With just three days left before the 2010 Tour de France gets under way in Rotterdam, defending champion Alberto Contador says that he is in a much more relaxed frame of mind compared to 12 months ago, when his Astana team fractured with many of his supposed team-mates apparently supporting the efforts of the outfit’s other big name, Lance Armstrong, effectively leaving the Spaniard to ride his own race.
In an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe, a smiling Contador revealed that he prefers the current Astana set-up to that which began last year’s race, and that Alexandre Vinokourov will be supporting his attempt to win the maillot jaune for the third time, although he was a bit cagier when it came to revealing how he felt his fitness levels were going into the race.
Earlier this month, a seemingly below-par Contador lost the lead in the Critérium du Dauphiné when he finished almost two minutes behind eventual winner Janez Brajkovič of Team RadioSchack in the Stage 3 Individual Time Trial, but if that gives rise to thoughts among his rivals that the Spaniard's fitness levels aren't quite what they should be, Contador is keeping his cards close to his chest.
"In terms of physique, it’s necessary to wait for the Tour to find out where I am ," the rider told L'Equipe. Mentally, however, it appears that he is more than ready to defend his title.
"Psychologically I feel more relaxed," he maintains. "I’m trying a new approach to analyse each moment of the race, each situation. I’ve gained experience. Last season enabled me to grow my experience, through everything I went through during the race. In fact, I feel calmer. I’ve been able to follow the preparation I wanted to. There hasn’t been as much of a commotion as there was last year."
That is something that sits well with Contador, who says that this time around, "the atmosphere is definitely better," which he feels will suit him better, adding that while team selection is based on ability to do the job on the road rather than friendship, he has "a lot of friends in the team," a reference to the very public breakdown of his relationship with Armstrong and other team members last year.
This year also sees Astana's one-time general classification contender Alexandre Vinokourov return to the Tour de France three years after he was unceremoniously kicked out of the race after testing positive for an illegal drugs transfusion, leading to the team withdrawing from the race.
Contador, riding for the Discovery Channel team, won the 2007 Tour de France but his subsequent move to Astana, who were excluded from the 2008 race, meant that he was unable to defend his title that year.
Asked about his relationship with the Kazakh rider, Contador said, "We have known for many years and our relationship is good. We have already spoken several times about his role. Honestly, he is motivated to help me fight for victory in the Tour de France."
Certainly Contador seems much more at ease going into this year's race than he did last July, when the Astana team was surrounded by the inevitable media circus that accompanied Armstrong's return to the race he won for seven years in a row between 1999 and 2005.
Asked which team he preferred - the 2009 Astana outfit populated as it was by leaders on the road, or the apparently weaker 2010 version - the Spaniard smiled and said "the 2010 Astana is the team I have right now and is the team that I prefer."
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.