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By Andrew Hood
The first three Tours de France in the post-Armstrong era have been all won by riders from Spain, but only one hit the jackpot Saturday in the Monaco time trial sweepstakes that opened the 2009 edition.
Contador: on a mission
With a superb second-place ride, Alberto Contador (Astana) revealed he could be the man to continue Spain’s three-year running Tour winning streak.
“I have to be satisfied because the only one to beat me was the Olympic time trial champion. Even if I didn’t take a lot of time, it was a moral victory to be best among the challengers,” Contador said. “The legs responded today, but you don’t want to get too excited. Nothing was decided today.”
Contador’s ride not only staked a claim for leadership rights of his powerful team, it put him on track to prove his 2007 victory wasn’t earned by default because race-leader Michael Rasmussen was ejected from the race four days short of Paris.
Contador will start Sunday’s stage in the polka-dot climber’s jersey, swapping out his Spanish national time trial champion’s jersey he wore Saturday in his Tour return, a year after being prevented from defending his 2007 crown last year because ASO vetoed the Astana team.
Astana confirmed its super-power status, packing four riders into the top 10.
Despite suggestions that divisions are fracturing the team’s unity, sources told VeloNews that Contador and Armstrong had a face-to-face meeting Friday evening to put to rest any misunderstandings between them and close ranks going into what’s a very important Tour for both.
Contador said Astana realizes that winning the Tour is the most important goal; he just wants to make sure it’s him in the yellow jersey come July 26 if they do.
“We are smart enough to know the only way to win together is to ride as a team,” he said. “Despite the hopes of others that we have divisions, we are going to come together and ride as a unit. The rest of that other stuff isn’t important.”
Pereiro: happy to be back
While Contador was basking in the afterglow of his brilliant start, Oscar Pereiro – the winner of the 2006 Tour – is still hoping for a return to top form following his harrowing fall in last year’s Tour, coming off the Colle di Agnello.
The Caisse d’Epargne rider finished 58th at 1:32 off the pace, more than one minute behind Contador, but glad to be back in the Tour at all.
“My scar is the only thing I remember from last year’s crash in the Tour,” said Pereiro, who sports a long tattoo of Agnello on his left arm. “I am still recovering from the crash, but it’s almost like a victory to even be able to start this Tour.”
Pereiro has been reluctantly thrust back into the leadership role at Caisse d’Epargne after star Alejandro Valverde was prevented from racing because of a two-year ban in Italy.
“Valverde’s absence changes everything for our team. We were going to ride as a unit to protect and I am sure he could have finished on the podium,” he said. ““I know I am not in condition to win the Tour, but I hope to become stronger as the race progresses and perhaps try to win a stage. Fighting for all I have to finish in the top 10 has no value to me now.”
Sastre: defending champ, and dark horse
And the third jewel in the Spanish Tour crown is Carlos Sastre, who rode to 21st at 1:06 despite racing with a helmet mishap that disrupted him from maintaining the aerodynamic position during the demanding 15.5km course.
The defending champion expressed satisfaction with his performance, only 48 seconds behind Contador and even less to the other GC rivals.
“The sensations on the bike were good, but just as soon as I started, a piece fell off my helmet, and this disrupted my concentration a little bit. Right away, I couldn’t maintain the position that I wanted,” Sastre said. “I believe it was about 40 or so seconds to Contador (48 seconds) and the other more potent riders like Cancellara took a little more. I am content with the result, above all, just starting the Tour, which is what I really wanted to do.”
While Contador and Pereiro are much flashier both on and off the bike, the quiet and unassuming Sastre prefers to let his legs do the talking.
Sastre knows that if he wants to be the Spanish rider to keep alive the streak, he will have to come alive in the final week. And that’s just what he’s planning to do.
Follow Andrew Hood’s twitter at twitter.com/eurohoody.