PINEROLO, Italy (VN) — Alberto Contador reached across to Samuel Sánchez to shake his hand as the pair crossed the line Thursday after another daring raid that fell short.
It was a subtle gesture that revealed an alliance both of circumstance and of friendship between the two Spanish stars.
Just 24 hours after lighting up the roads in France, Contador and Sánchez once again went on the attack Wednesday as the Tour turned into Italy on a hill that no one expected the favorites to make any serious moves.
On Tuesday, it worked like a charm on wet roads into Gap and the pair took back valuable time to revive their podium fortunes. On Wednesday, a chase by the Schleck brothers and Cadel Evans on dry roads neutralized their attempt to scratch back more time.
What’s obvious to everyone is that Contador and Sánchez are clearly working together, something that both riders acknowledge.
“We spoke together during the stage that we have to drive the descent as fast as possible and that’s what we did,” Sánchez said at the line. “It’s too bad that the finish line wasn’t a little closer to the bottom of the climb because there was too much flats. We didn’t take any time, but you have to try in every opportunity in this Tour.”
Contador also affirmed their alliance, saying that their mutual interests of trying to make up time lost early in the Tour creates the ideal scenario for collaboration.
“You always have to look for allies in the race, but they also have to be strong and you have to have common interests,” Contador said of Sánchez. “It’s good to have them during the race.”
Sánchez and Contador are desperately trying to make up for lost ground as the Tour heads into its most decisive stage.
They each lost time in the opening stage pileup, ceding 1:20 on a day when they were caught up behind a crash in the final 8km.
Sánchez then lost an additional 1:22 in the team time trial when Euskaltel-Euskadi finished last out of 22 teams. Contador, meanwhile, suffered through crashes to enter the Pyrénées riding at a deficit.
“Samuel is trying to finish on the podium and Alberto is trying to win the Tour, so they both have interest to ride together,” said Euskaltel-Euskadi sport director Ivan González de Galdeano. “They are not riding for the same thing, so they can aid one another in these stages.”
Neither see the other as a rival. Sánchez simply wants to finish among the top three in Paris while Contador has all the pressure to achieve a fourth Tour victory.
Sánchez believes that Contador is on the verge of a major comeback in this Tour and he wants to have a front-row seat to the action.
“I believe Contador is once again very strong and he’s going to blow up the race,” Sánchez said Wednesday. “If Alberto attacks, I will try to go with him. Both of us to work together is something advantageous for both of us.”
That the pair is working together is no surprise. The pair cemented their friendship when they spent nearly three weeks together during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in China.
Sánchez won the gold medal and Contador was a valuable ally during the race. That experience cemented their relationship that carries over to the heat of the racing action.
The pair often tip off each other when they’re feeling good in a race.
In both stages in the Pyrénées, Sánchez told Contador he was going to attack when he ramped up the speed at Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille.
On Tuesday, Contador saddled up to Sánchez and told him he was going to attack on the short climb before Gap.
“Alberto said he was going to attack and that I should follow him,” Sánchez recounted. “I told him that I wasn’t feeling great, but he encouraged me to try because we both can descend very well.”
Sánchez is renowned as one of the best descenders in the peloton, something he confirmed with his stage victory at Luz-Ardiden. He attacked the GC group coming off the Tourmalet, hitting the base of Luz-Ardiden with an 18-second margin to the GC group that eventually paid off when he won by seven seconds to Jelle Vanendert and 10 seconds to Frank Schleck.
Sánchez was Contador’s perfect pilot down two treacherous descents that left the Schleck brothers stewing over the time they lost when they didn’t expect to.
Saxo Bank-Sungard boss Bjarne Riis said it’s normal that riders work together when common interests line up.
“When they find themselves in the front, of course they have to have an alliance in the last few kilometers,” Riis said. “I think that’s pretty natural. If it had been somebody else, I think it would have been the same.”
To have a shot at the podium, both Contador and Sánchez will have to shake the Schlecks, Cadel Evans and the stubborn Thomas Voeckler.
Working together, they both know they increase their individual chances.
“You have to try every day in this Tour,” Contador said. “There are not many days left.”