Alberto Contador admits he doesn’t have the strongest team in the Tour de France, but he’ll be sleeping easier at night knowing that his eight Astana teammates this year will be working for him.
Last year’s Astana team was wracked by the fissure between Contador and the returning seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong.
Contador, of course, still managed to win, but he said he’s happier with a weaker — but what he called a more committed — team as he makes a run for a third Tour crown in four years.
“It’s obvious that last year’s team, in terms of big names and experience, was a stronger team, but I am very content with the team that I have at this Tour,” Contador said. “We have a team that’s all working together toward one goal of winning the Tour. The unity of this team is what’s most important. Not just during the race, but after the stage as well. We’re away from home four weeks, we’re together 24 hours a day. We have to be able to get along.”
Contador looked calm, cool and collected Friday afternoon as he faced about 50 journalists and a horde of TV camera crews on the dawn of a very important step in his Tour progression.
The Spanish climber has won four of the last major tours that he’s started, all four under the tutelage of Johan Bruyneel.
The Spanish climber said he was paying attention to the way Bruyneel managed the Tour and will use that experience to try to fend off RadioShack during the three-week battle.
“I think I got more out of relationship of working together. I learned a lot by being around (Bruyneel). I saw how he organized the Tour. He’s accustomed to racing with a big leader, and he knows when to take the responsibility of a race, when to let it go,” Contador said. “He thinks he knows me, but I also know him fairly well as well.”
On Lance and Vino
Contador refused to take the bait offered up by journalists and remained diplomatic about his relationship with Armstrong. The pair hasn’t spoken since last year’s Tour but Contador said he isn’t taking the Texan lightly.
“He’s an important rival. There’s a group of 10-12 favorites, and he’s among that group. He was clearly very strong in his final races before the Tour and he’ll obviously be very motivated,” he said. “There were a lot of things said in the press last year that were not true. I admire him for the rider and champion that he is. That’s what I said before and that’s what I’ll say again.”
Many are wondering if Contador is swapping the tension with Armstrong for more troubles with Alexander Vinokourov, the feisty Kazakh attacker who returns to the Tour for the first time after serving a two-year blood doping ban in 2007.
Vinokourov is known for his attacking style and many think he will be tempted to ride his own race, especially if rumors are true that Contador has decided to leave Astana for another team at the end of this season.
Vinokourov, however, has vowed to work for Contador, saying that he wants to help win the Tour with Contador for Astana, a team backed by key government officials from his native Kazakhstan, created to support Vinokourov.
“My relationship with Vinokourov is excellent. We have a lot of mutual trust,” Contador said. “I am sure that nothing will happen like happened in last year’s Tour.”
Nervous first week, decisive final week
Many are expecting Contador to have trouble on the cobblestones in stage 3, a day that is likely to see at least a few GC candidates lose important time and perhaps sent home packing after a crash.
Contador rode the pavé with former Belgian classics specialist Peter Van Petegem and inspected the route again Thursday.
“I cannot go into the pavé stage thinking that I am going to lose time. I don’t want to lose time at all, and perhaps I can even gain time. That’s the way I am thinking, I cannot go into the stage trying to calculate how much time I can give up,” he said. “RadioShack and Saxo Bank will be the teams of reference for the stage. They can be the most dangerous that day.”
Contador realizes that the first week poses a serious risk, but hopes that he will avoid crashes and losing serious time to arrive to the mountains in ideal position to do some damage on his GC rivals.
“The first week is going to be one with a lot of action. The first, with the bridges open to the sea, will be very dangerous. Then stage 2 is a like a classics race. Next comes the pavé, where there can be some big differences, minutes, almost like a mountain stage,” he said. “But the differences in this Tour will be marked in the last week. You can lose some time in the first week, maybe lose the Tour, but the people who will be in contention for the Tour will be those who can go uphill.”
No yellow jersey start
Contador won’t be starting Saturday with the yellow jersey, a tradition that ended last season when Tour officials didn’t allow defending champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) start the opening time trial in Monaco in the maillot jaune.
Contador isn’t expecting victory in Saturday’s opening prologue, but typical of his personality, he’s hoping to open up advantages.
“I’m not the favorite on this course. It’s flat, a lot of curves, with changes of rhythm. I believe it favors the specialists like Cancellara, Wiggins, Millar, Martin,” he said. “Maybe thinking more about the win, I can take a little time on my GC rivals.”