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Alberto Contador back in the saddle for Vuelta a Murcia

MURCIA, Spain (VN) – Alberto Contador headlines the field at the three-day Vuelta a Murcia in what will be his second race since he was cleared by the Spanish cycling federation to return to racing.

The 2011 Vuelta a Murcia is shorter, but still offers an ideal early season warm-up. | Graham Watson

Things have been relatively quiet in the caso Contador since the February 15 ruling by the Spanish federation as everyone waits to see if the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI will appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Those entities still have a few weeks to decide on whether they will appeal the clenbuterol charges.

Contador would still be allowed to race even if WADA or the UCI appeal and it appears that Contador is determined to keep racing even if there is a challenge.

This week, Contador reaffirmed his intention of racing the Giro d’Italia. After Murcia, he’s penciled in to race the Volta a Catalunya (March 21-27), the Vuelta a Castilla y León (April 13-17) and perhaps the Ardennes classics before the Giro (May 7-29), which Contador won in 2008.

“I will plan my season up until the Giro, then we’ll see how events unfold,” Contador said. “If I can race the Tour, I will.”

Vuelta a Murcia (March 4-6)

Stage 1: San Pedro del Pinatar to Alhama de Murcia, 178.7km
Stage 2: Estrella de Levante to Sierra Espuña, 183.2km
Stage 3: Murcia-Murcia (ITT), 12.4km

Contador, meanwhile, will be gunning for overall victory in the Murcia tour, which clicks into gear Friday with a bumpy road stage that should eliminate all but the most determined sprinters. Until this year, the Vuelta a Murcia had been contested over five stages, but budget constraints forced organizers to cut back. Saturday’s climbing stage tackles a fierce first-category climb before a twisting descent to the finish line that will further reduce the field of contenders going into Sunday’s decisive individual time trial.

“I love this race and I have good memories of 2008,” said Contador, recalling the year when he finished third in the longer version. “It’s a shame that it had to be reduced to three days because of financial problems, but there are still three spectacular stages. The first has a lot climbs and descents, but it may still finish in a field sprint. The second provides a good opportunity for climbers and then there’s the final time trial. It will all amount to three intense days.”

UnitedHealthcare brings a strong squad with Christian Meier, Charly Wegelius and Rory Sutherland among the starters.

Others lining up for the start Friday in San Pedro de Pinatar include Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervélo), who says he’s back in fine form following a rocky 2010 season.

“Everything is going well in the early part of the season. Oman was a last-minute change but I am glad I went down there. Fifth overall was better than I expected,” Vande Velde told VeloNews. “I am feeling better than I expected in these first few races. I am looking forward to Catalunya and Basque Country. I’d like to try to do well in a few stages. The main goal for the spring is to get ready for the Tour of California.”

Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre will be lining up together for the first time in Geox-TMC jerseys, though it will be Fabio Duarte who will likely be the team’s best chance for victory.

Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Juan Mauricio Soler (Movistar) and Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) are some of the other top names squaring off for the 31st running of the Murcia tour.

Forecasters are calling for a chance of rain on Friday, with clearing skies but blustery winds through the weekend.

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