2011 Tour de France stage 17, Bjarne Riis. Photo: Andrew Hood
Riis was a center of attention after stage 17, as Contador began showing he was in this race to win. Photo: Andrew Hood

PINEROLO, Italy (VN) – Two-time defending champion Alberto Contador has lit a fire at the front of the Tour de France in the final week ahead of the three biggest days in this year’s race. Contador’s Saxo Bank-Sungard manager Bjarne Riis said the Spaniard is recovered from the knee injury that hampered him in the Pyrénées and that he must attack every rider in the race on the road to the Col du Galibier Thursday.

“I think he’s better than last year,” Riis told VeloNews after the finish of stage 17. “Last year I don’t think he was that good in the Tour, but he defended himself well.”

For Contador to win the Tour, he had to come out firing in the race’s final week and he has done just that, attacking on the final climb Tuesday above Gap and again on the Cat. 2 Côte de Pramartino climb and the descent to Pinerolo Wednesday. He’s made up 45 seconds on maillot jaune Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and 1:06 on Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek), but hasn’t been able to shake Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) or Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).

Voeckler and Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) each crashed on the dangerous Pramartino descent. Riis said that Contador’s move over the top of the fifth and final climb of Wednesday’s stage into the Italian Alps was aimed as much at staying safe as making time.

“It is a really technical, dangerous descent and you have to be in the front,” said Riis. “If he’s not in the front, then someone else will do it. I think it’s better that he is doing it. It shows that he’s ready, he’s alert and he has good sensations, otherwise you can’t go downhill that fast.”

Questions have surrounded Contador’s fitness in this Tour, which began a month after he won the Giro d’Italia on what many called the hardest parcours ever. The Spaniard lacked his usual spark last week in the Pyrénées and a number of incidents, including a split in the peloton from a crash in stage 1, had him four minutes behind Voeckler headed into the third week.

Contador and countryman Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), with whom he has teamed up on the road in the past, have been the biggest aggressors since Monday’s rest day. The two Spaniards rode away on the steep descent to the Chisone River valley and time trialed toward the finish before Schleck and Evans pulled them back in the final kilometer.

In the end, the move caught out only two of the GC heavies in Basso and Voeckler, but this Tour has been about taking advantage of small moments. After missing out on those chances in the first two weeks, Contador is making them in the Alps.

“We didn’t see anything. The only one who lost today was Voeckler, because he didn’t pay attention,” said Riis. “The rest were there. I think we’re going to see a big fight tomorrow and the day after.”

Contador’s attacks may not have borne much fruit in Italy, but Riis said the defending Tour winner is doing what he has to to turn around a frustrating race.

“It’s no problem and he’s ready. It’s not time to complain and do anything. One thing: attack and go for the top. This is what we do from yesterday to the rest of the Tour,” said Riis. “If he wants to win the Tour, he needs to attack. He needs to attack everybody.”

While he must attack “everybody,” Riis said he expects Voeckler to fade before the summit finish atop the Col du Galibier Thursday afternoon.

“Today was one thing. Let’s see tomorrow,” said Riis. “It’s a different race and different mountains; high, difficult mountains.”

If the Frenchman does cede the yellow jersey, Contador will have one fewer rider – and one fewer minute — to overcome over the race’s final three days.