between Contador and defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) since last summer’s Tour.
Froome raced well, but did not win a stage and finished sixth at 17 seconds back — hardly a disaster. Froome, who skipped Tirreno-Adriatico to nurse a minor back injury, admitted he was “not at the same level as the Spanish riders now.”
When asked to gauge Froome, Contador said, “the truth is that I did not see much of him because in the end, other riders were fighting it out for the race.”
“The balance is pretty good,” Contador continued. “I felt good throughout the race and I had good sensation. Maybe I was missing a stage finish, and it’s too bad I didn’t take advantage of the mountain stages, especially Vallter 2000, but I am happy, especially with the manner in which I recovered day after day.”
The GC battle was knotted up at Catalunya, with Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) also showing strong form, winning a stage and finishing third overall at seven seconds back.
“It was really a successful week,” van Garderen said in a team release. “I had no idea how my form was going to be coming into it after the setback I had before Paris-Nice. I stayed confident, and the team showed a lot of confidence in me. They all rode really well. I think we have the momentum back and we’re looking forward to the next race.”
The race featured two mountaintop finales, with the remainder of the days over tough, hilly terrain under cold, rainy weather more akin to the northern classics than Spain. Had there been a time trial, van Garderen likely could have had a chance to win the overall.
Rodríguez, who will skip the Tour to race the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España instead, said his next major objective will be Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Contador, meanwhile, will next race the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), starting April 7 in Spain. Riis confirmed to VeloNews that Contador will not race any of the Ardennes classics, and will instead take a break following the Basque tour before beginning serious preparations for the Tour.
Contador’s successful start to the 2014 season is in sharp contrast to last year, when he won only once — a stage in his season-opener at the Tour de San Luís in January. It was his worst season since turning pro in 2003.
Riis said Contador worked harder over the winter and reduced offseason sponsor and media distractions to focus completely on preparing for the season.
“I was not surprised. That is what I expected to see. He’s been responding well to the training,” Riis said. “Everything is as we hoped it would be. We made a great program, and we’re doing the right things.”
Contador struggled to regain his previous dominance after returning from his controversial, back-dated, two-year clenbuterol ban in 2012.
Riis said he continued to back Contador, and is now convinced the 31-year-old Spaniard will be able to fight for the yellow jersey in July.
“I never lost faith in Alberto,” Riis said. “This is the Alberto I thought he could be. It’s great to see him there. It means everything to him. It’s been very tough and difficult for him. Now he’s there, we know what to do.”