The 2007 Tour de France champion is back and keen to make up for lost time after missing last season's race
Contador has a point to prove
When Carlos Sastre stood on top of the podium as Tour de France champion in Paris last July, it was in the knowledge that he was not even the best cyclist in Spain, let alone the world. Sastre admittedly rode a stunning race to seal a surprise victory but he did so without Alberto Contador in the field, universally regarded as the world's best cyclist of the Grand Tours.
Contador had been denied the chance to defend his 2007 Tour crown after his Astana team were banned from last year's race because of failed drug tests by some of their riders. The Spaniard was not among the guilty parties but missed out on cycling's premier race because of the indiscretions of riders such as Alexander Vinokourov, who has since served a ban from the sport for doping. Astana's unclean riders have been sacked and Contador will line up as the star-studded team's leader even, despite having a seven-time Tour de France winner in Lance Armstrong in their nine-man Tour line-up.
Contador admits the 2008 race was hard to watch but he shrugs it off as nothing more than a minor setback. The 26-year-old from Madrid has had worse to deal with in the past. Four years ago while riding on stage one of a fairly innocuous stage race, the Vuelta a Asturias, Contador collapsed and was taken to hospital where doctors found bleeding in his brain. He underwent high-risk surgery to correct the problem but gradually managed to recover and, to coin an Armstrong phrase, got back on the bike. Contador still sports a scar on his head from ear to ear and admits he uses that life-threatening setback as a springboard for some of his tougher days on the bike.
"When something so serious happens to you, it makes you evaluate the really important things, and realise how narrow the line is between success and failure," said Contador. "I haven't forgotten it and never will, so it serves to make me more consistent. "I had to fight very hard to overcome it and return to racing. "Since then, my motto is 'where there's a will, there's a way' and I've tried to be faithful to that ever since."
His return to health and fitness was helped, in part, by Lance Armstrong. While recovering in hospital, Contador avidly read Armstrong's autobiography about his battle with cancer and his triumphant return to the Tour de France. Comparisons have been drawn between the pair, but Contador shrugs them off. "I've won one Tour de France and he's won seven so there's a big difference between us," said the Spaniard.
The irony that Armstrong's book could yet inspire his Astana team-mate to Tour glory is not lost on the Texan, who has stated his desire to win an eighth Tour de France this month. As it stands, Contador is the team No 1, but his team's loyalty could severely be tested if he shows the slightest chink in his armour and Armstrong produces the past form the peloton knows he is capable of. The politics at the team could yet derail Contador, the favourite to win the Tour, but he refuses to talk in anything but positive fashion about the returning Armstrong, even if there is a hint of doubt in his voice.
"Being on the same team with Armstrong is a great experience and I think that'll be a positive in the Tour," said Contador. "I don't think I can really consider him a domestique. "For instance, he finished well in the Giro d'Italia [Armstrong was an admirable 12th] and still has aspirations for the Tour. "Time will tell how it goes in the end. It will be the race that chooses one or other of us."
Armstrong has clearly played a role in making Contador the rider he is today and Contador is grateful to his part-time mentor, although hints that their relationship is far from close. "We haven't been around each other for any length of time but it's always instructive to see how he does things and what goes on around a team in which one of the riders is somebody like Lance Armstrong," he said. So what is it that makes a great leader for Armstrong? In Contador's mind, there is one sole ingredient.
"You've got to get important victories, it's the only way," he said. And as it stands there have been no shortage of those. After being ruled out of last year's Tour de France, he instead rode the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta d'Espagna, comfortably winning both. This season, the results have been more modest but, then again, Contador has singled out the Tour, much as Armstrong did in his prime, as his sole aim for 2009.
"Sure, I'll be one of the favourites but only one of the favourites at the start line," he said. "The Tour is the most complicated race in the world to win as always. "You need to be the strongest and also to have everything go well, which doesn't always happen. "One small crash and bam, your season's over so it's too early to say it's a race I'll definitely win." Whatever the outcome on French soil over the next 23 days, there is no denying that Contador is some way short in terms of cycling greatness than Armstrong. However, the motivation of being a multiple Tour winner may have been Armstrong's motivation, but it is not that of his successor.
"For me, the important thing isn't accumulating Tours, Giros or Vueltas," he said, "but enjoying competition every day. That's what I like and what motivates me to train." On the bike, Contador's racing future is unsure, although, aside from Caisse d'Epargne, there are a host of teams lining up for his signature. For his part, he - well, publicly anyway - says that he is happy at Astana. But the Kazakh backers have been seriously hit by the credit crunch with many of the riders and backroom staff having gone unpaid parts of the season amid serious financial difficulties.
That uncertainty had even cast doubts over Contador and the team's involvement at this year's Tour, but their lead rider insists he cannot dwell on the difficulties the tem are facing. "The team's problems are important but my main concern is that it will not affect my preparation for the Tour de France in any way and I think I've succeeded in that," he said. "As for resolving the problems, we're in the process and I think that we'll get them resolved before the race starts."
Contador admits that the Tour has been his sole focus for "so, so long" and claims that off the bike he has a "boring, simple life". As well as birds, he has a passion for hunting when his schedule allows and is a motorsport nut, karting with friends whenever possible and following the fortunes of countryman Fernando Alonso on the television whenever possible. But his biggest passion off the bike is his fiancee Macarena, although Contador has no immediate plans to marry.
"It's still too soon for making plans like that," he said. "She, like the rest of the key people in my life, knows me and knows what's important for me at any given moment. "She helps me keep my feet firmly on the ground. "But my life is not all exciting, despite people always wanting to know about it. I have very ordinary tastes and try to hang around with friends that I've known all my life."
For the next three weeks, his sole interest will be in riding into yellow come Paris. @Email:email@example.com