Will Vuelta be the one-man Alberto show?
If you’re somewhat out of the cycling loop, Alberto Contador makes his big race return this weekend after serving a six-month suspension for either eating a contaminated steak (he said) or being rumbled with the banned substance clenbuterol in his blood stream (they said).
Whatever your feelings on Contador are – and the Spaniard does polarise opinion somewhat – his return to the professional peloton is, to me, more appealing than the very best sizzling slice of Basque meat.
Contador is widely seen as the most talented Grand Tour rider of his generation – a rider who, unlike Lance Armstrong, can compete in all three of the major three-week stage races and emerge victorious.
It’s seems incredible that the 29-year-old now has just four Grand Tour wins to his name. It would be six, were his 2010 Tour win and 2011 Giro win not declared void; it would arguably be seven had his old Astana team not been banned from racing the 2008 Tour; it could even have been nine had he not sat out most of this season.
You get the sense that Contador must be smarting inside.
Just look at the winners of past Grand Tours since the Spaniard last officially won each race: for the Tour we have Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins – three excellent riders on their day but ones who would probably not trouble Contador on his; for the Giro there’s Denis Menchov, Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi and Ryder Hesjedal (a list that needs no qualification) and for the Vuelta we have Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali and Juan Jose Cobo.
Needless to say, Contador is a better all-round force than all of these winners of the cycling calendar’s most prestigious stage races.
In fact, Contador has only ever won the Vuelta once – beating the American Levi Leipheimer to the golden jersey in 2008 on his only appearance in his home Tour, in a year that Astana were banned from the Tour following the Vinokourov-Kashechkin blood doping debacle of 2007.
For many, Contador’s punishment for an incident that had nothing to do with him was a case of swings-and-roundabouts for a rider who himself had allegedly slipped through the Operacion Puerto net in 2006, while riding for the much-maligned Liberty Seguros.
It was for this reason that, when Contador protested his innocence following his positive test for clenbuterol in 2010, many critics wheeled out the no-smoke-without-fire line, claiming that even if Contador had simply been on the end of some serious bad luck, then it was a case of karma finally catching up with him.
His suspension served and his winning titles stripped, Contador returns to the big time on Saturday in Pamplona where he will line-up for Saxo Bank-Tinkoff for the opening team time trial after signing a new contract with Bjarne Riis’s squad back in June.
Contador made a low-key return to racing earlier in the month at the Eneco Tour and now looks to save his – and his team’s – season with victory in the Vuelta and a strong showing in the World Championships at Limberg.
In his absence, the Grand Tours have been way more open and – in some cases – exciting. But no one can deny that this year’s Team Sky procession around France was lacking an explosive talent like Contador going off-piste and blowing things apart.
The Giro was captivating because we had two riders – Hesjedal and Rodriguez – who were trading blows and pink jerseys, as well as a roster of supporting stand-out performances (remember that man Thomas De Gendt? Well, he makes his return in Spain too, after missing the Tour due to an untimely wedding).
In short, a largely predictable 2012 Tour lacked the Giro’s spontaneity – and the cycling world now has high hopes for a Vuelta that, on paper at least, looks to be a real corker.
The 67th edition of the race could not come sooner: we’re all suffering from a post-Olympic hangover and in need of some competitive two-wheeled action. Plus we all know that this is a particularly brutal race. There are five mountain-top finishes and another five finishes at the summit of punchy climbs in a route that stays in northern Spain and does not once venture south of Madrid.
An opening time trialT is followed by just one flat stage before the first stages in the medium mountains kick in, with stages three and four both finishing atop category 1 climbs which should make an instantaneous selection in the battle for the GC.
So often viewed as a revenge race or a last chance saloon for riders who crashed out in the Tour, for Contador this Vuelta is the only real chance to turn the most troubled year of his career around.
With fire in his belly and on the back of some serious training, Contador will start the race as outright favourite.
Indeed, it seems an utter absurdity to mention last year’s winner, Movistar’s Cobo, in the same breath as his returning compatriot. The gulf in class and talent is extraordinary.
Contador has named Chris Froome, the rider who trailed Cobo by 13 seconds in Madrid last year, as his main rival. The Briton will enter the race on the back of a superb second-place (albeit muted) performance in the Tour and a bronze medal in the Olympic individual time trial. Crucially, he will also be Team Sky’s number one rider – and not a leashed super-domestique enrolled to deliver Bradley Wiggins to the line.
But there are serious question marks over Froome’s ability to hold his form into such a gruelling race – and while his team is a strong one, a lot will depend on whether or not the 27-year-old has left enough in the tank to maintain his competitive edge.
More likely opponents for Contador come from Spain. Only three non-Spaniards have won the Vuelta since the new millennium – Menchov (twice), Vinokourov (probably in need of an asterisk here) and Nibali – and it looks like that trend may continue.
Narrowly beaten into second in the Giro, Rodriguez will see this Vuelta as his best chance of winning the first major stage race of his career.
Since 2008, the Spaniard has finished in the top eight of eight out of 11 Grand Tours. The climbing-heavy course will suit his strengths, he has a faithful right hand man in Daniel Moreno and his Katusha team – which includes the silent enigma that is Menchov – will be determined to make an impression after their dour showing in the Tour.
Another Spaniard, Igor Anton of Euskaltel, should be in the mix. The 29-year-old was wearing the new red leader’s jersey in 2010 when he so cruelly crashed out of the race, and his entire 2012 season has been about peaking for the Vuelta. Anton won a stage in the Giro but struggled to make a strong impression on GC, finishing 17th.
With the race entering the Basque region for a second successive year, Anton will certainly look to add to his four Vuelta stage wins – and provided he can keep out of trouble, the Spaniard should compete for the podium in Madrid.
Should Cobo falter, then Movistar have Alejandro Valverde as a fall-back. The 32-year-old missed the past two editions owing to suspension and will hunt for stage wins in support of his compatriot.
Non-Spanish names to consider besides Froome are Team Sky’s Colombian duo Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao, Belgian De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Dutch duo Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema (both Rabobank), who saw their Tour hopes dashed after crashes.
But putting any of the above names in the same bracket as Contador seems rather fruitless. For many, this year’s Vuelta is not about whether Contador will win – but by how much.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.