Vuelta: Froome vs. Contador

Two steal the Spanish spotlight, but don’t sleep on the champ

Christopher Froome made his presence known at this year’s Tour de France, finishing second behind his Team Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins. He finished runner-up at last year’s Spanish Vuelta, too. “Froome could be the main rival to take into account,” Spaniard Alberto Contador said. Enlarge photo

Laurent Rebours/Associated Press file photo

Christopher Froome made his presence known at this year’s Tour de France, finishing second behind his Team Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins. He finished runner-up at last year’s Spanish Vuelta, too. “Froome could be the main rival to take into account,” Spaniard Alberto Contador said.

BARCELONA, Spain

Christopher Froome will be chasing an elusive victory, while Alberto Contador will start the long road back from doping disgrace when the Spanish Vuelta starts today in Pamplona.

Froome finished second in the Tour de France behind Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins. He was runner-up in last year’s Vuelta.

“This race is definitely a great opportunity for me,” Froome said. “I will do my part, and I know the rest of the team is ready. I’d certainly love to win a Grand Tour after finishing second in the last two I’ve done.”

Froome’s main challenger likely is Contador, who will be competing in his first major race since serving a doping ban that cost him his third Tour title.

Contador, who won the Vuelta in 2008, completed the ban this month after testing positive for the banned stimulant clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour. Sidelined for more than a year, he used the seven-day Eneco Tour in Belgium and the Netherlands to warm up for the Vuelta with his Team Saxo Bank.

Contador, who denies he doped and blamed contaminated beef, said he has been affected by the ban and was eager to compete again.

“My spirits are high, and I am up for the race,” he said. “What I have been through during the last months has left its mark, it is impossible to ignore it. I have suffered, but I am now looking to the future. I am motivated and excited for the Vuelta to begin.”

The Vuelta, the third of the classic European summer races after the Tour and Giro d’ Italia, will begin today with a 10.2-mile team time trial through the narrow cobblestone streets of Pamplona and will finish in the city’s bull ring, retracing the route of its famous running of the bulls.

The 67th edition will be based in northern Spain and will take riders through 2,050 miles divided into 21 stages, including two rest days. The race will end Sept. 9 in Madrid.

Five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain, who failed to win the Vuelta in his native Spain, predicted a close race.

“The best names in the world are going to fight for the victory,” he told Spanish sports daily AS, predicting that Froome and Contador will face competition from Alejandro Valverde, Juan Jose Cobo, Joaquim Rodriguez, Igor Anton and Robert Gesink.

Indurain said Contador was “a born winner ... I’m sure he will be eager to win on his return.”

Cobo, who edged Froome to win last year, returns with new Movistar teammate Valverde, while Rodriguez, who finished second at the Giro d’Italia, will be supported by two-time Vuelta winner and Katusha teammate Denis Menchov.

Froome again proved to be one of the best climbers in this summer’s Tour when he had to slow down for Wiggins to keep pace with him on the tougher mountain stages.

“Froome could be the main rival to take into account,” Contador said. “He has a potent team, and he is a very strong rider. In 2011 he came close to winning the Vuelta, and he was the strongest rider in the Tour.”

The Vuelta’s course appears perfect for the mountain skills of the 27-year-old British rider, who finally will be riding to win and with a team to back him.

“It’s definitely going to be a change, a new experience for me. I’m not riding at someone else’s speed,” Froome said. “I’d like to think I’ve learned from the last two Grand Tours I’ve done how to pace myself, how I need to ride to be in optimum position throughout three weeks, not just a couple of days.”

This is the second consecutive year the Vuelta will pass through the Basque Country after a 33-year absence because of political unrest related to Basque separatist group ETA, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna.

Riders will face 13 mountain stages, six of which have summit finishes, including three in a row over stages 14-16. The penultimate stage will finish in a 7,380-foot climb at the Bola del Mundo outside the Spanish capital. The course has one individual time trial, coming in the 11th stage.

“Those (mountain stages) should be decisive, together with the individual time trial,” Contador said.

It’s Contador’s first competition in front of his home fans since the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected his claim that meat caused his positive test in 2010. He subsequently was stripped of his Tour title from that year, leaving him with two victories in cycling’s premier event. The 29-year-old rider remains a popular, if now questioned, sports figure in Spain.

Froome was hesitant to signal out Contador as his main rival.

“I can’t really say. I haven’t ever raced with him,” Froome said. “I’m sure he’s very motivated after his suspension, and obviously in the Vuelta, his home race, it’ll be added motivation for him. We’ll find out during the race.”

Alberto Contador, who won the Vuelta in 2008, completed his ban this month after testing positive for the banned stimulant clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour. The Spanish Vuelta will be his first competition in front of his home fans since the suspension. “I haven’t ever raced with him,” Froome said of Contador. Enlarge photo

Christophe Ena/Associated Press file photo

Alberto Contador, who won the Vuelta in 2008, completed his ban this month after testing positive for the banned stimulant clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour. The Spanish Vuelta will be his first competition in front of his home fans since the suspension. “I haven’t ever raced with him,” Froome said of Contador.