Contador aims his pistol at the Ardennes

Alberto Contador (Astana) is aiming his pistol at the Ardennes classics.

El Pistolero takes aim at the Ardennes.

Alberto Contador (Astana) hopes to keep steam-rolling right into the Ardennes classics.

Hot off his overall victory at the five-day Vuelta a Castilla y León, Contador will now set his sights on Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The hilly classics — on paper at least — are ideal for Contador’s characteristics, but he has only raced twice in Flèche and Liège.  In 2006, he was 45th at Flèche and 81st at Liège, while in 2007, he was 54th in Flèche and 26th in Liège.

With the form he’s on now — and assuming he can get there as volcanic ash continues to create travel chaos across Europe —  he certainly should be counted among the favorites.

The Spanish all-rounder blitzed to his third stage-race victory in four starts Sunday, winning the five-day Vuelta a Castilla y León for a record third time.

The “pistolero del Pinto” was especially pleased to win Saturday’s race against the clock. After a pair of second places, it was his first time-trial win of the season to confirm that his one-two punch of climbing ability and time trialing remains firmly intact as he looks ahead to new challenges in the coming months.

“The results in the first part of the season have been incredible,” Contador said. “I’ve felt good in both the mountains and the time trial. I’ve been right in the heat of the battle and have won enough victories to give me tranquility going into the rest of the season. And it’s good for the team, too.”

Unlike most major GC players who prefer to slowly build toward their most important goals at the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France, Contador has come into the 2010 season with guns a-blazin’. He has won a stage and the overall in each of the stage races he’s won so far, at the Volta ao Algarve in February, Paris-Nice in March and Castilla y León in April.

His lone hiccup was in late March at the two-day, three-stage Critérium International, where he finished 15th overall. Contador said heavy spring pollen clipped his wings on a climbing finish ideal for his punchy style. But he bounced back to finish second in the time trial, behind an on-form David Millar (Garmin-Transitions).

With such strong early season form, Contador tweaked his schedule, replacing the weeklong Volta a Catalunya with Critérium International and deciding against defending his title at the even more demanding Vuelta al País Vasco because he feared he was getting too strong, too soon.

“Every day I am more convinced that changing the calendar was the right thing to do,” he said. “The legs have responded and the team has been incredible. Each day we are working together more and more.”

Those close to Contador say he’s not even close to peaking yet and will be even stronger for the Tour de France, the top goal of the season in July.

“Alberto still has margin to improve before the Tour. He’s not yet in top shape,” Astana teammate Oscar Pereiro told VeloNews. “It’s true he’s come into the season with a lot of motivation, but he’s one of those riders who can be at a high level for a very long period of time. He can recover well and he likes to win. He doesn’t like to race to use it for preparation.”

Contador laughed when someone suggested his haul of victories is reminiscent of Eddy Merckx, but admitted that he wants to perform well when he lines up for a race.

“I like to be at a high level wherever I race and be up in the GC,” Contador said. “I ought to go to (the Ardennes) thinking about gaining experience, because I don’t know them very well and there are others who know them a lot better than me.”

Contador seems unbeatable when it comes to stage races, winning four grand tours in a row.

The one-day classics remain the lone gap in his otherwise sterling résumé.