Alberto Contador knows he will have no room for error in his bid for a third Tour de France title, with the first week of the race peppered with tricky obstacles. The defending champion, widely recognised as the best climber in the world and a fine time-trial rider, will face the wind and cobbled sections early on in the race he also won in 2007, with Tuesday's third stage between Wanze in Belgium and Arenberg Porte du Hainaut in France already being earmarked as being particularly challenging.
The Spaniard, nicknamed "El Pistolero" for his habit of celebrating his victories by miming the firing of a pistol, will have to be ready to jump from the gun as he looks to defend his crown. "It will be a nervous race in the first week with the stages in the Netherlands and Belgium, and the cobbles," the 27-year-old said. "But I won't lose sleep over it. I have a great deal of respect for these cobbles. I will have to be fully focused but there will be more important stages."
Contador, who rode on the cobbles in April under the guidance of Peter van Petegem, a Paris-Roubaix race winner, impressed with his ability to tackle the treacherous terrain. The Astana rider will also be able to rely on Alexander Vinokourov, the ideal lieutenant. "Alexander Vinokourov is a champion, a great rider who will bring me his experience," Contador said. "I know that in 2010, my team will be loyal, ready to make sacrifices so that I can win another Tour de France. I have no doubt about it."
Contador, who has been much more easy-going this season after Lance Armstrong, his former Astana teammate and bitter rival, left to launch his RadioShack team, is expected to make his move in the Pyrenees. Things have changed since 2009 for Contador. He now does what he wants, when he wants. While riding under the guidance of Johan Bruyneel last year, with seven-time Tour champion Armstrong, he was not named sole leader and had to face criticism from within his own team.
This year, he has been pampered by Yvon Sanquer, Astana's new manager, and he will be the leader when the Tour starts on Saturday from Rotterdam with an 8.9km prologue. "I prefer to make my own decision without having to take one, three or even four riders into account," he said. Although he has not been his usual dominant self this season, notably being beaten by Slovenia's Janez Brajkovic in the Criterium du Dauphine, Contador is well aware that it is only his form this month that matters.
"When I am on the Tour de France, nothing can take me away from my goal - victory. I separate what is important and what is not," he said. Contador, the overwhelming favourite, refuses to acknowledge he is unbeatable, as even Armstrong suggested this season. "If he thinks of me that way, it is a mistake because nobody is unbeatable," said Contador, one of only five men to have won the three grand Tours - Italy, France and Spain.