Alberto Contador is one of the finest climbers of his generation and the Spaniard’s riding style – out of the saddle, dancing on the pedals as he moves away from his rivals – is unmistakable. It’s a sight to behold as Contador rides into the distance without breaking a sweat as I struggle to turn the pedals in a feeble pursuit of the five-time Grand Tour champion.
Contador’s effortless climbing ability has earned the 31-year-old two Tour de France victories (2007, 2009), two Vuelta a Espana triumphs (2008, 2012) and one Giro d’Italia title (2008). My palmares includes the 2013 Etape du Tour sportive.
I’m in the Dolomites with Sportful, clothing supplier to the Tinkoff-Saxo team, to join a group of select Italian retailers and ride with the squad’s star rider, Contador, and interview the man who will pose the greatest threat to Chris Froome when the 2014 Tour de France rolls out of Leeds on Saturday July 5.
“It was not a long ride but it was short and intense because up the hill it was a real race and unfortunately the weather didn’t help,” says Contador after our ride. “The first half I went hard, then I slowed down, then went hard again.”
I suspect Contador is playing to the crowd, though his impeccably fluid riding style means he rarely looks anything but at ease on the bike. Our ride leaves Sportful headquarters in Fonzaso, normally overlooked by towering mountain peaks but today hidden from view by thick, low cloud and under fire from sideways rain, and after a short warm-up lap of the town, we turn on to the climb to the village of Faller to, ahem, test our legs, against Contador.
We set off through the mist which smothers the valley in advance of Contador, who gives the group a head start, the hunter then rolling out in pursuit of the hunted. The climb is steady, four-and-a-half miles at an average gradient of five per cent, but, with Alberto Contador, chasing you down, there is little choice but to ride hard. However, I’m still on its lower slopes when Contador dances past and disappears around one hairpin, and the next, and out of sight.
I continue to climb and midway up the ascent Contador is waiting at the side of the road for riders to pass. I ride on, eyes fixed firmly ahead in an effort to look ‘pro’, and continue through the thick forest, however, it’s only minutes again before I hear the revving engine of the motorbike following Contador and he again flies past, so fluid but so unfathomably fast and I strain every sinew and summon every last heart beat to jump on his wheel with another rider.
It’s an utterly exhilarating experience, tracking the wheel of a two-time Tour de France champion – but it lasts all of 30 seconds and I’m trailed off, gasping for breath and heart pumping out of my chest after effectively sprinting uphill, and in awe of the speed, fluidity and absolute ease at which Contador slips into the mist. There is no better professional rider to follow to truly understand the seemingly effortless speed at which the best cyclists in the world scale the toughest of climbs.
I make my way to the top of the ascent (at what now feels like even more of a crawl), where the rain continues to fall (and provide an ‘ideal’ first test of Sportful’s impressive new No-Rain Fiandre Light jacket) and the temperature is well into single figures, and so start the descent back to Sportful, where Contador tours the factory before our interview.
Contador’s visit to Sportful comes during a break in racing after a stunning start to the season, winning Tirreno Adriatico and Tour of the Basque Country, and finishing second at the Volta ao Algarve and Volta a Catalunya, but all roads lead to the Tour de France for El Pistolero.
Contador claimed his first Tour title in 2007 before winning the race for a second time in 2009. He then had a third (2010) revoked after a positive test for clenbuterol, but has not stood on the podium at cycling’s greatest race since, finishing fifth in 2011, missing the race to concentrate on the Vuelta a Espana, which he won, in 2012, and coming fourth in 2013.
And so a third triumph is top of the Contador’s agenda in 2014 and he believes he is firmly on track to once again challenge for the title.
“We planned the season this way,” says Contador, “We planned to go hard in each race and to have the best success. Either I won those races or finished second, which was my goal, and the way we planned the start of the season was the perfect way and shows that I am on the right track.
“I feel very confident because when you plan something and achieve it, it means you’ve done a good job, but when you gain confidence it doesn’t mean that you can ease up, it means you have to stay concentrated and keep motivated to do what you’re doing. I have to keep working to achieve my goal but I know the path I have to follow.”
Contador is now enjoying a break from racing, training at altitude on Tenerife, and is likely to return to the peloton for the traditional precursor to the Tour de France, the eight-stage Critérium du Dauphiné, on June 8, before travelling to Yorkshire for the Grand Départ.
