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Cagey Contador loses nothing in translation

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Matt Slater | 09:40 UK time, Thursday, 15 October 2009

"I have no relationship with Lance. I don't speak to him. He is working on his future and I am working on mine."

Comprende? Loud and clear, Alberto, loud and clear.

But that isn't going to stop people like me asking because Lance Armstrong versus Alberto Contador - team-mates, apparently - was this summer's sporting highlight.

Thrown together in the unlikeliest of Tour de France partnerships, the two riders fought like cats in a bag for most of the race only for Contador to settle the argument where it really mattered, on the road.

Sometimes funny, often bitchy, their sparring, on and off the bike, was never anything but engrossing. And best of all they're going to do it all over again next July and this time they don't have to pretend to be on the same side.

But before I get too carried away with next year, I should probably explain the background to the opening quote.

Contador and Armstrong
Alberto Contador and Tour de France team-mate Lance Armstrong "celebrate" on the podium in Paris

I normally steer clear of behind-the-scenes stuff - to paraphrase Bismarck, news stories are a bit like sausages, it is better not to see them being made - but I'll make an exception this time as it might shed some light on how LA v AC became cycling's answer to Borg v McEnroe, Prost v Senna or Southend v Colchester.

A few weeks ago, a PR man phoned to offer an interview with Contador. A broadcast exclusive, he said, at London's Cycle Show, he added.

Brilliant, I thought: the chance to talk to the world's best cyclist, on camera, only 20 minutes down the road and it's an exclusive.

Can you get me 18 holes with Tiger Woods, a private tennis lesson from Maria Sharapova and a lift home with Lewis Hamilton as well?

And then I complicated things. "What's his English like?" I asked.

"Ah", the PR man said, "not great. Will that be a problem?"

Well, I suppose that depends whether you think Contador's spats with Armstrong - conducted in the heat of battle, usually in translation - were a problem, I thought but didn't say out loud.

Not that I really needed a response, the answer came soon enough.

Contador will do the interview in English, the PR man said, providing you email the questions now so he can practise them, he can have a couple of interpreters there and you don't pull any last-minute surprises with your line of inquiries (so no Qs about you know what).

Comprende? Loud and clear, Alberto, loud and clear.

I'll fast-forward now to the interview. All in all, it went OK, considering the fact Contador was clearly nervous about speaking in a foreign language and determined not to fan Tour de France flames that have just about died down.

Died down but not extinguished.

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Watch Matt Slater's exclusive interview with the Tour de France great Alberto Contador

The 26-year-old was charm personified when asked about British cycling, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, and he gave thoughtful replies to my questions about his Olympic ambitions and his place in the sport's history books, but it was Armstrong that brought the most considered responses.

Given all that has happened between them, it's hardly surprising.

From the moment the American announced his surprise return to cycling, the two (very different) men were probably guaranteed to clash.

They might have just avoided it if they had been out-and-out adversaries, but when Contador's team manager (and Lance's old pal) Johan Bruyneel signed Armstrong to join the Astana all-stars, a head-on collision was the only possible result.

How could the most famous cyclist in the world - a best-selling author, a fund-raising phenomenon, a friend of the rich and famous - accept second-class status to a rider who had finished over an hour behind him in 2005? Who could boss "The Boss"?

Contador, on the other hand, could rightly wonder what on earth had just happened. He was coming off a season that had seen him win the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana - a feat that made him only the fifth rider in history, and the youngest, to have claimed all three of cycling's Grand Tours.

Was he now expected to return to the ranks? Wasn't this supposed to be his team?

What happened next was the mother of all turf wars - three weeks of pure playground one-upmanship.

Armstrong, back on his favourite platform, scored the early victories: getting on the right side of a split in the peloton in the third stage and then revelling in the media's appreciation of his cycling smarts.

Four days later, Contador hit back when he accelerated away from Armstrong and the other leading contenders on the climb to Andorra Arcalis. It was the kind of initiative-seizing stunt Armstrong used to pull in his pomp. It was also probably against Astana team orders.

Contador took complete control a week later on the ascent to Verbier. No amount of smarts could compensate for the younger man's legs and lungs. It was magnificent and emphatic.

As a cycling contest between the two, the rest of the Tour was slightly disappointing (the Schleck brothers had a pop at Contador but even their tag-team approach couldn't unsettle the Spaniard).

But even as you witnessed Contador's calm progress to Paris, you had to admire Armstrong's pursuit of a podium place, and you knew he was already plotting a return to the top step in 2010.

Which brings us to this week's unveiling of the battleground for Armstrong v Contador II.
They were both in Paris on Wednesday, side-by-side for the cameras but miles apart really, to help publicise next year's route - a zigzag through the Low Countries followed by a clockwise loop of France.

With four days in the Pyrenees - to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tour's inaugural visit - and two trips up the brutal Col du Tourmalet to look forward to, it appeared at first glance to be a good result for Contador.

But like a good cricket pitch, there is something in it for Armstrong too. The cobbled-stone sections in Belgium and northern France will play to his superior bike-handling skills and Contador's advantage in the mountains will be tempered by the surprisingly high number of valley-floor finishes.

