Blazin' Saddles: Can Trek-bound Contador win another Grand Tour?
Following confirmation of Alberto Contador's switch to Trek-Segafredo for 2017 we ask whether or not the Spanish veteran has another Grand Tour in his legs.
He's officially won seven Grand Tours – although ask Alberto Contador and he'll probably put the figure at nine: choosing to include the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d'Italia scalps that were taken away from him after his retrospective two-year ban for that Basque beef blemish.
There's no denying that Contador – for all his attacking opportunism, most notably during stage 15 to Formigal during the Vuelta – has become a bit of an anachronism in a peloton dominated by Messrs Froome and Quintana, and the cult of the powermeter.
Chris Froome and Alberto Contador ride in stage 5 of the Tour de FranceEurosport
If Contador was recently part of the Big Four that his soon-to-be former boss Oleg Tinkoff so revered, then it's probably fair to say that he – like Vincenzo Nibali – has now probably slipped a division. Still a force to be reckoned with on their days, both riders are nevertheless more Europa than Champions League.
And yet Contador's record is still one of consistency and high achievement – to the extent that it feels like a gross disservice to describe the 33-year-old as merely a two-time Tour winner. For if you stretch back to that maiden 2007 Tour victory, Contador has won at least one of cycling's major three-week stage races every year except 2013 and, now, 2016.
In 2013, sandwiched between his second and third Vuelta victories, Contador had no answer to Chris Froome – finally unleashed from the shackles imposed on him by Sir Brad, his tormentor – en route to finishing fourth in Paris. Two years later it was one place worse – although off the back of a victory in May's Giro.
This year – his last year at Tinkoff, which will fold at the end of the season – has been Contador's least successful since 2013. But where 2013 was followed by victories, does Contador – a rider who until recently was going to retire this winter – have the capacity to bounce back once again?
Contador this week spoke of being "thrilled" at his new opportunity at Trek-Segafredo, a team he described as "very attractive and ambitious". He will be joined by some familiar faces: team-mate, faithful friend and long-term lieutenant Jesus Hernandez makes the switch from Tinkoff, as does directeur sportif Steven de Jongh and the now-retired Ivan Basso, who is taking on a consultancy role supporting development riders.
And Contador's principal goal for next season? "The big objective is to try and win the most important races on the calendar – first and foremost the Tour de France."
The yellow jersey, however, seems a ship that has well and truly sailed for the Spaniard – who will turn 34 before next year's race starts in Germany. The last rider to don the maillot jaune in Paris aged 34 was Australia's Cadel Evans who, in 2011, himself became the oldest post-War Tour winner (oldest, in fact, since Firmin Lambot in 1922).
Does Contador have the capacity to make history? In a word, no.
With Contador focusing on the Giro the year Evans won, the Australian only really had Andy Schleck to contend with: in a year where time trialling would prove key.
For Contador to win the Tour again he needs an unlikely turn of events to align themselves: he needs not only Froome but also Nairo Quintana – the newly crowned Vuelta a Espana champion – to crash out or be off the boil. He also needs all the new kids on the block – the Bardets, the Dumoulins, the Pinots, the Arus, the Yateses – plus the likes of Nibali, Richie Porte, even Alejandro Valverde, he needs all of these figures to be off the boil.
Chris Froome, Fabio Aru, Alberto Contador, Nairo QuintanaAFP
Still, that hasn't perturbed some fans. A recent poll on Twitter shows (at the time of writing) quite an even distribution of votes with 31 per cent of around 600 people believing Contador has another Tour win in his legs – against 39% voting against. The remaining 30 per cent believe Contador will stand atop the podium again – just not in the Tour.
Looking across the border into Italy or Spain may indeed offer Contador's biggest chance of turning things around.
After all, who can you last recall winning the Tour in his first year for a new team? It just doesn't happen – and even if Trek are building up an impressive roster of riders, it will take some time to gel. And the fact that the management has only given the Spaniard a one-year deal suggests they're not exactly envisioning to carry out this rebuilt solely around Contador, either.
The 100th edition of the Giro next year would of course be a sensible target for a rider who – let's not forget – has never failed to win a Giro he has entered. Sure, he boasted such a record in Spain as well – and look at what happened there earlier this month – but provided both Froome and Quintana steer clear of the Giro, then entering wouldn't be such a bad idea.
And yet it won't happen. Contador wants another crack at the Tour. That's what motivates him. And you can hardly blame him: it's the race where he made his name, the biggest race of the year, and one he was once tipped to win at least five times.
What we can expect once again for Contador in what is likely to be his final year is a stab at both the Tour and the Vuelta. And this time he, his new team, and his fans will be hoping that there'll be no repeat of the early crashes that ended/jeopardised his Tour and Vuelta campaigns this year.
While Contador seems to have lost some of the explosive climbing ability that we associate with him, he did still have his moments in the Vuelta – not least on that splendid stage to Formigal where he put Froome to the sword with an alliance with Quintana.
Who's to say how better he may have fared had he not suffered those crashes? And yet the fact that these incidents are happening suggest that Contador's bike handling, positioning, confidence and general race savoir faire may not be what it once was. Add that to his advancing years, the turbulence of joining a new team, and the steadying improvement of his rivals, and Contador faces a humongous challenge.
Unfortunately for the Spaniard, there's nothing suggesting that he will throw out the rule and record book and win the Tour – or, for that matter, that he can come out on top in the Vuelta having previously buried himself (or crashed out) in July.
And yet he's still fit, healthy and in shape. Chris Horner won the Vuelta when he was almost seven years older than Contador is now.
So, can Contador do it? Of course he could. It's just not likely. It depends on too many people suffering the kind of falls that have beset his progress this year, or suffering the kind of allergies that neutered Quintana last July.
Contador won't win the Tour again. His time is over. You no longer win the Tour with romantic, opportune attacks – you do it through numbers and having a strong, familiar unit around you. The Spaniard won't have any of that and will never be a slave to his powermeter.
As long as both Froome and Quintana keep adding the Vuelta onto their season programme – and nothing seems to suggest they're thinking otherwise, despite the misleading talk of Froome throwing his hat into the Giro ring – a victory in his native Spain looks unlikely too.
Meanwhile, entering the Giro in 2017 would essentially amount to waving the white flag before he's even got started at Trek. So that's a no-go as well. Still, winless it may be, but the 2017 season will still, no doubt, be lit up by El Pistolero. He wouldn't have it any other way.