No one’s quite sure what happened to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) in 2013.
Maybe it was some early-season illnesses that had him on his back foot all year. Maybe it was a lack of motivation. Perhaps he just assumed he’d be able to find a way to win, just as he always has over the past decade.
Whatever the reason, it was obvious to the entire world during the first decisive mountain stage in the Pyrenees that the once-prolific Spaniard was nowhere near yellow jersey form. Chris Froome (Sky) bolted away on the road to Ax 3 Domaines, taking yellow and revealing a Contador that the peloton had never seen before. Instead of attacking on his pedals, Contador was desperately trying to stem the bleeding, sitting in the saddle, his face pallid, his head tilted oddly to one side.
Contador stubbornly fought all the way to Paris, but it was Froome, not “El Pistolero,” who was calling the shots at the 2013 Tour. Contador fell from second to fourth after Froome attacked on the final climb up Mont Semnoz; the attack was the Sky rider’s answer to Contador, his biggest nuisance over the three-week race, even after Contador reportedly asked Froome to soft-pedal the climb so that he might preserve his podium spot.
After his worst pro season since his rookie year in 2003, a humiliated Contador went back to the drawing board. He didn’t race again after the Tour, preferring to let both his body and his mind take a breather.
“Alberto went away on his own to reflect on the Tour,” said Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Philippe Mauduit. “He took a really good look at himself. He could no longer count on the methods that brought him his previous success.”
The Tour is the only race that truly motivates Contador, and though he races to win every time he toes the line, it’s the yellow jersey that inspires the Spaniard. Against Froome, he knew he faced a new kind of challenge, and he needed to reset the engine.
Rediscovering the spark
Contador has knocked back everyone who has come in his path, from the Schleck brothers, to a generation of Spanish and Italian challengers, to Lance Armstrong, but Froome represented something new: someone he couldn’t beat.
Rather than throw in the towel, Contador vowed to up his game. After a vacation, he got busy last fall, and avoided any distractions with sponsors or the media. Contador returned to his roots, putting in long, intense training rides in the mountains near Madrid, but he also entered into a brave new world.
For the first time, he started training with a power meter, a tool that has reinvented how cyclists prepare and train. He also began working closely with former Team Sky director Stephen De Jongh, who joined Tinkoff-Saxo as a director in 2013, perhaps hoping to pick up a few insider tips from his nemesis. And like Froome, Contador increased his altitude training, spending much of the winter on the high volcanic islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
“For more than 10 years, he stuck to the same program over the winter, accumulating kilometers and hours in the saddle,” Mauduit continued. “This year, he has ridden less. He has replaced quantity with quality. He has worked with great intensity, and tried to dig into his reserves.”
Contador also reset his mental clock. He’ll turn 32 this year, and he knows he’s entering his final peak years. And he doesn’t want to fade away, eclipsed by Froome. Having a challenger as strong as Froome has only kicked Contador’s competitive juices into overdrive.
“I have never seen Alberto so motivated,” said Tinkoff-Saxo manager Bjarne Riis. “He’s so concentrated in everything he does. In the training camps in January, he was already in very good form. He wants to win the Tour again, and he knows what he must do.”
The behind-the-scenes changes certainly paid early season dividends. Contador came out firing on all cylinders, winning or finishing second in four stage races he started. Two stage victories and the overall against a world-class field at Tirreno-Adriatico was the confirmation he needed.
“Since Tirreno, Alberto knows he’s on the right path,” Mauduit said. “His confidence has once again become his main strength. As far as his duel with Froome is concerned, I can tell you that he knows how to beat him. He knows what Froome’s faults are. Psychology is very important to Alberto.”
With Contador flying, it was Froome who struggled in the spring, with a series of setbacks that could pay a heavy price come July. Froome missed Tirreno with a back injury, and then pulled out of Liège-Bastogne-Liège with a chest infection. Froome was only focusing on July, and promised he’d be ready to take on all challengers. Regarding Contador? Froome said he’s not losing any sleep.
“I don’t look at any one rider as my rival, but I certainly know that Alberto is one of the best grand tour riders of our generation,” Froome said of Contador. “I cannot worry about Alberto or anyone else. I can only control what I can do.”
When the two champions met at June’s Critérium du Dauphiné, they confirmed the promise of a high stakes duel at this year’s Tour. Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky snatched the GC title from Contador’s grasp on the final stage, but prior to that, the Spaniard traded blows with Froome throughout the eight-day race, often regarded as a key tune-up for the Tour.
Tinkoff-Saxo directors are confident that Contador will have the kick to challenge Froome in the mountains. In the past, Contador could count on what Mauduit described as his “double-kick” — an acceleration to string out the favorites, followed by another surge to break their collective spirit. Contador’s dramatic stage victory on the opening day at the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), when he accelerated away from Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on a steep climb, confirmed that Contador was back at his best.
The prospect of a duel between Contador and Froome, with Valverde and an on-form Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) thrown in for good measure, has only raised expectations going into the Tour.
Riis took pride in watching Contador’s 2014 revival, saying he never lost faith in his superstar leader.
“Alberto is as good as he was in 2011. It’s good to see him back to his old level,” Riis said. “Maybe we can have that Tour that everyone dreams of. It will be a big fight between Froome and Alberto.”
It’s never been easy for Contador, who battled through a brain aneurism in 2004, a bitter cohabitation with Armstrong, during the 2009 season at Astana, and, finally, his controversial clenbuterol suspension.
As Riis hinted, a clash between Contador and Froome could present a battle of historical proportions. Contador’s physical strength is outstripped only by his mental fortitude. Last year, even when he knew he wasn’t on Froome’s level, he attacked where he could, in the flats, on the descents, and in the crosswinds. If Contador enters the Tour with the same level he held during the spring, it could be Froome who needs off-season introspection.