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Encouraging signs for Alberto Contador in opening days of Vuelta

Defying the odds again, Contador is not only racing the Vuelta a España, but providing hints that he might be here for more than training

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CORDOBA, Spain (VN) — Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) shouldn’t even be in this Vuelta a España. Barely a month ago, the Spanish superstar crashed out of the Tour de France with a broken leg. A fractured bone seemed to be a death sentence for Contador’s 2014 season, on the side of an innocuous French road in the Vosges mountains. Everyone close to him says he was in the best form of his career.

Yet here is Contador, without question one of the most tenacious riders in the modern peloton, if not cycling history, fighting back yet again. Throughout much of his career, Contador has defied the odds. One obstacle after another, Contador has overcome, and won.

Can he do it again? In the opening days of the 2014 Vuelta a España, there’s a growing sense of optimism within the Tinkoff-Saxo camp.

“We don’t know how far Alberto can go,” Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Philippe Mauduit told VeloNews. “It sounds like a cliché, but we are taking it day-by-day, stage-by-stage. Every morning we make a plan based on what happened the day before.”

Through four stages of racing, it’s unrealistic to reach conclusions about a race that’s just starting to heat up. Yet there have been encouraging hints that Contador could well go a lot further than he’d hoped for less than two weeks ago when he announced that he would start the Vuelta.

Contador has suggested in the early, hard efforts of this Vuelta that his right knee, which was most seriously impacted in his Tour crash, is not causing him as much pain and discomfort as expected.

“We are taking it day to day. I have some discomfort, but it’s not getting worse,” Contador said after finishing safely with the front group Tuesday. “I am getting through each day, and that motivates me, but at the same time, we’re still cautious.”

Contador, 31, returned to racing with this Vuelta barely two weeks after resuming serious training following his horrific, high-speed crash in the Vosges that knocked him out of the Tour.

Much like Chris Froome (Sky), who also returned to the Vuelta from a Tour-ending injury, Contador doesn’t really know his true form. And he probably won’t know until getting through a pair of early, steep, and explosive climbing stages at La Zubia on Thursday and Valdelinares on Sunday. Neither stage is considered a race-breaker, but if Contador can hang in there, the dynamics of this Vuelta could change dramatically.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is considered by many to be the five-star favorite in the early going of this Vuelta, with both Froome and Contador unknown elements.

Contador’s ability to stay with the favorites, especially in Monday’s explosive finale to Arcos de la Frontera, is only fueling confidence inside the Tinkoff-Saxo bus.

“He’s going better than I am,” said Jesus Hernández on Spanish TV following Tuesday’s stage. “He’s getting through it without too much pain so far. We’ll see at La Zubia how good he really is. So far, it’s great to see him doing well. That just motivates everyone even more.”

Contador’s presence in the Vuelta has been like a bolt of electricity in the season’s final grand tour, especially among Spanish fans and media. Contador is the only Spanish rider who seems to reach out beyond the cycling community to the everyday sports fans. Each morning before the start, huge crowds press in around the Tinkoff-Saxo bus, peering to catch a glimpse of the only contemporary Tour winner among the active Spanish peloton.

“Knowing how hard-headed Alberto is, it’s no surprise that Contador is here,” Hernández continued. “When I talked to him a few weeks ago, he said, ‘What do I do? I don’t feel bad, but not great.’ He said, what’s worse, going to the Vuelta and failing, or sit at home and climb the walls?”

Beyond the competitive interests of the race, simply starting and finishing the Vuelta will pay dividends for 2015. Like Froome and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), whose Tours were cut short by crashes, putting in the effort of a complete three-week grand tour carries over into the following season.

Yet there are few riders in the peloton such as Contador. Unquestionably, he is the most successful grand tour rider of his generation. He has won seven grand tours, though two were erased following his controversial clenbuterol case in 2010 (the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro d’Italia victories, among all other results, were wiped clean), meaning that Contador is the most successful grand tour rider in the peloton. Only Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), with one Giro, Tour, and Vuelta on his palmares, comes close.

But Contador hasn’t won a grand tour since his daring and emotional 2012 Vuelta victory, when he attacked a hapless Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) on an otherwise routine mountain stage to Fuente Dé to snatch away the victory. After a subpar 2013 season, Contador came back with a vengeance this year, winning or finishing second in every stage race he started before the Tour this summer.

It’s that competitive streak and ambition to reclaim his crown as the king of the grand tours that is fueling Contador through this Vuelta.

“You know the first thing Alberto said when he stepped into the team car at the Tour, still in his jersey and with his knee bleeding?” Mauduit said. “He said, ‘I will be at the Vuelta. You can be sure. I will be at the Vuelta.’ He is very strong in the head.”

That inner strength is often what divides the winners from the wannabes in cycling. Scores of riders have come through with impressive power numbers, but it takes someone “strong in the head” to deliver victories in the cutthroat elite peloton. And Contador has that in spades.

Whether that drive and confidence will be enough to lift Contador in this Vuelta remains to be seen. He barely had two weeks of training following his recovery from his Tour injury, and even that was limited.

“Alberto will not lose the fitness from the Tour, not at his age, and not with his class,” Mauduit continued. “What he will be missing is that explosive edge. There are others who are coming to this Vuelta who are fresher, like Quintana. All we can do is wait.”

So far through the beginning of the Vuelta, Contador has been able to show that he can be there. His rivals are certainly taking notice.

If Quintana or the others want to assure themselves a good chance of winning this Vuelta, they will want to do themselves a favor and try to distance Contador in these early climbs. They run a very big risk if they decide to wait until the final week of the Vuelta. By then, it might be too late.

Contador will only be getting stronger by the day.