The intense competition between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong is bound to hit new heights this summer, writes Richard Chambers
The impending summer brings with it the usual miscellany of international sporting events. Of these, the 97th edition of Le Tour de France promises to be more compelling than ever. Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner, will be competing in the second season of his comeback, hoping to secure an incredible eighth victory. However, he will have to overcome the man who threatens his legacy as the greatest rider in the race’s illustrious history, ‘El Pistolero’ – Spain’s Alberto Contador.
The 27-year-old winner of two Tours de France already ranks among the greatest tourists in cycling history. In his short career as a team leader he has completed cycling’s equivalent of a Grand Slam, capturing the Vuelta a España, the Giro d’Italia and – of course – Le Tour.
Last year’s Tour will be remembered as the emergence of Contador as the true successor to Armstrong. As a member of Team Astana alongside the Texan, relations between the two deteriorated during the first week as debate engulfed the Tour about who the true leader of Astana was. To the surprise of many observers Armstrong actually led Contador for much of the early stages, until his antagonist launched a stunning attack contrary to team rules and captured the yellow jersey in Stage 7. Relations between the two remained sour after the race with Contador and Armstrong exchanging snipes in the media and via Twitter.
Armstrong, now with Team RadioShack, has built an accomplished squad of former rivals and Astana riders with which to challenge the Spaniard’s dominance. Despite this, Contador’s extraordinary innate attributes may serve to counteract the group effort of RadioShack. Since turning professional in 2003, Contador has become the sport’s purest climber. His explosive acceleration on the climbs has been key to his two previous victories. In addition to this, his high cadence is similar to, but perhaps more elegant than that of his bionic rival.
Though the more relaxed post-comeback Armstrong will not admit it, the adversaries have much in common. The ruthlessness that defined Armstrong’s ascent to the upper echelons of sporting greats is equally evident in the Madrileño. A newly acquired aptitude in time-trials is reminiscent of perhaps Lance’s greatest strength. In 2007, Contador showed remarkable composure to hold on to the yellow jersey in the penultimate stage, despite the challenge of more experienced time trialists – in the end winning the tour by a mere 23 seconds, a feat that would draw admiration even from Armstrong.
Following a 2009 route that was notably light on mountain stages, the 2010 edition was approved by Contador who remarked that it was a ‘tour for climbers’. The contentious omission of the team time-trial, to the chagrin of Armstrong, will please a rider who does not always enjoy the unreserved support of his teammates. If Contador capitalises on this favourable route to win a third Tour no one will doubt his position alongside Hinault, Mercx – and even Armstrong himself – as one of the sport’s most celebrated competitors.