Contador clinches Algarve crown

Alberto Contador (Astana) finishes second in the final time trial to take the overall title at the Volta ao Algarve.

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Contador crossing the line

It seems Alberto Contador must overcome adversity at every turn, yet he always seems to be able to rise to the occasion to deliver a big victory when the chips are on the line.

Forced to ride a replacement bike in Sunday’s 17.3km individual time trial after a late-hour UCI ban sidelined his Specialized Shiv TT bike, Contador still managed to claim overall victory Sunday at the five-day Volta ao Algarve in his first race since winning last year’s Tour de France.

Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) was fastest against strong westerly winds to win in 21 minutes, 32 seconds (47.926kph).

Despite racing on a time trial bike that he rode for the first time briefly Saturday evening, Contador stopped the clock in second place at 13 seconds slower, fast enough to claim overall victory 30 seconds ahead of Sánchez.

“He had every disadvantage against him today, but he still won,” Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli told VeloNews. “That proves Alberto is a natural-born winner. He has a tremendous inner strength to be able to remain focused even in these tense moments.”

Astana had to edit Contador's backup time-trial bike to keep the UCI happy. Photo: Andrew Hood

Contador was wrong if he hoping he could have a tranquilo start to his 2010 season following his controversial “co-habitation” with Lance Armstrong at Astana, because Friday’s expected UCI ruling threatened to disrupt him on the eve of Sunday’s decisive final-day time trial.

Contador won the Algarve tour last year to open his highly successful 2009 season and came back this year keen to prove that he and his “new” Astana teammates are up to the task of winning.

Astana stepped up, with Contador winning Friday’s summit finish and the team controlling the racing across the surprisingly steep and uneven terrain in the Algarve region of southern Portugal.

Sunday’s finale was yet another test of Contador’s nerves and the “Pistolero” proved once again he’s a cool character under fire.

“There were some nerves with the bike and have to make the change,” Contador said. “Yesterday we had a pretty hectic afternoon, but this afternoon the legs responded and I am pretty happy with the result.”

LL Sánchez on the rise, strong American showing

Sánchez, meanwhile, put down an excellent ride to confirm once again that he could be a factor in this year’s Tour. Last year, he put Contador under pressure to win Paris-Nice and at Algarve, he was the only rider to top his compatriot in the time trial.

Luís León Sánchez races to the stage win.

Sánchez will skip defending his Paris-Nice title, in part because teammate Alejandro Valverde is still banned from racing in Italy, so his Caisse d’Epargne team is sending Sánchez to Tirreno-Adriatico instead.

“It’s always nice to win and even more so when you finish ahead of a rider with such qualities as Alberto,” Sánchez said. “I had good sensations this week. It was too bad that I didn’t have a better day (Friday) because that put me out of contention to try to win the overall, so to win today proves that things are on the right direction.”

Sébastian Rosseler (RadioShack), winner of Saturday’s stage, posted a fast early time of 21:48 that stood until the final five riders. The Belgian hung on to finish third at 16 seconds slower while RadioShack teammate Tiago Machado stopped the clock in sixth to notch a podium spot at third overall at 32 seconds back.

Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) — who admitted that he’s not nearly as strong as he normally is in February when he’s gunning for the Tour of California — rode to a solid fourth place at 22 seconds slower to slot into fourth overall at 37 seconds back in his season debut.

Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia was 19th at 1:11 slower, good enough to secure him an impressive top-10 at 1:33 in back in ninth against a world-class field at Algarve.

Craig Lewis (HTC-Columbia) rode well against the buffeting winds to stop the clock 59 seconds slower for 15th, a good showing as he continues to prepare for what’s expected to be his grand-tour debut at the Giro d’Italia in May.

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