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The Contador conundrum

History has been on the side of the Tour de France organiser Christian Prudhomme in his quest to liven up the race. Last year, he took advantage of the centenary of the first Pyrenean stage to put on a stage finish on the Col du Tourmalet. This year, to celebrate 100 years since the race entered the Alps, it is the Col du Galibier, the highest pass regularly crossed by the Tour, that gets the treatment.

The brace of stages up the 2645m-high pass on the Thursday and Friday before the finish is a spectacular notion. One stage finishes on the bleak, scree-strewn ridge one day, then on the next the race crosses over the other way — up the even tougher northern side. It’s not a new idea though. The 1979 tour, cruelly, climbed L’Alpe d’Huez, then the next day went down, looped through the Alps and went back up again.

That race, fought out between Bernard Hinault and Joop Zoetemelk, was a classic, but 2011 has a different complexion even before it has begun. Whatever happens between Saturday and July 24 may only make sense in August, after Alberto Contador’s hearing before the Court of Arbitration in Sport to decide, finally, whether his positive test for clenbuterol in
last year’s tour should stand.

As the favourite, Contador would be the man on whom the success of the tour hinges even under normal circumstances. July should be spent applauding his dominance or thrilling as he falters. As it is, July will be spent wondering what will happen in August. Without wishing him ill, the organisers might just breathe a sigh of relief if he suffered the cycling equivalent of a Blighty wound early in the race and went back to Spain. It’s hard to disagree with Bradley Wiggins’s assessment: “A shambles and a farce … not only bad for Contador, [but also] bad for the event.”

Wiggins is one of a group of riders who will, on paper, be vying for the third place on the podium behind Contador and his closest rival, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. “The difference between the riders in that the group behind the top two isn’t so great,” says Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s principal. They have every incentive: depending on events in early August, third or fourth place might end up second or third overall.

As well as the Olympic track champion, the group includes Australian Cadel Evans, twice second overall by less than a minute and a crash victim last year, the Belgian Jurgen van den Brouck, fifth last year without ever breaking cover, and the Spaniard Samuel Sánchez, fourth in 2010.

Apart from Contador — who is a dubious favourite in other ways — there are question marks about all the contenders for the maillot jaune. Schleck can climb and has worn the yellow jersey, but has always seemed to lack the inner fire that marks out a true champion. For example, on the mountain-top finish at Morzine last year, Contador appeared below his best, but Schleck did not test him until the very end of the climb, with only the stage win on his mind.

Evans came a shaky second to Wiggins in the Dauphiné Libéré in June, but has won two other major stage races this year, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie. Victory in the 2009 world road championships turned him into a rider who attacks rather than observes, but the question now is whether, at 34, he is too long in the tooth.

This reflects the fact that cycling is in a state of transition, because so many potential contenders for honours in three-week stage races have fallen foul of the drugs testers. The newcomers have yet to work out what they are capable of, post-ban drug-takers such as Ivan Basso and Alexandr Vinokourov do not look quite their former selves, and there is Contador, in a category of his own in several senses. On the one hand, with three tours, two Giros and a Vuelta a España to his name, all before his 29th birthday, he could become the greatest stage-race rider since Eddy Merckx. On the other, he could lose a Tour and a Giro and his reputation in early August.

The uncertainties create openings for determined men, and this is where Wiggins comes in, after what he termed “a disappointment, a humiliation” last year. He seems relaxed and happy, and that is half the battle won. The triple Olympic gold medallist has changed his coaches and his approach, has raced wholeheartedly this season, relished a team role, and is rightly proud of his victory in the Dauphiné. Much will depend on his momentum from the start: a strong performance from Sky in Sunday’s team time trial could be the platform for a decent first week and a high overall placing.

As for Contador, his Tour preparation has been as low-key as might be expected for a rider who, in early June, won the Giro d’Italia on a course that was reputed to be the toughest ever. The only glitch came while he was reconnoitring the Alpine stages of the tour, in the course of which he was stopped by gendarmes while cycling without lights through a tunnel on the Galibier.

He failed to convince the police that the headlights of his team car would keep him safe and had to put his bike in the car. He will hope that is how the events of 2010-11 will come to be seen: a minor brush with authority that ended with him going on his way after a brief interruption. Unfortunately, July will not decide whether that is the case, or whether the tunnel is darker and longer, for him and his sport. —

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