Alberto Contador made his return to racing after his clenbuterol doping ban at the Eneco Tour last week in preperation for the 2012 Vuelta which starts today in Pamplona.

On cobbles and Dutch clinkers that don’t play to his physique or strength, Contador was impressive.

Saxo Bank Tinkoff team manager Bjarne Riis reckoned that the flat, fast Belgian-Dutch stage race was good preparation for the 2012 Vuelta.

“It was not an ideal race for him,” admitted Riis, “but I wanted him to participate here because I actually think it was the perfect race for him to race before the Vuelta.

“He’s been working hard, of course and he’s at a good level, but after six months without racing, it wouldn’t be good if your first race back was in your national Tour, with so much pressure and attention.

“There were dangers, of course, in the Eneco Tour, with the narrow roads and cobbles, but he came through it well […] and the speed he got is something he couldn’t have got at the Tour de l’Ain, which was another option for us.”

Both Riis and Contador left the Eneco Tour reassured that the 29 year old Spaniard would play a leading role in the 2012 Vuelta.

Speaking to Riis, you got the very clear impression that he expects his rider to finish on the podium, even if he was unwilling to say so, wary of adding more pressure on Contador.

In any case, the Riis-Contador partnership looks like it has been strengthened following Contador’s commitment to Riis’ team for another three years.

Additionally, the arrival of Russian entrepreneur (with interests in everything from banking to publishing and beer brewing) Oleg Tinkoff as co-sponsor to the Danish Saxo Bank backer looks like it will propel Riis and his squad back into the big league.

We asked Riis how the deal – announced just before the Tour – came about and what implications it had for his team.

When did the first contact with Oleg Tinkoff take place?

“Actually he called me a few years ago and we met but it didn’t really work out back then. Then we met just before the Tour this year and it all happened pretty fast.

“He’s a real cycling enthusiast. He has aspirations for the team but he is coming back into cycling quite slowly I think when he left cycling a few years ago he was a bit disappointed but he definitely wants to work with me, so slowly he’s come in.

“He’s a great guy, a real character and he can be a big part of cycling. He’s going to be great to work with. He’s got a lot of charisma, he’s larger than life but not in a fake way.

“Of course journalists like him because he’s always got a quote, he’s very open, he’s very…expansive, but behind that he’s got a lot of ideas and I’m sure his heart is in the right place with cycling.”

Does it significantly change the plans you had for the team?

Yes, it definitely helps, it gives me motivation to believe that we can have the best team in the world, the strongest team in the world. Not next year, but over the coming years I think it’s possible. I can’t guarantee it of course, but that’s my plan.

You can’t hope to achieve that without a big budget these days, can you?

Yes, it’s all about budget. You need to have the ability to assemble a good team of riders then you need to be able to motivate them.

Given Team Sky’s success and budget, do you see that set-up as a model?

“Well you know I think I had a good model, a good idea of what a team should be like for many years now, maybe I kind of lost it for a few years.But that was down to pure budgetary matters, that’s just how it is now.

“I think they [Sky] took my model to the next level which I was not able to do because you need a lot of money to do that. Now I hope I can come back with a roster of riders.

“Sky have done a great job in a very short space of time, no doubt about that. Maybe they are not so strong in the Classics but nobody really notices that because of the successes they have elsewhere. In the first place though we will strengthen the team for the Grand Tours, Alberto is the main man in the team, so of course you have to build it to help him – then we’ll look to the Classics.”

So, with financial backing from Tinkoff, if Contador comes back to something like his old form at the Vuelta, maybe Sky will have a rival squad in next year’s Tour?

However, if Contador flops in the Vuelta, will Riis’ plan fall to pieces? Thus, the focus and interest in the 2012 Vuelta isn’t just about the race, but about the implications of Contador’s performance on Riis’ plans for the years ahead.

  • Jon

    By the same line of reasoning, I suppose cocaine and heroin are supplements to pep you up after a long day at the office? Has anyone had a cardiac arrest in their sleep from using a gel? It sounds like you want to see a pro peleton of chemically enhanced supermen flogging themselves up mountains for your entertainment. I think you’re swimming against the tide on that one.

  • Mr Hanky

    Frank! You crack me up. It’s not just about your entertainment – this is athletic competition at the highest level. And they aren’t making superhuman efforts, it’s just what you’re used to and what you’ve built up to through training. You honestly think it’s all about doping, not training. Gels are just glucose, fructose and carbs and maybe some caffeine and electrolytes. These are found in normal foods and the point of a gel is just to replenish your body with the stuff it needs, when it needs it most.

