For the last six months, after almost every race he has taken part in, Chris Froome's status as Tour de France favourite has grown stronger and stronger. But, despite the euphoria at Team Sky following Sir Bradley Wiggins' breakthrough Tour victory for Britain last year and Froome's dominance since, there is one, as yet, unachieved goal. And it remains unachieved.
Sky have yet to beat Alberto Contador – widely held as the greatest stage racer of his generation but absent from last summer's event – in a Grand Tour. And according to Froome at least, Contador is his top rival for the Tour, which begins on Saturday. So, if a fair percentage of British fans are hoping that the 2013 Tour will be a replay of the 2012 edition, albeit with a different leader for Sky – Froome for Wiggins – there is little doubt who the protagonist most likely to scupper that dream scenario is.
"Hey, I've no desire to be 'the bad guy' in this year's Tour," Contador tells The Independent with a crackle of laughter, "but I do want to be one of the people who make it an interesting, spectacular race. Compared to the last time I did the Tour  I'm starting it feeling more rested, very, very motivated, with the route checked out much more thoroughly and with a team that is way stronger."
Other people might take Sky's superiority at the Tour de France for granted after 2012 but Contador warns: "Not me. I've no intention of being a conformist in this race. Not in the slightest."
Contador's defiant words and insistence that he will not just accept Sky's dominance this July are spoken with the quiet confidence of cycling's most experienced Grand Tour winner. But Contador's past makes it easier to cast him into that role of "baddie" than he might like – and not just because of his colourful nickname: el pistolero de Pinto, the "pistolshooter of Pinto", the Madrid dormitory town where he was born. In 2012, Contador could not compete in the Tour because of a two-year suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, clenbuterol.
On his return to racing, though, Contador continued where he had left off. In the 2012 Tour of Spain, a devastating, surprise attack on what should have been a quiet stage netted him his fifth Grand Tour title.
Being an unpredictable racer is something he relishes. "I could have lost everything in that race," he says, "I risked it all with one big attack. I learnt there that sometimes you've got to rip up the script and act on instinct. It's never all about calculation."
But even though he beat Froome among others in the Tour of Spain nine months ago, Contador says he still views the British rider as the "most dangerous contender for the 2013 Tour. He's going to be the one to beat," he says. "He's had an incredible season, he's won nearly every race he's taken part in and he's got an amazingly strong team.
"The route, too, suits him better than in 2012, as it does everybody who's looking for an open, unpredictable race. Last year there was so much time trialling the race became shut down. This year that's not the case."
Prior to this season, the 30-year-old Spaniard would be far and away the Tour favourite. Instead, in every encounter with Froome in 2013 he has come off worse. Probably the low point came in the Critérium du Dauphiné, where Contador notched up one of his worst time trial results since he turned pro in 2003 – 61st, nearly three minutes down on the Briton. Froome, meanwhile, won overall.
The Saxo-Tinkoff leader says he's not too worried. "I would split my season into two parts," Contador says, "in the first part, aiming for my first peak of form, things didn't really work out as I wanted, although it's also true that I planned things out differently to other years, and with a much stronger team I was no longer under such pressure to win.
"I then started to build things up at the Critérium du Dauphiné and I was actually happy with how it went. I got stronger and stronger as the race went on and I'm now, form-wise, where I want to be."
In 2008 Contador was on holiday when he received a phone call telling him he was a late entrant in the Giro d'Italia, which was due to start 10 days later. He would go on to win it thanks to a very strong third and final week. Is he again building towards being in top shape in that last part of the Tour, which features four hard days of Alpine racing?
"You can lose the Tour on any given day," he says, "that we know – and the first week is also very dangerous, very tense. But the possibilities of winning are concentrated in that last week, particularly in that [stage 17] time trial."
The Spaniard denies he will have any sensation of revenge this summer after what he views as an unjust doping ban, which led to him being stripped of one of his three Tour titles and unable to take part in the race in 2012. "My only feeling is that I'm coming back to the biggest race in the world, a challenge you dream of winning and which I've been working very hard to do. I've spent so much time paying attention to the slightest detail, absolutely everything to make sure I'm there at 100 per cent."
It is not, though, that he views the Tour as the be-all and end-all of his year. "I think that there are other cards in the pack, but at the Tour I'm not going to be thinking I've won or not won 10 races beforehand or afterwards. I'm going to be thinking about winning it."
Having had such a poor season, he recognises that Froome will be favourite but it does not bother him: "The 'favourite' label is just a media game," he says. "If not being the reference point gives me more freedom of movement, then so much the better."
As regards Sky's leadership question for the Tour surrounding Froome and Wiggins – only resolved when Sky announced the latter was not taking part – Contador believes that far from weakening Froome's focus, it will have the opposite effect. "If my experiences with Lance Armstrong [his team-mate but rival in the 2009 Tour, which Contador won] are anything to go by, it'll have given him extra motivation," he says. "Had Wiggins been there, he'd have been a surefire candidate for the Tour victory. But, to be honest, if Froome had pulled out, say, it would have affected things for me more, because the 2013 route suits him better."
And Froome is not the only Sky rider who could benefit from the number of mountain stages, Contador says. "They'll have to look at Richie Porte and see where he is after the first [stage 11] time trial. He's got an incredible level both in the time trials and the mountains, and why shouldn't he go for the overall victory?" Could that mean there is a potential power struggle at Team Sky after all?
"I'm sure they have their leadership issues sorted out in favour of Froome, given how well he's raced this year" Contador says. "But I have no doubt that, if Porte was in any other team, he'd be 100 per cent a leader. We can't afford to let [Porte] out of our sights in the mountains, we know that he is strong and the two time trials are very much suited to him and we will have to see how fresh both of these contenders really are."
According to Contador, then, Sky with Porte and Froome could prove as hard to beat as they were with Froome and Wiggins last year and their domination could be as stifling for the race as it was in last year's Tour. However, "the pistolshooter of Pinto" it seems, will blast away in order to reduce any tedium. And Contador adds one last warning shot.
"Cycling is not all about mathematics," he says. "You have to see what your rivals are doing. Fortunately, we're not machines and circumstances inside a race can change so fast. This sport isn't one that you can control as easily as others. This Tour, in particular, could continue to be wide-open right up until the final mountain top finish at Annecy on the second last day."
And if the Spaniard has anything to do with it, the 2013 race will have a very different outcome to the 2012 Tour, as well.
El Pistolero: The highs and lows
July 2006 Barred from Tour de France over allegations of doping. But was cleared of wrongdoing.
July 2007 Wins his first Tour, with Discovery Channel.
Sept 2008 Wins Vuelta a España after clinching Giro d'Italia, both with Astana, becoming one of just five riders to have won all three Grand Tours of road cycling.
July 2009 Wins his second Tour title, with Astana.
July 2010 Wins his third Tour.
May 2011 Wins Giro d'Italia.
Feb 2012 Is banned for two years for doping, and is stripped of the 2010 Tour title and 2011 Giro.
Sept 2012 Wins his second Vuelta a España title in his first Grand Tour race back from his ban.
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