by Justin Davis
PARIS, June 25, 2010 – Defending champion Alberto Contador will saddle up for the Tour de France in a little over a week’s time with more than just the mountains, or seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, on his mind.
Contador, the winner in 2007 and 2009, is considered to be the best climber in the business — and is none too shabby in stage racing’s other key cycling discipline of the time trial.
With a total of six high mountain stages including three summit finishes, one long time trial and no team time trial, the 97th edition has been described as tailor-made for the 27-year-old from Madrid.
But barely a few days into the July 3-25 race Contador has an early mountain to climb: stage three’s 213km ride from Wanze in Belgium to Arenberg where the inclusion of seven potentially treacherous cobblestone sections have given his rivals some ideas.
The threat of losing time due to punctures or crashes is so serious that several key contenders, including Contador, have ridden the stage in northern France to gauge what will be required on the day.
And Andy Schleck, the runner-up to Contador last year, warned that the Spaniard will have to be on his best if he is to emerge unscathed.
“Alberto really just needs two or three climbers at his side (to help him) in the mountains, but it will be a different story on the cobblestones,” Schleck said after the Tour presentation last October.
“He could suffer, whereas myself and (brother) Frank will have the support of cobblestone specialists like Fabian (Cancellara), Stuart (O’Grady) and Matti (Breschel).”
It might not be where the race is won, but stage three, and even stage one along the wind-hit coast from Rotterdam, could be problematic for Contador, who in the past has been accused of lacking tactical nous when not racing uphill.
Thankfully for the Spaniard, there should be ample opportunity to claw back lost time after a first week which should be dominated by breakaways and at least four stages in which the likes of Mark Cavendish, Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen will battle for sprint glory.
Despite stage seven featuring a total of six, relatively short climbs, and the race’s first summit finish at Les Rousses ski station it is suspected that top climbers like Schleck and Contador are unlikely to showcase their talents until stage eight at the very least.
The 189km-long ride into the Alps is also a summit finish, although the peloton will have to tackle the 14.3km Col de la Ramaz, then the 3.9km-long Les Gets before descending into Morzine where the 13.6km ascent to Avoriaz awaits.
The bulk of Contador’s work, he has admitted, will come in the third week when the race moves into the Pyrenees for four days of climbing, three in succession and the fourth coming after the Tour’s second rest day.
The Spaniard recently reconnoitered those key stages, and emerged convinced that is where he will have to dig deep to defend his jersey.
“All (four stages) offer a lot of possibilities. The first one (stage 14) has the final at Ax 3 Domaines summit after a demanding climb, the Palhieres,” he said recently.
“The next day we will have other very hard climb at the end, Bales, with the finish line after 20 kilometers of descent. On the third day there’s legendary climbs like the Tourmalet and L’Aubisque, where a lot of people will crack despite the race still being far from over.
“And the final day (in the Pyrenees) is the main course, with the finish on the summit of Tourmalet, the last chance of victory for the climbers. By then, overall victory should become a lot clearer.”
In the event the race is still undecided, a pancake-flat time trial over 52km from Bordeaux to Pauillac will have the final say.