Add to that the support Armstrong will gain from his hand-picked Radio Shack team (with the faithful Bruyneel at the helm) and the American, who was a little undercooked this year after injuring himself in the Giro, will be entitled to think an eighth Tour victory is possible.

Possible but not probable - far more likely is a third victory for Contador, who is resigned to racing for the always-interesting Astana for another season (Armstrong and Contador were reunited briefly in Paris to deflect the by now traditional fresh doping allegations that dog the team and the sport in general).

When I asked him in London about Armstrong coming back at him even harder next year, "El Pistolero" didn't seem unduly perturbed.

"Lance has a new team so, yes, he will be dangerous. But it's OK, I believe in me and my concentration and my team. So we will see."

Indeed we will, Alberto, indeed we will.

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Contador really is a charming man isn't he
    Last year's Tour was one of the most exciting in recent history and i look forward to seeing Contador, Schleck and Armstrong all going head to head again next year
    And i look forward to seeing more and more about cycling on the bbc

  • Comment number 3.

    I wouldn't be so sure about Contador winning the Tour next year. I have no doubt that he is better equipped individually than Armstrong, but this year Armstrong will have a hand-picked team working for him. It looks like Contador will have very little effective support from his team-mates unless there are some new recruits (and Bruyneel appears to have snapped up the most promising candidates).

    The absence of a team-time trial will work in Contador's favour (almost certainly the Tour establishment's way of getting at Armstrong in my opinion) but the route will not. Even though Contador is the better climber the sheer number of Cat1 and HC climbs means that he will struggle. Every climb will see one of Armstrong's team mates attacking Contador with fresh legs. Can he defend against that over the course of 19 major climbs and with little or no support from team-mates? I don't think so. Expecting Lance to make his own attack on one of the ascents of the Tourmalet.

    Will be absolutely fascinating. I'd love Contador to win it, as it would be one of the greatest Tour achievements in recent times, but am expecting Lance to be on top of the podium.

    P.S. Also think the number of climbs will work against Wiggins' attempts to challenge the podium. Too fine a balance to be struck between the Tour and the Olympics.

  • Comment number 4.

    All this talk is pretty pointless, it is actions that count - seemed to me that when it mattered in The Tour, Contador simple rode away from Armstrong with relative ease. Can't see it being any easier for Armstreong next year.

  • Comment number 5.

    I can't see the lack of a strong team around him making a huge difference to AC, given that he wasn't supported so much by Astana this year. Maybe better preparations for LA could help, after his crashes in the Giro, and earlier in the Tour Down Under, but him being a year older I'd still give the edge to AC. The biggest threat will be the Schlecks.

  • Comment number 6.

    next year does not look too brutal in the mountains so maybe AC effect wont be too great ,LA will be a year older though and I think may not finish when it becomes clear he cant compete with the very best , but you never know , with the little aussie riding of to win the worlds this year anything is possible but 90% of me thinks succevive tours for AC

  • Comment number 7.

    Evening all, thanks for reading/commenting.

    Sorry, boils, no idea what you wrote (was it something about you know what?), so I can't comment...probably couldn't comment anyway.

    James_4p, yes, AC is a good egg. I think he found the whole interview process a bit stressful and seemed a bit flustered by the chaos that followed his arrival at the Cycling Show (it was supposed to be a bit of a secret but the Earls Court announcer put it over the tannoy) but once he relaxed he was really good value. Very modest too.

    vcfsantos, I think you might be right about the TTT but I'm still pretty confident AC can take RadioShack's best shots in the mountains. The Schlecks et al gave him everything they had this year but he always looked like he had something in reserve to me. And that was with the less than 100% backing of his team.

    As for Wiggo's hopes, I can see pros and cons. It's true that the route doesn't suit him - and he'll miss the TTT - but he's a different rider now...even he didn't know he was a GC contender before this year's race. He didn't even recce the climbs! I wouldn't worry about the Olympics either, he was always going to concentrate on the road for the next two years anyway. I don't you'll see him on the track until 2011.

    naigib, me neither.

    njc874, I agree. AC's answer to who his biggest rivals were next year was very interesting (apologies but I don't think it has made the edit of the interview that is embedded in the blog). I mentioned Lance in the question so he agreed that he would be "a strong rider" but didn't exactly dwell on him. He mentioned Wiggo next (but possibly to be polite) before moving on to the Schlecks, of whom Andy was his biggest concern because of his TT ability. The other names he mentioned were Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde (he said AV definitely had the potential to win a Tour one day) and Robert Gesink.

    Which brings me to lordSUPERFRED: you'll be pleased to hear that AC mentioned your "little Aussie" (he also said Cadel "was not so good this year") but I wouldn't be surprised if it's the same top three again in 2010.

    Cheers all

  • Comment number 8.

    Incorrect - Lance wasn't injured in the Giro it was several weeks earlier and led to major surgery. Considering that and the fact that he hadn't had any competion in three years, getting on the podium in the Tour was quite a unique achievement - and perhaps one that not even Contador could match. Lance may be older next year but he will be fitter and stronger - perhaps much stronger because he has new references and new targets. People read too much into age and I think that Armstrong is most likely the person to straighten that issue out.

  • Comment number 9.

    Just read the news that LA's Tour de France could be affected by a stomach bug!! I can't see this being a problem giving his history of overcoming illness. The guy's tough as old boots!


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