By Andrew Hood

In Palermo, Italy

Alberto Contador was sipping a beer on the beach in Spain last week when he received a phone call from Astana team boss Johan Bruyneel.

The news caught the defending Tour de France champion by surprise: Pack your bags, you’re heading to the Giro d’Italia.

“I was sitting at a chiringuito on the beach with my girlfriend, now here I am at the Giro!” Contador told VeloNews on Friday. “I wasn’t expecting to be at this Giro, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Contador’s journey from a Spanish beach shack to the season’s first grand tour was just the latest twist in what’s been a tumultuous season for the 25-year-old Astana rider.

With the Tour de France still snubbing his Astana, Contador had begrudgingly accepted his fate that his 2008 campaign would not include the Giro or the Tour. The Vuelta a España, the Olympic Games and the world championships became his major goals.

Contador had pretty much pulled the plug on his spring campaign after winning the Vuelta a Castilla y León in March and the Vuelta al País Vasco in April. A trip to the dentist to remove an abscessed tooth and a short beach vacation were all he was planning on for May. His next scheduled race was the Dauphiné Libéré.

But behind-the-scenes contacts between Bruyneel and Giro d’Italia director Angelo Zomegnan changed all that. About a month ago, the pair was quietly working out details to try to bring Astana to the Giro.

By the end of April, however, things weren’t looking promising on a Giro reversal and Contador packed his bags to head to the wide-open beaches near Cadíz on Spain’s southwestern coast.

Then the phone rang and Contador and his fellow Astana teammates were suddenly faced with the unsavory prospect of confronting one of the hardest Giros in a decade with a six-day head’s up.

“We’ve had a crazy year with a lot of ups and downs and the truth is we’ve had to improvise a lot of things. I haven’t even seen the route except what I’ve seen in the race book,” Contador told journalists Friday during a press conference. “My destiny now is that I am in the Giro d’Italia and we’re going to try to make the best of it.”

On paper, Astana has one of the strongest teams at the Giro, with Tour de France podium finishers Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer headlining out the nine-man team.

Klöden is fresh off winning the Tour de Romandie, but like Contador, Leipheimer wasn’t expecting to race much during May. Third overall at the Tour de Georgia, Leipheimer will be like Contador and wait to see how his legs feel riding into the Giro.

Contador also said he’s motivated to race and hopes to ride into good condition in time for the decisive climbs packed into the grueling final week of racing.

The mythic climbs at Mortirolo, the Gavia and the climbing time trial at Passo di Corones are tailor-made for Contador’s lean climbing legs.

Contador was quick to point out that he’s not in top shape and did his best to downplay expectations.

“Andreas (Klöden) is the strongest rider on Astana right now, so if he needs my help, I will become like any other rider and assist any way I can,” Contador said. “The truth is I haven’t had ideal preparation for this race. Six days ago I was on the beach. I was in good shape at País Vasco (in early April), but I haven’t been training much since then. When I trained the other day, I could tell my condition isn’t good. I don’t want to create false hopes here. We’re not talking about any old race. This is the Giro d’Italia and I will not dare say that I will try to be on the podium or win. Right now, I cannot say with any certainty where I might end up.”

Contador is hoping to get another crack at the Tour, but he’s not holding out much hope for a Giro-esque about face this year.

“It’s one thing to say I’d like to go to the Tour, it’s another thing to expect it to happen,” Contador said. “Sure, I’d love to be at the Tour this year, but it’s something else to expect them to change their mind. If they invite us five days before the start of the Tour after having raced the Giro, we’d have to see. If they are going to invite us, I would like to be invited with a little more notification that we received from the Giro. But in all honesty, I don’t expect them to change their minds and I am planning my race schedule this season without the Tour.”

Contador is the first defending Tour champ to start the Giro since Marco Pantani in 1999, but he draws more inspiration from the last Spaniard to win the Giro. Miguel Indurain won back-to-back Giros in 1992-93 en route to winning five straight Tours.