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MURCIA, Spain (VN) – A huge smile creased across the typically somber face of Bjarne Riis when Alberto Contador celebrated his first victory of 2011 at the Vuelta a Murcia by pointing proudly at his Saxo Bank-Sungard jersey.
The Danish sport director bet the bank on signing Contador following the exodus of most of his major stars to the upstart Leopard-Trek team, and after a tumultuous off-season that saw Contador battling doping allegations, the victory came as a relief both to Contador and Riis.
“This victory means a lot to Alberto after all he has been through,” Riis told VeloNews. “He really has a strong character to stand all this. And he’s not even close to 100 percent. He will get stronger.”
Contador’s clenbuterol case added another complicated layer to what many saw as an unlikely pairing between the sometimes-dictatorial Riis and the equally strong-willed Contador.
Contador didn’t back down in behind-closed-doors intrigue with Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong during their tense “cohabitation” at Astana and many wondered if Contador might rebel against Riis’s “I’m-the-general-and-you’re-the–soldier” mindset in running his team.
Both are getting more comfortable with one another and Contador’s morale-booster victory in Murcia over the weekend was a boon for both.
“Riis is one of the best sport directors in the world and it’s an honor to be working with him,” Contador said Sunday. “We’re getting to know each other. Bjarne is a special director, everyone would love to have him, I am happy to be working with him.”
Riis, too, sounds equally enamored with his new star rider.
“I knew he was a great rider, but I am most impressed with how professional he is and how dedicated he is to training, to preparation, to being a bike racer,” Riis continued. “It’s fantastic to be working with him. After being around these past few months, now I know why he is the champion that he is.”
The pair is just getting to know one another. Contador has been distracted with his legal battle and only had limited contact with Riis throughout much of the fall and into the winter.
The UCI cleared the way for Contador to attend Saxo Bank-Sungard training camps in January and February, but even those were tense events filled with anxiety as Contador nervously waited to hear the verdict of the Spanish cycling federation.
Riis was steadfast in his support of Contador, saying he would publicly support him so long as the evidence proved that Contador did not intentionally dope.
Behind the scenes, Riis encouraged Contador to keep training and be ready to return to racing as soon as possible. The surprise reversal of its proposed ban by the Spanish federation made that comeback even faster than expected.
An appeal by the UCI or WADA could throw a wrench in the budding partnership, but right now, both are enjoying the glow that came with Contador’s Murcia victory.
Giro start not assured
Riis also told VeloNews that Contador’s plans to ride the Giro d’Italia are not fully confirmed.
Contador has spelled out his racing schedule that includes a start at the Volta a Catalunya (March 21-27), the Vuelta a Castilla y León (April 13-17) and the Ardennes.
Riis said a final decision on whether Contador will race the Giro could come this week.
“It’s not 100 percent decided that he’ll do the Giro,” Riis told VeloNews. “He’d like to do it, but I am worried a bit about how hard the Giro is. It depends on how you race the Giro. Alberto is the favorite in every race he starts. We’ll make a decision soon.”