Contador has raced in the UK only once before. The Spaniard arrived in London for the start of the 2007 Tour de France as a 24-year-old with the Discovery Channel team having finished 31st in his debut in the race two years previously, and went on to claim his first overall victory.
But the start of the race in 2007, a prologue in the capital before a straightforward road stage won by Robbie McEwen in a bunch sprint, is likely to differ significantly from the opening stages of the 2014 edition, and Contador is well aware of that he must be alert in Yorkshire.
“I don’t know specifically the route but I know it might be harder than what everybody is expecting,” he says. It’s at this point the interview turns on its head. Contador becomes interviewer and me the interviewee and he asks me what I know about the parcours.
It’s tough, I tell him, and while stage one is expected to end in a bunch sprint, stage two could spring a surprise. The route is back-loaded with climbs and the steepest, Jenkin Road (a category four ascent dubbed the Côte de Jenkin Road by the Tour’s organisers), has a gradient of 30 per cent at its steepest and comes five kilometres from the finish.
“Thirteen per cent?” Contador asks, and I clarify, “30 per cent – three, zero”. The attritional effect of Yorkshire’s short, steep climbs, combined with the county’s narrow, dry stone wall-lined roads, will make for a nervous peloton already on edge during the opening stages of cycling’s biggest race and I ask Contador if he will visit Yorkshire ahead of the Grand Départ to recon the route.
“No,” he says, “as if you go and look at every stage then you never have any time to train and because you keep on travelling you have a lot of fatigue, more than race itself.” Marcel Kittel and his Giant-Shimano team-mate have already been to Yorkshire to recce the route, however, but the German has an added interest, with the prospect of victory and the yellow jersey on stage one. Kittel is likely to lose the jersey on stage two, on a route he described as “like a hilly Classic”, while the terrain reminded his team-mate, John Degenkolb, of the Tirreno-Adriatico.
Contador should be right at home, then. His 2014 winning streak has included victory at the Italian stage race, where he also took two stage wins – the second of which came atop the vicious Muro di Guardiagrele, which also rears up to 30 per cent.
However, Contador is likely to be plunged out of his comfort zone on stage five of the Tour, on a route which includes 15.4km of pavé normally reserved for Paris-Roubaix. He has already acknowledged the importance of the stage by previewing the cobbled sections back in April, barely 24 hours after the dust had settled on the 2014 edition of the Hell of the North.
“It’s going to be a very important stage,” says Contador. “If something happens on the cobbles then you can lose minutes. It’s not fundamental to win the Tour but you could lose it. You could crash, be in an accident, a lot of things.
“It’s going to be a stage where everybody wants to stay in front and stay out of trouble, but it’s not possible for the entire peloton to stay out of trouble. I have to be there and prepared but at the same time I’m not driving myself crazy thinking about stage five. I will be there will a strong team and I don’t have any fear from this stage but I know it will be important.”
A vital member of Contador’s team is likely to be Michael Rogers, an experienced road captain who returned to racing at Liege-Bastogne-Liege having been cleared of any wrongdoing after the UCI ruled there was a significant probability the presence of clenbuterol in a doping test may have resulted from the consumption of contaminated meat during the Tour of Beijing.
“I’m very pleased he’s back,” Contador says of Rogers, a stage winner at this year’s Giro d’Italia. “He is a fundamental piece of the team and a very experienced rider. It’s important to have him on board.”
One of Rogers’ former team-mates when the Australian rode for Sky, Chris Froome, will go into the Tour as defending champion and the favourite to claim a second successive victory. Froome has endured a mixed start to the season, withdrawing from Tirreno-Adriatico and Liege-Bastogne-Liege with injury and illness, and so racing only twice before winning the Tour of Romandie.
But despite Contador’s dominant start to the season, he is under no illusions as to the quality of the rider he must overthrow if he is to stand on the top step of the Tour de France podium at the end of July.
“He’s going to be my number one rival,” says Contador. “He’s gained the respect in the last two years because he has been so strong. He had a different start to the season this year but we all know what he is capable of, he has proved that.”
So, too, has Contador, and both riders arriving at the Tour de France in top form is an enticing prospect. The showdown is likely to be more evenly matched than my encounter with El Pistolero in the Dolomites.