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COMILLAS, Spain (AFP) — Spain’s two-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) stands tantalizingly close to a stunning win in the Vuelta a España, his first major tour since returning from a two-year doping ban last month.
However, while the 29-year-old — who still protests his innocence over the minute trace of clenbuterol found in his urine during the 2010 Tour de France — is just 28 seconds behind overall leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) he admits it will be tough for him to claw the deficit back.
Rodríguez, who suffered heartbreak in this year’s Giro d’Italia when he ended up second overall having entered the final stage in the lead, extended his overall lead over Contador by six seconds during Monday’s 16th stage. “Purito” is now within striking distance of securing his first-ever grand tour win.
“I am in second place now and would like to exchange it for first place, but I am aware of how difficult it will be to win,” Contador told a news conference in the northern city of Comillas during the second rest day of the race.
“It is complicated because there is not much more ground to cover, but every day there will be possibilities in the tour to catch up,” said Contador. “I am going to give all I have no matter what result I have. I have my own racing style and it does not even occur to me to do anything but to try to win.”
Rodríguez, 33, fended off a series of attacks from Contador during the steep final climb of the 16th stage — a 183.5km mountainous affair from Gijon to Cuitu Negru in northern Spain — to finish third and take a four-second time bonus.
“I have analyzed where I can improve and one thing that is clear is that I am not in my usual shape,” Contador said. “But you have to recognize that Purito is in incredible shape, which is making everything harder.”
Rodríguez said he does not yet see himself as the winner of this year’s Vuelta, but was optimistic about his chances.
“There is a week left and I still do not see myself as the winner,” he told reporters in Comillas. “While it is little, I have a good advantage in the overall standings over the other leaders. If we continue working like this I think we can do it.
“It is clear to me that I have to ride glued to Contador’s wheel, his changes in rhythm are not bad for me. I have known him for years and that tells me what I need to do.”
The Vuelta is Contador’s first major cycling race since his two-year drugs ban ended on August 6. He said he was happy to see so many fans cheering him on along the route of the race.
“I am really satisfied; I feel in debt to all the fans, the affection and support they have given me has been incredible,” said Contador.
The Vuelta continues on Wednesday with a 187.3km ride between Santander and the uphill finish at the Cat. 2 Fuente Dé.
Beyond the Spanish tour, Contador said he planned to take part in the time trial and road race at the world championships in the Netherlands next month and the Giro di Lombardia in Italy in October.