Defending champion Alberto Contador has put a brave face on today’s first mountain stage of this year’s Tour de France in which the Saxo Bank-SunGard rider, looking to win the Tour for the fourth time, lost yet more time on his GC rivals.
The Spaniard finished the stage in 8th place, losing between 13 and 43 seconds to some big names in front of him including both Schleck brothers, Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso, as well as stage winner Samuel Sanchez.
The grimace on his face as he tried to limit his losses was a far cry from Contador's usual demeanour when ascending, and it seemed as though his legs were hurting with every turn of the pedals towards the finish line.
He now lies exactly 4 minutes behind race leader Thomas Voeckler of Europcar, but more crucially, in the context of the overall title, 2 minutes 11 seconds on the man now in second place, Frank Schleck, and nearly 2 minutes down on Cadel Evans, who lies third.
Less than two months ago, Contador was dominating the Giro d’Italia, with the men such as Michele Scarponi and Vincenzo Nibali who had been considered his pre-race rivals for the maglia rosa unable to find a response as he repeatedly attacked in the mountains.
That seems a long time ago now as Contador, subject to repeated attacks from both Schleck brothers after today’s stage passed under the 5km to go banner on the ascent to Luz-Ardiden, finally lost contact with his rivals inside the final kilometre.
In the process, he lost more precious time on his rivals after losing 1 minute 40 seconds to most of them – Sanchez being a notable exception – after he was held up on a crash on Stage 1 and saw his Saxo Bank SunGard team finish way off the pace on the following day’s Team Time Trial.
Nevertheless, after today’s stage, Contador, quoted on his team website, insisted: “I'm happy with the result because I am sure that from every day onwards I'll become better and that is the most important thing.
“As I said this morning, my goal was to follow through and be defensive as this was the first mountain stage after so many setbacks and I had to be a bit cautious and not risk anything.”
Of course, there’s being cautious and not risking anything, and being cautious and finding yourself in a worse position than you were this morning, which is in effect where Contador, winner of the last six Grand Tours he’s ridden, is now.
It’s far too early to take today’s stage as absolute proof that this is not going to be Contador’s year, but if he were on top form, the mountains are where he should if anything be making time up and certainly not conceding it.
Carrying a knee injury and perhaps more tired than he expected following the Giro, together with the undoubted mental strain that will arise from the forthcoming hearing of the UCI and WADA’s appeal in his doping case from last year’s Tour, the fact is that
Contador’s aura of invincibility has been pierced – and his rivals know it.
“We have seen from the beginning of the Tour that the Schleck brothers were to play two cards and they would take turns attacking,” Contador continued.
“Perhaps I spend more energy than necessary and my knee has bothered me a bit but I'm happy with the outcome of this first mountain stage,’ he maintained.
“I'm sure I'll be better every day from now on. Today, I simply wasn't feeling my best and my pedalling was not natural.
“It seems that both Schleck brothers are a tremendous threat in the overall classification but Frank seems like the strongest at the moment,” he added.
The older Schleck brother crashed out on Stage 2 of last year’s race, which his younger sibling ended up losing by just 39 seconds, effectively the time he lost to Contador in that infamous chain incident.
Today’s stage will give the Leopard-Trek pair as well as riders such as Evans and Basso real hope that he can be beaten, but Contador insists that he can turn things around.
“My strength is my ability to recover and that's going to play a role late in this race,” he concluded.
Perhaps so, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the first half of his Tour could hardly have gone worse and that the sharks, in the shape of his rivals, have scented blood and are circling.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.