Somewhat overshadowed by the end of the Olympics, the best Grand Tour racer of his generation returned to the professional peloton last week. And now Alberto Contador has his sights set on winning the third Grand Tour of the season, the Vuelta a España, that starts this weekend. Team Sky will be sending Chris Froome to the race, which will give the man who came second to Bradley Wiggins in Paris a chance to prove after two second places that he really can win a three-week stage race when allowed to do so. But can he, or anyone else, really stop Contador from picking up where he left off and winning his home race?
As two-year suspensions go, Alberto Contador's was a pretty short one. After failing a doping test for minute traces of Clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France, the then three-time Tour winner was finally handed the sanction back in February of this year, shortly after his two stage wins at the Tour de San Luis. Back-dating of the first 18 months of the ban ensured that the Spaniard would be able to return to racing this month, and last week in Holland and Belgium the Eneco Tour hosted his comeback.
Not a frequent visitor to the low countries outside of Ardennes week, Contador nevertheless acquitted himself well in finishing in the top five and showed decent attacking form during the final stage's ascents of the legendary cobbled climb of the Muur van Geraardsbergen.
So that's it: he's back. Some will no doubt be gnashing their teeth at such a quick return, but it would be wrong to suggest Contador has gone unpunished. He has been stripped of two Grand Tour titles in the shapes of the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro, and whatever the ins and outs of his specific case (the Court of Arbitration for Sport judged that the most likely source of the Clenbuterol in his system was from a contaminated supplement), question marks will forever accompany his career.
So now that Contador is back, what can we as cycling fans look forward to? Well, to start with, we have a Vuelta on the horizon that has the potential to be the most exciting Grand Tour of the season, and the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank leader is largely responsible for that. Can he return so quickly to top form?
His track record of winning (at least on the road) all but one of the Grand Tours he has entered aiming for victory suggests he very well might. That one missed Tour de France in 2011, though, adds intrigue. Contador was not in peak condition, having not recovered from demolishing the field in that year's Giro, and was also caught up in a series of crashes early in the race that damaged his knee. If his form is a bit off in Spain, and after six months without competition that is a real possibility, then as there were in France last year there are a host of riders lining up in Spain who could take advantage.
Principal among them is Sky's Chris Froome, who came second in last year's Vuelta and also at this year's Tour de France. The Kenyan-born British rider appears to now have the all-round climbing and time trialling skills to go head-to-head with Contador, and it will be interesting to see if he has recovered sufficiently from the Tour to take the fight to the Spaniard.
Contador has identified Froome as his chief rival, but correctly also points out that he is not the only one: "It's not just Froome, there are others who know how to win a Vuelta, but the truth is his performance at the Tour was spectacular. Last year, had he had more freedom, he could have won the Vuelta."
Last year's winner Juan Jose Cobo, along with Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and Igor Anton, will all be looking to ensure this is no two-horse race in their home tour, but now that Contador is back all of cycling will be waiting to see what he can deliver. It should make for some spectacular racing; it often does.
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