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MADRID (VN) — It was hard to tell what Alberto Contador might have been thinking. His face remained expressionless as Saxo-Tinkoff boss Bjarne Riis, sitting directly to his left, said plain as day that Chris Froome (Sky) is the best Tour de France rider in the peloton right now.
It was equally hard to discern if Riis was playing a bit of a psychological game, or simply answering straight up the question about what happened in the 2013 Tour.
“Sky wasn’t the strongest team in the Tour this year, but they did have the strongest rider,” Riis said during a Thursday press conference to announce that title sponsor Saxo Bank was stepping up to save the team for 2014.
Perhaps Riis was simply stating the obvious. Froome was head and shoulders above everyone in the Tour, and he particularly seemed to relish handing it to Contador.
Despite the smiles and handshakes in Madrid last week, it’s hard to imagine that Contador is taking everything in stride after yet another tumultuous and emotionally charged season for the hard-nosed Spaniard, a rider who has overcome everything from a brain injury to his tempestuous campaign with Lance Armstrong in 2009.
Yet unlike the past, when Contador would come out guns a-blazing in the face of adversity, 2013 was a very different year for the 30-year-old in that he barely won.
Take away his stage victory in the Tour de San Luís in January, and Contador was winless for the season. He failed to notch wins as he struggled to find winning form throughout the season in what was his worst campaign since 2005.
Contador admitted he could never get off the back foot all season long.
“It’s true the results were not the same as in previous years,” Contador said. “There were a lot of factors. The schedule wasn’t right. I started racing too early. I never had a good base that I needed to race to win.”
Throughout his career, Contador has raced to win and consistently delivered, but not this season, when he was blown out of the water by Froome.
During the Tour this year, Contador was out-gunned in every major stage, bleeding time in the mountains and the time trial. Although he came close to winning the hilly TT near Gap, the only time Contador managed to take time on Froome was in the crosswinds in stage 13.
The Kenya-born polyglot has eclipsed Contador and emerged as the most potent grand tour rider of today’s peloton.
That was a role that Contador was comfortably settling into until his trajectory was derailed by his controversial clenbuterol positive during the 2010 Tour that resulted in having two grand tour victories scratched from the history books.
While he won the 2012 Vuelta a España in his comeback from his backdated two-year ban, Contador simply has not been the same racer since the 2010 Tour.
Last week in Madrid, he effused confidence, and even made the remarkable claim of taking aim to win both the Tour and the Vuelta in 2014.
Yet it’s clear that Contador is at a major crossroads of his career.
He will turn 31 in December, and is suddenly among the oldest GC challengers in the bunch rather than being the young kid on the block. Others are taking that role, with Froome nearly two and a half years younger. Nairo Quintana (Movistar), whom many see as destined to challenge Froome in the coming years, turns 24 in February. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), turns 29 next month.
When asked what he learned from racing against Sky and Froome this year, Contador turned the question around, echoing Riis’ line that Saxo-Tinkoff of 2013 was stronger and deeper than Sky’s Tour squad.
“I think I had the strongest team in this year’s Tour,” Contador said. “The problem was that in the key moments of the race, I couldn’t finish it off. It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I have a super strong team around me for the grand tours.”
Saxo Bank’s decision to step up its financial backing over the winter months allows Riis the space he needs to keep together the strong team he assembled in 2013 thanks to the arrival, and sudden departure, of Russian businessman Oleg Tinkov. That allowed him to sign Nicolas Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers, and Daniele Bennati, among others.
Saxo Bank officials emphasized that a new co-sponsor would be welcomed, meaning that their blank check isn’t meant to be permanent.
Their backing, however, will allow Contador and Riis to breathe easier going into the critical offseason knowing that their strong base will remain largely intact moving into 2014.
Riis and Contador also reaffirmed their mutual affinity. Contador said he’s never had such a solid relationship with a sport director as he does with the 49-year-old Dane.
Contador also promised to finish out the remaining two years with Riis through the 2015 season despite the likely arrival of Formula One driver Fernando Alonso in 2015.
Riis echoed he has full confidence that Contador is up to the task of beating Froome.
“Of course, Alberto can win the Tour again,” Riis said. “We know Sky is strong, but who knows what will happen. Wiggins won the Tour two years ago, then had some problems. Maybe the same thing will happen to Froome? We do not know. We need to focus on our team, and be as good as possible with the team we have.”
Although he didn’t win a major race this year, at least Contador put in a full season on the road. That’s something he hasn’t done since 2009.
Every season since 2010 has been truncated by the long-running legal battle surrounding his clenbuterol case. In 2011, he kept racing as his clenbuterol case dragged on, but he was nowhere near top form in the Tour that year, riding to fifth before being disqualified. Last year, he came back midway through the season, and managed to squeeze out the Vuelta victory thanks to some dynamic racing at Fuente Dé.
This year, he never seemed to find his rhythm, but insisted that he was posting encouraging numbers leading up to the Tour. His resolve remains clearly intact.
“After this season, I am even more motivated than ever for next year,” Contador said. “And with the team I have around me, I believe we can do some wonderful results. I want to return to the Tour in the best possible condition to win. I will look at the routes once they are unveiled, but I am all but certain to race the Tour and the Vuelta. And if I go, I am going to win.”
Contador remains wildly popular with Spanish fans and is the only Spaniard of today’s crop of riders capable of generating major press coverage.
It’s certainly a stretch to say Contador is washed up, but he faces major headwind as he tries to bolster his fitness and regain his footing going into 2014.
Riis and Contador admit they have their work cut out for them. Words are one thing, but victories on the road are quite something else.