The 2013 Tour may be nine months away, but the pressure that Bradley Wiggins will face as defending champion next July ratcheted up several notches here in Spain yesterday as stage star Alberto Contador all but sealed a big win in the Tour of Spain.
Banned for two years for doping, with his suspension completed on 5 August, there was speculation whether Contador would be able to repeat the kind of performances that have seen him take two Tours de France, a Giro d'Italia and a Tour of Spain in 2008. But in fact Contador, poised to take his second Tour of Spain today, seems in even better shape than before.
The strategy used by Contador to claim a victory that reconfirms his status as cycling's top stage racer was as impressive as the final result. On Wednesday, with rival Joaquim Rodriguez still 28 seconds ahead of him overall, following a succession of futile mountain attacks, Contador opted for a classic, long-distance ambush worthy of all-time stars like Eddy Merckx or Bernard Hinault at the height of their powers.
The attack paid off in spades, as Rodríguez Katusha team crumbled and Contador blasted away 50km from the line in the company of two Saxo Bank-Tinkoff team-mates. Then 20km from the summit finish of Fuente Dé, the Madrileño headed away alone to claim a spectacular solo mountain-top victory, the overall lead and to ensure his Grand Tour credentials were fully re-established.
With the overall victory all but in the bag, on yesterday's last summit finish just outside Madrid at the Bola del Mundo, Contador limited himself to controlling his rivals. When Rodriguez attacked 2km from the finish line, Contador refused to rise to the bait, knowing he had the final victory wrapped up.
"The race is won, I didn't have any complicated moments, I knew that Rodriguez would attack, but it was too late to make any difference," Contador said afterwards. Today I enjoyed myself, it's a very special moment, to come back [from the ban] and win is something very important."
The final chapter of Contador's return to the pinnacle of his sport came just a stone's throw from the Navacerrada summit finish, where in the 1998 Tour of Spain Lance Armstrong finished fourth on the stage and ultimately fourth overall. That performance spurred the Texan to vie for the Tour de France title, a decision which has led to the revelations of mass doping this week by the American's former team-mate Tyler Hamilton.
Yet if the credibility of the sport once again comes under question thanks to the Armstrong scandals, in Spain cycling is experiencing a boom in popularity. On the Fuente Dé stage where Contador took the lead, TV viewing figures rose to more than two million, their highest for the Tour of Spain since 2003.
To judge by this year's Tour of Spain, the duel next year between Contador and Wiggins – due to return to racing today in the Tour of Britain with Sky team-mate Mark Cavendish – should be on a par with some of the sport's most legendary rivalries. And not just in the Tour de France. Prior to the Tour, Wiggins only took part in races where he was certain of being in a position to fight for the victory, and the Sky rider racked up wins in races as prestigious as Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Criterium Du Dauphine.
In doing so Wiggins was imitating a strategy already employed by Contador, famous for only turning up to races where he was sure of going for the win. Next year, therefore, whenever the two cross swords no matter how small the event, the chances of a high-quality battle between the Briton and Contador are high.
In the 2009 Tour, the one year that Wiggins and Contador have been direct rivals in cycling's blue riband race, the Spaniard finished first and Wiggins, in what was a breakthrough result, claimed fourth.
Since then the Briton has taken his country's first Tour de France at the head of a team, Sky, whose domination verged on the monotonous. Next year, however, wherever a Contador versus Wiggins face-off crops up – with Chris Froome, second in the Tour, another rival – sparks should certainly fly.