By JAMEY KEATEN
PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica — Two-time champion Alberto Contador predicts an action-packed Tour de France in his comeback year, insisting he’s motivated to defeat Chris Froome even while playing down talk of a two-man race.
The Spaniard returns to cycling’s greatest race this weekend after missing last year and being stripped of his 2010 Tour title for doping. Contador, who hasn’t shown signs of his one-time domination since then, said on Thursday he’s right where he wants to be in pre-Tour preparations.
Cycling experts are expecting a two-man race between Contador and Froome, who excel in mountain climbs that feature heavily in this 100th Tour. Saxo Bank team leader Contador noted the strong performance this year by the Kenyan-born Briton, who won four of the five races he started.
“I would have no motivation to be here if I thought I couldn’t beat him,” Contador said in Porto Vecchio, Corsica, where the three-week race starts on Saturday, marking its debut on the French Mediterranean island. Contador also sought to downplay talk of a two-man race.
“This year won’t just be the story of two riders; we’ll have more actors in this film,” he said.
He added, his key tactics will largely take shape after the second individual time trial on July 17 — before of the Alps.
“Depending on the overall (standings), the tactic will be more aggressive or more conservative,” he said. “But in any case, this year will see more action that in past years.”
Bradley Wiggins of Britain, the 2012 winner and a Team Sky teammate of Froome, is sitting out this year due to injury.
Contador said 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans “will always be there” in the title hunt — though some say the Australian’s hopes for a second victory might be diminished because of his age: 36.
Andy Schleck, who inherited Contador’s 2010 title, said this year’s mountainous course would have suited him under normal circumstances. But he’s coming off a rough year, and said: “I don’t consider myself as a favorite to win this year’s edition of the Tour de France — maybe you can say ‘an outsider.’”
The Luxembourg rider missed last year’s Tour because of a lower back injury, and his older brother Frank tested positive for a diuretic in that race — leading to a doping ban that will keep him out this year.
Contador pointed to his relatively strong team this year at Saxo Bank, including Czech rider Roman Kreuzinger, a two-time top-10 finisher at the Tour, and Australian veteran Michael Rogers, a former world time trial champion and winner of the 2010 Tour of California — and a recent transfer from Team Sky.
One question looming over Saxo Bank was the presence of its well-known team boss Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour champion. Riis wasn’t at Contador’s news conference, and wasn’t expected to arrive on the Tour for a few days, Contador said.
“For me, it’s not very important because we have many directors on the team,” Contador said. “It’s not important when Bjarne arrives. He will at some point.”
This is the first Tour since Lance Armstrong was stripped of his record seven victories for doping, which he finally admitted to after years of denials following a detailed report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Asked about the potential fallout from the Armstrong revelations on fans this year, Contador said: “This is the most important race in the world … I think its magic will always be there.”
The race spends three days on Corsica’s winding, hilly roads then sets off on a counterclockwise run through mainland France along the Mediterranean, into the Pyrenees mountains, then up to Brittany and the fabled Mont-Saint-Michel island citadel before a slashing jaunt southeastward toward the Alps before the Paris finish on July 21.