For the better part of the 2009 cycling off season, Alberto Contador's status as a member of the Astana cycling team was in question. Contador, undoubtedly the world's best stage racer, watched from the sidelines during the off season as Lance Armstrong plucked many of Astana's strongest riders off the team to form the new Radioshack cycling team. Once the most feared stage racing team in the world, by the end of 2009 Astana was looking a shell of its former self.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Contador meanwhile, through his lawyers tried to negotiate a release from his Astana contract, but to no avail. Like it or not, Contador was forced to ride out his contract with Astana for the 2010 season. And with so few sure-fire domestiques on the team, the 2010 season was looking to be one of transition for Contador as he tempered expectations behind a far weaker team.
Then however, a funny thing happened. Astana began signing solid support riders. First it was Oscar Peirero, 2006 Tour de France winner and staunch support rider to Alejandro Valverde at the Caisse d'Epargne team. Then Paolo Tiralongo signed up, another strong add for Contador in the grand tours and stage races. Finally, David De La Fuente, the mountain goat formerly of the Footon-Servetto squad boarded the Astana ship. Add to this the presence of Alexander Vinokourov, and suddenly Contador's support structure looks far more solid than originally thought.
The team strength of Astana was on full display this past week at the Volta Ao Algarve, where Contador was able to win the overall and a stage win en route to a very impressive season debut. Not only did the Spaniard win a tough stage three mountain top finish, but he showed well in the ITT. Further, he was well-supported as he defended the leader's jersey, as both De La Fuente and Daniel Navarro rode very strongly in his support.
Although it is still very early in the 2010 cycling season, Alberto Contador's prospects at winning a third Tour de France title in July look pretty good. He is clearly the best individual climber in pro cycling, and assuming the rest of his teammates can stay upright and healthy throughout the early season, the Spaniard will head into the Tour as the number one favorite. Contador's Astana team meanwhile, once thought to be a disadvantage, seems to be shaping up to be a strong team at this early point in the season.
Defending the yellow jersey at the Tour de France is a much different task that at the Volta Ao Algarve, but nevertheless Contador will be pleased with his team's performance at this early point in the year. Astana will be able to take away a big boost of confidence after Algarve, as they continue to gel as a unit ahead of July. For Contador's opposition, his and his team's performance at Algarve is cause for chagrin. Alone Contador is a very tough rider to beat, but with a competent team behind him, he'll be nearly unbeatable come July.