Can Contador dislodge Alaphilippe at Paris-Nice?

The 34-year-old Spaniard will need big rides in the three climbing stages, Friday-Sunday, that conclude the race.

Alberto Contador has made a career out of pick-pocketing his rivals. Through tactical guile, unrivaled panache, and pure ambition, the 34-year-old pistolero has more than a few times upended the script and came up spades when logic would say ride for the podium.

In fact, when you look at Contador’s grand tour record, he’s never finished on a podium that wasn’t the top step. In 16 grand tour starts (not counting his Tour debut in 2005 with 31st, and the, eh-hem, 2010-11 parenthesis), he’s either won, or finished fourth or fifth in the ones he finished. No seconds, no thirds. It’s a remarkable record that reveals how Contador is a rare rider who will throw caution to the wind, and actually risk all to attack to win.

So as Paris-Nice digs across the unpredictable terrain of Provence and the Maritime Alps packed with 15 rated climbs in the next three stages, does Contador have one more raid up his sleeve?

“The mountains start, so let’s see how the legs respond,” Contador said. “[Friday’s] stage is good for riders like Alaphilippe, Henao, or Martin. I am feeling good, every day better, and I hope to end things well.”

Winning this Paris-Nice is a stretch, even for Contador who suffered in echelons in the opening stages. Going into Friday’s sixth stage, which featured six rated climbs across Provence, Contador looked well out of firing range. Saturday’s mountaintop finale is ideal attacking ground, but at 1:31 back, Contador has a lot of terrain to recover. Sunday’s rollercoaster final stage above Nice typically sees more fireworks than real GC shakeups.

French sensation Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) looks solid in the yellow jersey following his impressive time trial victory Wednesday. With a strong team to support him, only a major collapse could keep him from winning his first European stage race.

“I know the finale in Fayence suits me. I checked it in training,” Alaphilippe said of Friday’s finish. “I have more responsibilities now and I have to be clever and maybe avoid the mistakes I might have done in the past out of excitement and bravado. This is part of the learning process. This is a very important race for me. To be so close to achieving something and knowing you have the abilities to do it is a responsibility. I don’t want to miss out.”

Nipping on the 24-year-old’s toes will not only be Contador, but riders such as Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), second at 33 seconds back, Gorka Izagirre (Movistar), third at 47 seconds back, Sergio Henao (Sky), fourth at 1:04 back, and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), seventh at 1:28 back. On a good day, Alaphilippe should be able to safely defend against that retinue, and will only have to be careful about being caught out in a Contador-style ambush.

Those riders will be racing for a stage win or a spot on the podium, allowing Alaphilippe to race defensively. Conventional wisdom would say, no way, you’re too far back, so be realistic and ride for stage wins and maybe the podium.

As Contador huddled around the dinner table Thursday night, you can imagine they were not talking about riding for the podium.

So here we go again. Buckle up, folks, this should be fun.