Changes paying off for Contador as he nears Tirreno-Adriatico title

The Spaniard did things differently over the winter, which included focusing more on his fitness and less on media and sponsor obligations

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PORTO SANT’ELPDIO, Italy (VN) — Behind-the-scenes changes are paying huge dividends for Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), who is poised to win Tirreno-Adriatico for the first time of his career in Tuesday’s finale.

Back-to-back stage victories against a world-class field in Italy has provided a huge boost to Contador, who struggled through 2013 when he was out-gunned by Chris Froome (Sky) at the Tour de France.

Contador starts Tuesday’s 9.1-kilometer individual time trial with a 2:08 head start on second-place Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and seems all but assured of taking a morale-boosting victory.

“This week is very important, because not only does it fill me with pride that I can win Tirreno,” Contador said after the stage. “But also in the way that I have won it. It gives me confidence that the hard work is paying off, and that will continue on the same path.”

Following his drubbing last July at the hands of Froome, Contador took a step back and reassessed his approach coming into the 2014 season.

He made several key changes in the offseason that are paying dividends and setting the tone for a run at the Tour podium in July.

First off, he stayed focused on keeping his weight down over the winter, and all but eliminated unnecessary non-race commitments.

Contador admits he was distracted during the 2012-13 winter following his comeback and dramatic 2012 Vuelta a España victory with a long list of commitments to sponsors and media that left him on the back foot going into the Tour last summer.

Rather than pack too much into his schedule, Contador said he remained focused on training hard over the winter. He spent extra time training on the Canary Islands, something that he said he noticed over the weekend.

“The script couldn’t have gone better,” Contador said of Sunday’s big ride that delivered the stage victory and leader’s jersey. “I was more focused on training this winter.”

Second, he delayed his season debut until the Volta ao Algarve in mid-February in southern Portugal, meaning that he didn’t take far-flung trips to Argentina and Oman for early-season races.

The strategy paid off, as Contador delivered his first win in more than a year when he won a stage at the Algarve race. His back-to-back stage wins at Tirreno are his first UCI WorldTour-level victories since winning the 2012 Vuelta.

Also, Contador has started working with former Sky sport director Stephen De Jongh as his new trainer at Tinkoff. De Jongh was among a few Sky staffers who were forced off the British outfit in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal after De Jongh admitted he used EPO early in his career.

De Jongh joined Tinkoff in January as a sport director and trainer.

Contador, who had previously worked with Spanish trainer Pepe Martí, who was also implicated in the Armstrong scandal, told reporters Monday he’s working with De Jongh on his training programs.

“I am working with Stephen. I am content with his work,” Contador told journalists Monday. “We have a good feeling between us. There’s a good understanding. It’s paying off.”

Finally, the arrival of Russian investor Oleg Tinkov, who bought out team owner Bjarne Riis, is surprisingly having a positive influence on the team.

Tinkov took shots at Contador last summer in a series of scathing Twitter posts, but the pair has buried the hatchet. Tinkov’s arrival has allowed Riis to focus completely on running the team, and he’s no longer distracted by the hunt for sponsorship dollars.

Contador trusts Riis’ opinions, and Riis is confident that the 31-year-old Spaniard still has a grand tour or two in his legs.

“Alberto will be back at the Tour this year,” Riis told VeloNews in an interview earlier this season. “He is more tranquil, he is focusing on his work. He learned from his mistakes last year, and he wants to win again. He is a fighter.”

There’s one thing that hasn’t changed; Contador’s winning spirit.

Even in last year’s Tour, when Sky and Froome were dominating the decisive climbs, Contador continued to try to attack and disrupt Froome in crosswinds and descents.

With the way Contador is riding during this week’s Tirreno-Adriatico, it appears he might be back on the level where he can take on Froome during the climbs.

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