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Vuelta a Espana

Alberto Contador remains popular with the fans — and ready to burn up the climbs

“He is motivated. He knows he is ready,” says boss Bjarne Riis. “I think he just wants to race and hit some climbs.”

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PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — If there was ever any doubt that Alberto Contador is here to win the Vuelta a España, it was erased Saturday in the short but intense team time trial.

Contador poured everything into his pedals and led Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank into the packed plaza del toros. It was a solid outing in what was an emotional return to home roads.

“I want to thank the fans today for their support,” said a breathless Contador at the finish line Saturday. “It means a lot to have them behind me and I am very thankful for their support.”

Contador is trying to play down the significance of his comeback from his controversial, backdated racing ban and isn’t giving much away.

But behind the scenes, he is going to try to rip this Vuelta apart.

“He is motivated. He knows he is ready,” team boss Bjarne Riis told VeloNews. “I think he just wants to race and hit some climbs.”

Contador did his homework during his forced stop from February until early August, training hard in the mountains near his home and previewing the key stages of the Vuelta.

After being stripped of his victories in both the 2010 Tour de France and the 2011 Giro d’Italia, as well as other results through February 2012, Contador is racing this Vuelta fueled by emotions on several levels.

He continues to state that he did not dope despite traces of the banned substance clenbuterol found in his urine samples during the 2010 Tour.

His famous “steak defense” fell flat in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but arbitrators also shot down the argument by the World Anti-Doping Agency that Contador was using banned blood injections. Instead, it ruled that the positive likely came from contaminated nutritional supplements.

While Contador found comfort that WADA did not say it was a doping violation, he suffered the humiliation of being stripped of his racing results as well as being slapped with a two-year ban, albeit a backdated one that kept him out of competition for just six months.

When journalists asked during a press conference if he was in any way worried that he would be forever labeled as a rider who served a two-year ban, he curtly answered, “I do not care.”

But Contador does care. He’s intensely proud and isn’t shy about embracing the public. And without a doubt, he is the top draw so far among fans in the opening weekend of the Vuelta.

Despite his ban, Contador remains the most popular rider in Spain. Fans like him because he attacks and win races, and the media love him because he can help sell newspapers and drive TV coverage.

Big crowds waited outside the Saxo-Tinkoff bus on Sunday morning in Pamplona for a glimpse of the star.

Realizing there were so many fans waiting for him, Contador stepped out of the bus, unannounced, to sign a few autographs and pose for pictures.

It was not some sort of publicity stunt, but rather seemed an authentic demonstration on Contador’s part to thank his fans, who quickly broke into applause and yelled out, “Campeón!”

After a quiet season, Riis is more than happy to have Contador back in the fold and to see the crowds around the team bus.

“It’s big. It’s important for us and it’s important for the sport,” Riis said. “I am pretty sure it’s going to be an exciting race.”

With the arrival of the Russian backer Tinkoff Bank, Riis will have deeper pockets to sign more riders to help support Contador for next year’s Tour.

But right now, the focus is on the Vuelta.

Despite only racing at the Eneco Tour last week, Contador will be at a level to challenge for the overall, says Riis.

“Alberto doesn’t have many days of racing, but that’s what it is,” Riis said. “I think Alberto is as good as prepared as he can be, then we will have to see if it’s enough.”

The presence of such riders as Chris Froome (Sky), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank) only fuels Contador’s motivation.

The rider who beat Lance Armstrong in his comeback in 2009 does not shirk a challenge.

“It’s better that we have strong competition,” Riis said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be tough, going to be exciting.”

When asked what Contador needs to do to win the Vuelta, Riis just laughed and said, “Go fast.”

With mountaintop finales on tap already Monday and Tuesday, the whole world will see how fast Contador can go.