    Have you ever ridden a bike anyway or is it strictly an internet thing? You can’t believe how far or how hard they ride, therefore they must all be cheating, therefore cheating’s okay. Give me a break. Do you think the same is true of all athletes? The guys who can run so far and so fast must be doping because I can’t do it – so all runners are doping. I bet the swimmers are all at it too. All those dope tests are pointless because they are all doing it, they are just magically not getting caught. Maybe it’s a conspiracy?

    Anyway it’s stage 5 now and nobody’s reading this old article so please carry on with your incoherent babbling on your own. Cycling has moved on – why don’t you?

  • Mike

    I have been involved in cycling and endurance sport for over 30 years Frank, I dont need a history or physiology lesson, thanks.

    By chemicaly enhanced I mean the ongoing advantage an athlete gets from a former doping program. It is also up to the individual how much stress they are prepared to put there body and mind through. No one forced them to become pro cyclists.
    Also, now that doping is probably less prevalent in cycling, we seem to see rather less of the ” too good to be true” performances during stages. Giving weight to the theory that if something looks too good to be true, It usualy is. Notice how Contador cant sustain his attacks beyond about 30 seconds now? I wonder why?
    Wiggins a dull racer? Ha Ha, that would be right. Yellow jersey, he should care.

  • Frank Green

    chemically enhanced? No gels etc. These cyclists are inhuman in their efforts and you or i cannot imagine the damage done to their bodies. These drugs are supplements to aid recovery and performance, im speaking very honestly here. Anybody who thinks that the stress and fatigue on the human body that world tour cyclists receive is good for you- think again- it aint. Robert Millar talked about it, its not good for your health. We all take drug medication to heal us, they are simply taking it to preserve that level of perfomance after fatigue has taken place. I just like contadors style of racing, i dont know the fella. Wiggins seems a nice bloke, but a dull racer.

  • Mike

    With you again Jon.
    I dont have hero’s, there are athletes I admire and Contador and Valverde are not in that list. They doped and claimed huge contracts because of there cheating. The sooner the rest of the cycling world bring in “Sporting fraud” like the French do, to deter cheats, the better.
    How can the sight of two cheats using there chemicaly enhanced form to “light up” the race, be of benefit to anyone?
    It is because of the shoulder shrugging of people like Frank that cycling still has a doping problem. The cheats, and I use that word advisedly, can walk back into a pro team and just pick up where they left off.

    The point needs making that they would undoubtedly still be cheating if they had not been caught.

  • Jon

    Frankly, Frank, I don’t hold anyone as a hero; I’m a bit too old for it. I don’t revile them either though – that was the way it was back then. My issue is with people who want to perpetuate a culture of doping in the sport. It’s totally unacceptable.

  • Frank Green

    Valverde and contador sickening? You’re having a laugh- they lit up the race, after a torrid tdf that was controlled and ridden at tempo, it was great to see the 3 spaniards racing and and peppering the incline with attacks. Sky couldnt control it and froome had to fight on his own. Jon do you hold Tom Simpson, roche, kelly etc as heros? I accept Contadors suspension and look to the future.

  • BG

    So agree with the comments re Contador. Watching him & Valverde today was sickening. Until this sport & others such as athletics give these people the bans they deserve we will get nowhere. Ten years minimum.
    As the head of testing for the Olympic movement recently commented, athletes who have taken drugs can benefit for up to 8 years afterwards, so that’s some level playing for all the clean ones out there.

    Contador got a pathetic slap on the wrist & personally I can’t stand the sight of him or the rest of his ilk.

  • Mike

    With you all the way Jon.
    Contador plainly cheated, yet he got away with a six month ban. What sort of mesage is that to send to potential dopers???

  • Jon

    Frank, don’t presume to patronise me based on some incorrect assumptions on my opinion of Tom Simpson and Sean Yates. I am looking to the future of the sport not the past and don’t like to see up and coming riders put under pressure to screw themselves up on EPO etc. because others are getting away with it, especially the likes of Contador who should be a role model. If he’s so talented why does he feel the need to cheat?

  • Phil Riley

    Cycling Weekly, You say you review all comments before they appear so how did that drivel from Jon, hoping a rider is seriously injured, manage to make it onto the site.

  • frank green

    Jon get over yourself and dont be silly. I bet you put Tom Simpson on a pedestal like all patriotic brits, Sean Yates has been in the mire of armstrong and bruneel for years, so dont get high and mighty.

  • Jon

    Finding it difficult to stomach Contador after just 6 months out of pro racing. His pathetic attempt to evade justice with lies and legal shenannigans put a cloud over the sport for over a year. I will be watching in the hope that he crashes with an injury that takes 18 months to recover from.

  • Frank Anguige (Outhouse Sports Books)

    So looking forward to the Vuelta, now Contador is back. His battle with Chris Froome should be great to watch.