Cycling: Contador quits Astana to replace rival Schleck

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The Independent Online

Cycling's No 1 racer Alberto Contador confirmed yesterday he will switch teams next year to Bjarne Riis's Saxo Bank squad, the same outfit which – headed by Andy Schleck – made the Spaniard's recent Tour de France victory by far the toughest of the three he has won so far.

The move would seem bizarre were it not that Schleck, twice second in the Tour, and brother Frank, have already announced they are moving on this winter to form a new squad based out of their native Luxembourg, run by Riis's former PR manager, Brian Nygaard.

Riis announced yesterday that along with Contador's two-year signing, he has also secured a renewal of Saxo Bank's sponsorship through 2011 and a second title sponsor, Sungard.

Financial details of Contador's signing were not revealed, although the 27-year-old recently rejected a rumoured €5m (£4.1m) annual deal with his current Astana squad in order to sign with Riis.

Contador said that his move arose because Riis's squad offers a stable environment in which to improve, and that he is "impatient to start a new adventure with a team and sponsors who have placed their trust in me".

Cliched though the statements may sound, Contador's desire for a bit of normality is understandable. Racing for Astana has been anything but straightforward.

The addition of Lance Armstrong to the Astana line-up in 2009 made for a Tour riven with internal rivalries last year and even after Armstrong quit last December, Contador and the new management failed to gel.

In a frenetic merry-go-round of transfers, Contador may well be replaced at Astana by the rider who finished third in the last Tour, Denis Menchov of Russia.

However, the Saxo Bank management are more than satisfied with having clinched both renewed sponsorship and cycling's top rider in one fell swoop.

"There's no hard feelings towards the Schlecks, they're building a team out of their home country so it was logical they were going to go for it," Saxo Bank sports director Bradley McGee told The Independent.

"At the same time, Bjarne has responded very well to the challenge of finding a new leader."

McGee also argued that Contador will gain considerably by racing with a team that knows his top rival, Andy Schleck, the best.

"Not only that, we've got a lot of experience of trying to beat Contador and that's going to be very useful when it comes to improving his chances in the future."

Meanwhile British Tour contender Bradley Wiggins has announced that he will be making a return to track racing next year as part of his build-up for the Olympics, with his 2012 aim a second gold medal in the team pursuit.