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ZOTTEGEM, Belgium (VN) — Far from the race drama unfolding across the fields of Flanders, and even further removed from the back-room politics that led to the ouster of Bjarne Riis from Tinkoff-Saxo, Alberto Contador is now confronting the biggest challenge of his career — the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France double — without his mentor and confidante.
Contador and Riis were joined at the hip since 2011, when the Spanish star joined Riis’ outfit. Riis stuck by Contador during his controversial clenbuterol case, and Contador, following his two-year, backdated ban, paid back Riis’ trust with victories at the 2012 and 2014 editions of the Vuelta a España. Contador, 32, recently signed a one-year contract extension to keep him in a Tinkoff-Saxo jersey through 2016, in large part due to his trust and confidence in Riis.
And just as fast, Riis is gone — pushed off the plank by Russian team owner Oleg Tinkov on Sunday — leaving Contador unsure how the team’s instability at the top will affect the action when it’s rubber to the road.
Speaking to journalists in Spain during a fundraiser event with his development team, Fundación Alberto Contador, he admitted he remains in the dark about why Riis was forced off the team.
“I’ve seen that they’ve reached a mutual agreement, but I don’t know how that unfolded,” Contador was quoted by the Spanish wire service EFE. “[Riis] has been a very important person in my career, and even though he won’t continue, my relation with him will remain excellent.”
Contador said he doesn’t know much more than what’s been written in the press, but said he hopes Riis’ departure doesn’t affect the team’s performance in what will be the most important weeks and months of the racing season.
It’s difficult to gauge how much Riis’ departure from Tinkoff-Saxo will mean for Contador. Although he’s working closely with sport director Steven de Jongh as well as with first-year director Patxi Vila, Riis remained Contador’s closest consultant and ally within the team structure. Contador was said to trust Riis’ racing acumen and experience more than any other director he’s worked with.
And with Riis gone, no one knows who will take his place, if anyone. There have been suggestions in the media that current Tinkoff staffer Ricardo Scheidecker or Italian Omar Piscina, who worked with Tinkoff Credit Systems, could slot into the role of team manager. Stefano Feltrin, one of Tinkov’s longest allies, could also take over the day-to-day operations of the team. As of Tuesday, the team had not yet named a Riis replacement.
Tinkov: ‘Times of Riis are over’
As part of the mutual agreement hammered out by Riis and Tinkov, all parties have agreed not to publicly comment about the Dane’s departure. Riis released a statement, via his son’s Twitter account, that said he would not give any interviews, and suggested he would step away from the sport to reconsider his options.
On Tuesday, Tinkov posted a long comment on his Facebook page about his vision for the future of cycling, calling for more solidarity among teams, as well as a new business model to allow the sport to become more relevant. He also mentioned Riis, saying managers like him “are over,” and suggested he’s in no hurry to find a replacement.
“Cycling has to change. The times of [Manolo Saíz], [Johan] Bruyneel, and Riis are over. They were stuck in the 2000s, and that is not necessarily about doping,” Tinkov wrote. “They just don’t get some obvious things, and don’t know how to manage teams in [a] modern way. Managing a team is not just about issuing instructions from a car radio or about casting a spell over the riders, at which Riis was unsurpassed, for example. Managing a team is about boring, monotonous work in the office.
“It is for this reason that I am not considering the torrent of offers of ‘Riis replacements’ that I have been inundated with from all over the globe,” Tinkov continued. “We don’t need this. This is the old way of thinking, and it is no longer viable.”
But there is no question that Riis’ departure comes during the most important part of the racing season for Tinkoff-Saxo. The team enters a critical week during the spring classics, with new arrival Peter Sagan under heavy pressure to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) this weekend.
And Riis’ exit comes just as Contador has finished up his first block of racing, which featured solid, but less-than-spectacular results, with a stage win and second overall at the Ruta del Sol, fifth at Tirreno-Adriatico, and fourth at Volta a Catalunya.
Contador won’t race again until he starts the Giro in early May. Soon, he will head to Tenerife to train at altitude. And then, he probably will not race until the Tour in July, assuming he finishes the entire Giro.
Contador: ‘Giro-Tour double is my challenge for season’
Despite the off-the-road turmoil involving the team, Contador remains optimistic about his goal of targeting both the Giro and Tour in the same season. The last rider to achieve the milestone was Marco Pantani in 1998.
“A lot of people don’t believe it’s possible, but I don’t believe that’s the case,” Contador said. “I am going to try it because I believe that things remain impossible until someone achieves it, and that’s my challenge for the season.
“I’ve also delayed my season a bit, and I believe that things are going in the right direction, and I hope that within 40 days, when I will be at the Giro, that the legs are where I want them to be,” he continued. “[The 33 days between the Giro and Tour] are not very many to recover, especially after the effort one has to make during three weeks in a race as hard as the Giro, so we’ll see in what conditions I can arrive to the Tour.”
Whether the back-room drama and internal turmoil will unsettle Contador remains to be seen. The Spaniard has been known to overcome setbacks before, and even return stronger to the peloton.