You have to hand it to Alberto Contador: troubled by doping accusations and perhaps just weeks away from a ban for a positive drugs test, far from buckling under the pressure, cycling's top stage racer has announced he will be going for an historic Tour of Italy-Tour de France double victory in the same season – starting today in Turin.
The Spaniard has already taken three Tours de France, a Vuelta a España and a Giro d'Italia, the latter back in 2008. But all those would pale into comparison with a Giro-Tour double in the same season.
Taking the sport's two toughest stage races in the space of three months is a challenge so difficult that only seven riders have succeeded.
Even Lance Armstrong dodged the attempt – and there has been a 13-year gap since the last rider, the late Marco Pantani, succeeded. Since then others, such as Denis Menchov in 2009 and Ivan Basso last year, have failed miserably.
Contador hardly chose the most salubrious of settings for his announcement yesterday: a poorly lit conference room in the dank, decidedly whiffy basement floor of his team hotel outside Turin. But the message from the 27-year-old was stirring enough.
"I want to go for both races in one year because it's going to give me a lot of extra motivation," the Saxo Bank rider said. "It will be difficult, but I want to try. It's a new challenge for me, but in any case the Giro is a race I value. Me being here has nothing to do with the situation regarding the Tour."
The "situation" is probably Contador's delicate way of referring to his positive doping test for a minuscule quantity of the stimulant clenbuterol in last year's Tour.
Despite being cleared by his federation and his protestations of innocence, cycling's governing body, the UCI, has appealed against the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. If suspended – a verdict is expected before the end of June – Contador could face a two-year ban, and be out of the 2011 Tour.
Tackling the Giro, then, is arguably a case of Contador making hay while the sun shines, particularly as the Spaniard admitted "it is not the best preparation for the Tour de France, and especially this year".
This is an under-exaggeration of considerable proportions. Almost all the top contenders, including Contador, say that they have never ridden anything so tough as this year's Giro promises to be.
No less than nine of the stages are more than 200km long and there are eight high mountain stages, compared with five or perhaps six in the Tour de France. Two of the eight have more than 4,500 metres of climbing, which is like going up Ben Nevis three times in one day. If that sounds painful, a third, stage 14, has around 6,000 metres.
Asked for his objectives in this year's course, Scotland's David Millar was succinct: "Not to die! Have you seen the course? It's the hardest ever."
"I won't be the only guy in the back of the bunch in the mountains," sprinter Mark Cavendish put it with his usual sardonic humour, "and I won't be going for the points jersey this year, either."
Although there are five sprint stages – compared with the usual eight or nine in a more "normal" Giro – the HTC-Highroad rider's first objective is the team time trial.
Cavendish's initial aim will be to repeat his 2009 victory in today's [Saturday's] opening team time trial and perhaps make it into the leader's pink jersey again. Then on Sunday, in the race's first bunch sprint at Parma, the Manxman will open fire on his own account.
Key Dates For Contador
Today until Sunday 29 May
Late May / early June
Following the conclusion of written proceedings, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will hold the hearing into the Contador case, with the result expected to be announced by the end of June.
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