Up next for Alberto Contador: Vuelta a Murcia

“Just being here is a victory,” said Alberto Contador after finishing fourth overall in the Volta ao Algarve.

ALBUFEIRA, Portugal (VN) – Alberto Contador probably has never been happier with a 15th place in his life.

That’s where Contador ended up in Sunday’s 17km time trial at the Volta ao Algarve, a race he’s won two years in a row under much different circumstances.

Racing for the first time since he tested positive for clenbuterol in July, Contador stopped the clock 45 seconds slower than stage winner and overall champ Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) and got bumped off the podium to settle into fourth at 41 seconds back.

Contador could care less — the most important thing to the “pistolero del Pinto” was that he was back in the saddle.

“Just being here is a victory,” Contador said after the finale in Portimao. “I am very happy with my ride, even though I would have liked to done better. I think I’ve done pretty well in my first race. I read somewhere I hadn’t raced in 205 days — that’s too long.”

How much longer Contador remains in the bunch remains to be seen, however.

Contador’s fate now lies in the hands of the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency, which both have the right to appeal the Spanish federation’s ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Once the institutions receive the official decision from the Spanish federation, it will be at least four weeks before they have to announce whether they intend to appeal.

The Contador camp was trying to spin things as “business as usual” this week in Algarve following the Spanish cycling federation’s stunning decision Tuesday to clear him of doping charges.

After an incredibly tense and traumatic six months that has forever marked Contador — something he admitted on Spanish television last Tuesday before his sudden return to racing — the Spanish rider seemed intent on talking about bike racing and leaving his legal team to answer questions about his still-unsettled future.

“I had nothing to lose today,” Contador said. “I raced today in a different way than I have here in the past, when I had a lot of pressure to win. This year, I hadn’t been able to train a lot, but this will work out for the better, because I’ve always started off the season too strong. This year, nevertheless, I could go easier.”

Despite his tenuous future, Contador is forging ahead with an ambitious racing schedule.

Saxo Bank-Sungard boss Bjarne Riis has a unique balancing act, trying to plan Contador’s future without knowing how long his new star will be racing. Right now, everyone is taking things one race at a time, though the general road map points toward a run at the Giro d’Italia in May.

Contador was scheduled to travel to Mallorca for an intense training camp on the Mediterranean island and will line up next for the three-day Tour of Murcia (March 4-6).

After that, nothing much is certain except that Contador and his divisive doping case will continue to generate headlines.