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News Feature, July 28, 2007
Discovery believes in mentally tough Contador
Before and after stage 18, Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé talked with Discovery Channel team managers Dirk Demol and Johan Bruyneel, who have guided their team to the enviable position of defending first and third places in the general classification with only one definitive time trial left before the final parade into Paris.
All the pressure on the Discovery Channel team has ended up on the shoulders of young Spaniard Alberto Contador, who's currently leading the general classification. Contador will face off against Predictor Lotto's Cadel Evans, now in second place, in Saturday's final Tour de France time trial. Directeur sportif Dirk Demol reminded us that the yellow jersey does strange things with the riders who wear it.
When asked if he felt a one-two finish was possible for the American team given that Levi Leipheimer is within just a minute Evans, Discovery team manager Johan Bruyneel said, "Evans will also try to ride the time trial of his life, so it will be very difficult for Leipheimer to get past him; if we can keep the yellow jersey, then we'll be happy," the Belgian director said.
Adjusting to yellow
"Contador found it hard to be suddenly offered that yellow jersey; we were at peace with [being in] second place," Demol reflected on how the team was suddenly in the yellow jersey after the departure of Michael Rassmussen (Rabobank) from the Tour late Wednesday. "He's young, and before the Tour, we didn't know how he would react during the third week. We noticed that he was near the limit in the mountains although the motivation of a yellow jersey can help a lot, of course. We believe we can do it," Demol said.
Bruyneel said it isn't easy to predict the result of the time trial because there wasn't much data to compare the two riders. "Evans is more of a time trialist specialist than Contador, so that's a disadvantage for us, but I don't think the difference can be so big as to lose the yellow jersey. Anyway you never know, if Evans has a super day, and Alberto an off day, than it's all possible; otherwise it should be no problem," Bruyneel claimed.
"I did study the data and found out that Evans performs best in the tough time trials. The reference I have right now on a flat course is the [prologue] time trial in London where Contador took a second on Evans. If we take that as a reference, it looks good for us," Bruyneel smiled.
There's also another time trial where Evans took a few minutes on Contador and that was in the French Dauphiné Libéré HC stage race. "His [Alberto's] time trial in the Dauphiné wasn't good. Alberto had a bad day back then, but he wasn't too well there anyway. He started with a bad prologue, but he was good in the mountains. Now it's different as he starts the time trial with a killer spirit to keep the yellow jersey," Bruyneel said.
The Belgian added that there was another motivation for the young Spanish rider. "Lance Armstrong will be next to me in the team car behind Alberto," Bruyneel said to Cyclingnews. The team is preparing for the time trial in detail. They will drive the course on Friday evening and again on Saturday morning.
Whatever the result will be in Paris, it will be much better than the team's performance in 2006, when they earned only a stage win for Yaroslav Popovych. "It was a year where we came with less expectations than usually, but still high enough with hopes for the podium for Leipheimer, a stage win, and the white jersey for Contador. Now we're in this unexpected position, and now we're at the eve of the battle for the war we are trying to win--the Tour," Bruyneel said, showing the spirit needed to win a war.
Getting to the time trial
In the morning before stage 18, Demol expressed that everybody would have to survive the transitional stage before it would be possible to talk about the time trial. The Belgian was surprisingly onto something. Evans barely avoided a crash with three kilometres to go, while Contador suffered in the bunch sprint.
"We wanted to get through this stage  without problems, and that worked out well," Demol said, although at the time of his remarks, he probably didn't know that Contador and Leipheimer had lost three seconds on Evans. "A group broke away early, which was good for us, and with [Michael] Boogerd [(Rasmussen)] at 27 minutes in the GC, we knew teams would start riding to defend their top-10 position. That's a tactical game."
"We know that the win isn't landed yet, but I'd prefer to be 1'53" [now 1'50"] ahead instead of behind," said Demol. "We are taking Evans in [to] consideration but we believe in Alberto. He's in a class of his own, and those guys tend to perform better under pressure. We hope he can resist Evans in the time trial. That's what we're focusing on from now on." Demol looked forward to Saturday's 55km time trial from Cognac to Angoulême.
"Stress? Of course, the Tour de France is at stake," Demol couldn't hide his case of yellow fever. "It's unexpected, but this has been building up, and when you get something unexpected, it's twice as nice."
Staying fresh under pressure
The Spanish youngster seems to be more tired than his Australian rival, and Friday's transition stage showed that again, Evans managed to finish 10th in the bunch sprint while Contador couldn't close a gap that was created. That's where Contador (and Leipheimer) lost three seconds on Evans.
"They're both [Contador and Evans] exhausted, that's clear. It doesn't mean that because Contador showed signs of fatigue that Evans isn't tired; after three weeks, everybody is feeling the pain," Demol said. "It's all about the mental strength now and how you can keep upright. Good riders are usually mentally stronger." Demol said it was important to stay cool.
Wearing yellow, Contador has attracted a lot of media attention, and his team has been trying to protect him. Demol said to Cyclingnews, "We try to keep him calm, and we do that by keeping him away from everybody. Before the race, we keep him in the bus as long as possible and after the race, we try to get him in his hotel room as soon as possible."
Nevertheless, the media attention could be getting to the 24 year-old, especially since not all the attention has been positive. The current wearer of the yellow jersey was briefly linked with the Fuentes case. Contadour has explained the rumoured connection simply, "I was at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Annoyed by the negative media attention, Demol said, "When he had to go to the press room after yesterday's stage, the first question was if he was clean. That's not nice. It's annoying, but he can handle it. He's a very realistic guy from a big family, and he's mentally very strong. I did Paris-Nice with him, and the way he captured that win was phenomenal. When he came there, he said that if the team was strong enough, he could do it. He kept attacking until he had the win in his hands which means he was mentally strong," finished Demol.
"Alberto has nothing to lose and now he has the yellow jersey, he wants to do all he can to keep it," Bruyneel said.