Contador plays down expectations ahead of Vuelta a España

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Contador climbing to victory at the Vuelta a Burgos

Alberto Contador sought to play down suggestions that he is the main favourite for the upcoming Vuelta a España. The Tinkoff rider, who will be looking for a fourth victory at the race, said, “I can rest assured that this race is already on my palmares.”

Referring to his rivals, Team Sky’s Chris Froome and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, Contador said: “I’m sure that they are looking for their first Vuelta title. Froome has been on the podium I think three times now, and he has a very strong team.”

“For Nairo it’s the same, since the last day of the Tour, we’ve heard nothing about him and he’s been resting and recovering for La Vuelta. I’m sure both of them will be here in optimal condition.”

But the Spaniard, who will be starting his final Grand Tour for Tinkoff tomorrow, sees another threat for the General Classification in the familiar guise of Quintana’s veteran teammate Alejandro Valverde.

“Everybody is talking about Froome, Nairo and me, but I think that there’s another favourite and that’s Valverde because he was very strong during the Tour and at the Vuelta he has more options,” said Contador. “He has lots of finals very suitable for him, also with time bonuses. The parcours is better for him than for me.”

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The media scrum at the Tour de France

Contador, who was forced to abandon the Tour de France on stage 9 due to fever, continued to soften expectations when talking about preparation and race days. Asked about a possible advantage he might enjoy over rivals who finished the Tour, he said: “When I abandoned the Tour I was in optimal form. I was penalised because the crashes and bruising meant I had to stop riding.”

“My first proper training after the Tour was at Clásica San Sebastián and the Vuelta a Burgos, so I probably have less preparation for this Vuelta, and maybe less than other years. I don’t think I have an advantage.”

The recent Vuelta a Burgos was the latest addition to Contador’s palmares as he edged out Sergio Pardilla (Caja Rural) and Ben Hermans (BMC) to overall victory by just one second after a fiercely contested final summit finish. While it wasn’t a vintage Contador performance, it surely only signalled good things for him.

“A victory always gives you confidence, but the day after you must start from zero again and continue working,” he said of his fifth win of 2016. “It’s good for the team, but here the race is much longer, the rivals are different and we have a lot more stages so we start from zero.

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A third victory, at the 2015 Vuelta

He will not be starting from zero in terms of Vuelta victories though. His three victories (a 100% record in terms of starts to wins) see him lie joint-second on the all-time list, alongside Tony Rominger and one behind Robert Heras.

“I’m calmer now after three victories. That is incredible to me and that allows me to relax,” Contador said. “If I can I will look for a fourth victory but we will see, and we will go day by day and see if that’s possible.”

Another Vuelta victory would be a perfect way to send off his Tinkoff team, the last iteration of the CSC/Saxo Bank squad which started out in 1998 and is due to disband at the end of the year. While a number of the team’s riders – most notably Peter Sagan – have already announced their 2017 homes, Contador would not be drawn on where he will race next season. He has been strongly linked with Trek-Segafredo but today talked only of his commitment to his current team.

“At this moment I am a rider for Tinkoff. Tinkoff is my team and I will give 100% for this team,” he said. “The other reason [I won’t speak about my future] is that it’s the last big tour in this jersey, so the best thing is to do my maximum for this team. Next year will be another story and time for talking about the future will come.”

Quintana talks illness and rider safety at País Vasco

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Quintana battling with Alberto Contador at March’s Volta a Catalunya (Cor Vos)

Ahead of his bid to add a second Vuelta al País Vasco victory to his ever-growing palmarés, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana talked to regional newspaper El Diario Vasco.

The Colombian had more on his mind than just the week’s racing though, most of all his condition. He’s in good shape, he says, but illness has interfered with preparation for the race somewhat.

“At the moment I feel under the weather,” he says. “Catalunya affected the whole team. I caught a virus which left me with chills and a dry cough. And on top of that it has been raining!”

On the eve of the race, Quintana’s team had been depleted as brothers Gorka and Ion Izagirre were ruled out of the race with gastroenteritis.

Aside from the fight to stay healthy, Quintana anticipates tough competition over the coming days. The 24-year-old singled out Sky’s Sergio Luis Henao (second last year) as well three-time winner Alberto Contador of Tinkoff, who he beat to the overall title at the Volta a Catalunya last month.

“My rivals are fit, on track – especially Contador. He looks good in terms of racing and condition,” he says. “What he does, he does well – attacks, climbs, as usual.  And Froome was pretty strong in Catalunya – he already has a high level. Come Tour-time they will be in even better form.”

Conversation inevitably turned to the race’s route, which has been widely recognised as one of the toughest-looking editions of recent years.

“It is very hard, unreasonably tough I think,” says Quintana. “The climb in the Eibar time trial is also hard, but I like the time trial – the descent is very fast and has some deceiving corners.”

“The hills are not long but they are hard. [The organisers] have to think a bit about the riders before putting together such a harsh route.”

There’s also the question of the weather – rain is forecast during the week, something that riders from Contador to Joaquim Rodríguez have already commented on. Meanwhile Quintana has a complicated relationship with wet weather.

“If the weather is bad the road grime will complicate things,” he says. “I don’t like the rain – I prefer good, clear weather. But if it does rain my allergies don’t affect me and I feel better. When I won here in 2013 it rained a lot and that actually benefitted me.”

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Quintana, followed by two motos at last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, said it’s “normal” to be afraid of them (Cor Vos)

Finally, and inevitably, came subject of moto crashes and rider safety. It’s an issue that has been hard to ignore for months now, one that has been tragically brought back to the fore with the death of Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Antoine Demoitié at Gent-Wevelgem.

“I’m very sad about what happened to Demoitié. He was just doing his job,” said Quintana. “What happened is outrageous, but it’s not [happening] just now. Already last year there were problems at the Vuelta, Clásica San Sebastián, in the classics and at the Giro.”

Rather worryingly, Quintana went on to admit that it is normal to be afraid of motos, saying “Of course (I have been afraid)! It’s normal.”

A number of solutions have been put forward by a number of people around the cycling world, and Quintana calls for a more thorough licensing system.

“Any oversight can mean a tragedy. It cannot be that in a WorldTour race there are people who drive a car only in that race,” he says.

“Just as the directors have to get a license, everyone in the race should have a certificate to authorise them to follow a race, and not start driving directly in the WorldTour.”