LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) – Alberto Contador will be watching this year’s Tour de France from his couch, and the controversial Spanish rider’s absence will greatly affect the dynamics of the race.
Rivals universally admit that Contador is the favorite in any race he starts and his absence this year due to his two-year racing ban will leave a big hole in the Tour.
“Contador is the rider of reference in the peloton and when he is at the start line, he is the favorite to win,” said Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde. “Contador sets the tone, especially in the mountains. Things will change without him in the Tour this year.”
Contador, who brushed off a minor crash while on a training ride on Thursday, will not be anywhere near this year’s Tour.
The Spaniard is serving his racing ban dating back to his contentious clenbuterol case from the 2010 Tour, which he won only to later have that victory overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in February.
CAS also stripped Contador of his win at the 2011 Giro d’Italia and other subsequent results, but did him a favor by back-dating the start of the ban, meaning that Contador can return to racing at the Eneco Tour in early August.
Contador has refused most pre-Tour media requests but officials confirmed that he will spend the month of July training from his home near Madrid to prepare for the Vuelta a España, when he is expected to square off against Andy Schleck, another key absence from this year’s Tour.
Riders in the peloton say the absence of both Contador and Schleck, two climbers whose aggression liven up the mountain stages, will heavily mark this year’s Tour.
This year’s parcours, with more than 100km of individual time trials, clearly favors the likes of Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who start Saturday’s prologue as the five-star favorites for final victory.
Without the presence of the peloton’s best and most aggressive climbers, Evans and Wiggins will be even more heavily favored, which puts even more pressure on others to try to fill the void.
Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) says he will be missing Contador’s attacks when it comes to trying to gap the time-trial specialists.
“Contador is the only truly capable of blowing up the race,” Sánchez said. “He is the only rider who can make decisive attacks in the mountains and this benefits me. The rest of us must try to be aggressive, but without the punch of Contador, it makes it more difficult.”
Contador livens up any race, even when he is not at his best, as in last year’s Tour when he started unexpectedly following delays in his CAS hearing after winning a brutally difficult Giro.
Contador never found his rhythm last year, but still managed to attack and unsettle Evans en route to finishing fifth overall.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme grudgingly admits that Contador’s absence in this year’s Tour will change the racing dynamics over the next three weeks.
“I do not deny that during the course of the 2011 Tour, he had a dynamic effect on the race. He was a catalyst for energy,” Prudhomme told AFP. “He can reshuffle the cards anywhere on any part of the course.”
Contador’s absence also dramatically alters the outlook of his Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team over the next three weeks.
With Contador, the team could aspire for the most during the Tour. Without him, the team must completely change its ambitions.
“Of course, without Alberto, we are a different team at the Tour,” said team boss Bjarne Riis. “We hope to win a stage or two. That’s different than trying to win the Tour. We must race differently.”
Thus, instead of bringing a squad loaded with domestiques, Saxo-Tinkoff is bringing a mix of stage-hunters and opportunists.
Argentine sprinter J.J. Haedo is making his Tour debut and will try his luck “freelancing” in the sprints while veterans Karsten Kroon and Chris Sorensen, both former Tour stage-winners, will be trying to sneak into breakaways.
Sergio Paulinho and a healthy Nick Nuyens will also be attacking while Chris-Anker Sorensen, the team’s best climber, will test himself on the major cols.
That’s a long way from the days when Riis’s Tour teams would be scrapping for the yellow jersey with Carlos Sastre, the Schleck brothers and lately with Contador.
Contador, meanwhile, maintains his innocence despite his clenbuterol ban.
Although his defense of contaminated steaks fell flat at CAS, the ruling panel also shot down the World Anti-Doping Agency’s suggestions of blood doping. Instead, CAS said the positive was likely triggered by a contaminated food supplement.
Despite sitting out the Tour, Contador is pushing full steam ahead toward the Vuelta.
He signed a contract to stay with Bjarne Riis and the newly rebranded Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team through 2015.
Barring disaster, Contador will be back in next year’s Tour. Like him or not, his impact — and his absence — will be felt.