Spain’s two-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador stands tantalizingly close to a stunning win in the Vuleta a Espana, his first major race since returning from a two-year doping ban.
However, while the 29-year-old — who still protests his innocence over the minute trace of clenbuterol found in his urine on the 2010 Tour de France — is just 28 seconds behind overall leader Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez, he says it will be tough for him to claw the deficit back.
“I am in second place now and would like to exchange it for first place, but I am aware of how difficult it will be to win,” Contador told a news conference in the northern city of Comillas during the second rest day of the race. “It is complicated because there is not much more ground to cover, but every day there will be possibilities in the Tour to catch up.”
“I am going to give all I have no matter what result I have, I have my own racing style and it does not even occur to me to do anything but to try to win,” he said.
Rodriguez — who suffered heartbreak in this year’s Giro d’Italia, ending up second overall having entered the final stage in the lead — extended his overall lead over Contador by six seconds during Monday’s 16th stage and is now within striking distance of securing his first ever major Tour win.
The 33-year-old fended off a series of attacks from Contador during the steep final climb of the 183.5km mountain ride from Gijon to Cuitu Negru in northern Spain to finish third. Contador finished fourth.
“I have analyzed where I can improve and one thing is clear: I am not in my usual shape,” Contador said.
“But you have to recognise that ‘Purito’ is in incredible shape, which is making everything harder,” the Saxo Bank rider added.
Rodriguez said he does not see himself as the winner of this year’s Tour, but was optimistic about his chances.
“There is a week left and I still do not see myself as the winner,” the Katusha rider told reporters in Comillas. “While it is little, I have a good advantage in the overall standings over the other leaders. If we continue working like this I think we can do it.”
“It is clear to me that I have to ride glued to Contador’s wheel, his changes in rhythm are not bad for me. I have known him for years and that tells me what I need to do,” Rodriguez said.
Spain’s Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who picked up a stage win in the Tour de France this year, is in third place in the overall standings followed by Britain’s Chris Froome of Sky.
Valverde is two minutes, four seconds behind the leader with Froome 4 minutes, 52 seconds behind Rodriguez.
The Tour is Contador’s first major cycling race since his two-year drugs ban ended on Aug. 6.
He said he was happy to see so many fans cheering him on along the route of the race.
“I am really satisfied, I feel in debt to all the fans, the affection and support they have given me has been incredible,” Contador said.
The Spanish rider has always insisted that the trace of the banned substance clenbuterol came from a contaminated steak he ate on the eve of the test.
Contador said he planned to take part in the time trial and road race at the world championships in the Netherlands next month and the Tour of Lombardy in Italy next month.
The Vuelta continued yesterday with a 187.3km ride between Santander and Fuente De, a second category mountain climb.