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Contador-Froome Vuelta showdown could be the battle of the season

One is ascending into the sport's spotlight, the other is its dethroned king. The Vuelta showdown could be the battle of the season

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LEON, Spain (VN) — Forget Andy Schleck. The man on the rise these days is Chris Froome.

With Schleck nursing an injury that’s keeping him out of the Vuelta a España, it’s the ascending Froome (Sky), hot off second overall at the Tour de France, that is the man who could be king. And the showdown between Froome and Alberto Contador — the man who wants to be king again — at the Vuelta could make the Spanish tour the most exciting grand tour of the season.

Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), back from his controversial clenbuterol ban, says he’s “motivated” to square off against the all-around skills of Froome when the Vuelta opens on Saturday.

“(Froome) was the strongest man at the Tour de France,” Contador said during a press conference Monday in Madrid. “His presence in the Vuelta motivates me and will give the race more impact, even though that means I will have to work even harder.”

Contador is racing the Vuelta for the first time since he won it in 2008 and desperately wants to win in his first major race since he was slapped with a back-dated two-year racing ban that saw him stripped of his 2010 Tour win plus his 2011 Giro d’Italia title and all other subsequent results through February.

Rather than making the Vuelta a three-week coronation parade for Contador on supportive home roads, the presence of Froome creates the tantalizing prospect of seeing the first major showdown between the emerging Sky star and Contador on equal footing. Both will come motivated to win and will line up Saturday in Pamplona with teams fully backing their GC aspirations.

Contador — speaking to the media during a press conference for a new fundraiser via his Alberto Contador Foundation — recognized Froome as the man to beat over the next three weeks.

“It’s not just Froome, there are others who know how to win a Vuelta,” he said, referring to the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Denis Menchov, “but the truth is, his performance at the Tour was spectacular. Last year, had he had more freedom, he likely could have won the Vuelta.”

Froome insists he’s arriving at Pamplona with the intention of “improving on 2011,” which means he’s racing to win. A year ago, the Kenya-born Briton rode in service of teammate and race leader Bradley Wiggins until Wiggins faltered on the ultra-steep Angliru climb in stage 15. Froome ultimately lost the race on time bonuses.

Last year’s excruciating 13-second loss to Juanjo Cobo (now Movistar) still haunts Froome and he’s ambitious enough to race the Vuelta after an impressive showing over the past month, which included a stage win and second overall at the Tour and a bronze medal in the time trial at the London Games.

If Froome can maintain his form, the Vuelta could well be a tantalizing preview of what could develop into cycling’s next great rivalry.

Froome and Contador could well be locking horns for the yellow jersey next July, especially if ASO serves up a more mountainous Tour profile for its centenary.

With a potent time trial and a punch in the mountains, Froome is the first rider with all the strings in his bow to go mano-a-mano with Contador on all terrain. And with two more years remaining on his Sky contract, Froome could well have equal billing next year with Bradley Wiggins if the 2013 Tour is more mountainous than this year’s edition. Sky boss David Brailsford has already hinted as much.

Contador, meanwhile, is motivated to get back to the business of racing and winning bike races.

Looking fit and trim at the event promoting an effort to procure bicycles for African cyclists, Contador said he’s also racing the Vuelta with a singular idea: to win.

“I go to the Vuelta with the objective to fight for the victory,” Contador said. “I realize there are a lot of riders who have prepared 100 percent for the Vuelta who also have the same goal as me. I’ve work hard and I am very motivated for my ‘home’ race… We’ll have a good time.”

Of course, a “good time” for Contador means crushing the field.

So far, his public comments about his clenbuterol case have been discreet. Behind the scenes, Contador is seething at his two-year ban for minute traces of clenbuterol and intends to pour that rage into the pedals.

“I didn’t feel anything special,” Contador said of the day his ban ended. “I was in Belgium the day before the Eneco Tour, but I had to train alone, without the team jersey, because technically I couldn’t ride with my teammates.”

His ban officially ended August 5 and he started the Eneco Tour the next day, finishing with a respectable fourth-place overall, missing a third-place spot on the podium behind winner Lars Boom (Rabobank) by just six seconds.

“Now all I am thinking about is racing,” Contador said. “It’s going to be race-rest, race-rest from here on out to try to gain some fruit of all the hard work. I feel good. I didn’t know what level to expect at (Eneco Tour), because the race didn’t have one climb. I’ve been working on longer climbs, but I felt good and I arrive at the Vuelta in good condition.”

Buckle your seatbelts. Froome versus Contador could be the battle of the season.