PARIS: Alberto Contador’s return to top form this year has sparked hopes that the Tour de France yellow jersey battle against Chris Froome will go down to the wire.
The 2014 Tour de France gets under way on Saturday in the streets of Leeds and ends on July 27 down the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
The last two years have seen Team Sky dominate the race with their leader securing a comfortable victory that almost never looked in doubt.
In 2012 it was Bradley Wiggins who destroyed the field in the time trials and was expertly marshalled on the climbs by super-domestique Froome to crush all opposition hopes of gaining any time at all.
In fact Froome even came second to Wiggins, leading many to believe they had been short-changed out of a real race as the best two riders were team-mates, with the one prevented from attacking the other as he was working for him.
With Wiggins absent through injury from last year’s Tour, Froome proved strongest of the contenders both in the mountains and in the time-trials.
That left Contador well off the pace as only diminutive debutant climbing specialist Nairo Quintana gave any indication that he could compete for honours.
But this year Contador, a twice former Tour winner, has largely been the form rider so far.
He took victory in both the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of the Basque Country while finishing second in the recent Criterium du Dauphine as well as the tours of the Algarve and Catalunya.
He beat Froome at both Catalunya and the Dauphine and he currently leads the UCI’s World Tour rankings from Giro d’Italia winner Quintana. Froome is down in 15th. Not that too much should be read into that. Froome has won two stage races himself this year, at the Tour of Oman and Tour of Romandie.
He started the season in good form, winning in Oman before his campaign was disrupted by injury and illness, seeing him miss the Tirreno-Adriatico and finish only sixth in Catalunya.
He was riding himself back into form in Romandie, though, beating a solid field including last year’s Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali, Dauphine champion Andrew Talansky and world champion Rui Costa.
He might arguably have won the Dauphine for the second year in a row but for a crash on the sixth of eight stages. While he lost no time on that stage he was clearly suffering the effects on the last two in the hills, giving up the ghost on the tough final stage and finishing outside the top 10 overall.
But perhaps more telling is what went on before. He won the opening 10.4km time trial, including putting in significant time into Contador and Nibali on the flat sections — there is a 54km flat time trial at the Tour this year. He also won the first mountain stage, resisting Contador’s attempt to outsprint him to the line.
Both victories were telling. The first because it suggested he could make some serious time gains on Contador at the Tour’s only time trial, and the second because the lighter Spaniard is supposed to have greater acceleration going uphill.
But what Contador did well was show a determined willingness to attack Froome and put him under pressure, isolating him from his team-mates.
Froome’s main lieutenant Richie Porte was a couple of times unable to keep up with the pace and his form will be a concern for Sky as he’s also suffered from illness and injury.
But Contador will also be without his primary domestique at Tinkoff-Saxo as Czech Roman Kreuziger as been dropped from the team due to a UCI investigation into irregularities on his biological passport.
When the going gets tough in the Alps and Pyrenees, the chances are both riders might find themselves isolated form their team-mates.
Perhaps, then, the fun can really begin and the world will truly see which man is the strongest. Froome remains the mild favourite but Contador has proved he won’t have it all his own way this year. AFP