Alberto Contador: Pyrenees hold key to Tour de France

Defending champion reconnoitres four mountain stages

Reigning Tour de France champion Alberto Contador said he has been given a clearer idea of how to defend his crown after reconnoitring four key mountain stages in this year's race.

Astana rider Contador will start this year's race on July 3 as the overriding favourite after he dominated in the mountains last year, also winning the penultimate stage time trial around Lake Annecy.

The bulk of the climbing on this year's race will be in the Pyrenees, with the legendary Tourmalet ascension being performed twice inside three days.

Ahead of his participation in the week-long Dauphine Libéré race on Saturday, Contador emerged feeling confident after spending four days with several teammates in the mountain range which borders France and Spain.

"These four days in the Pyrenees have been hard, because we've seen the stages that will decide the Tour," Contador said in a statement released by his Astana team. "All (four stages) offer a lot of possibilities. The first one (stage 14) has the final at Ax 3 Domaines summit after a demanding climb, the Palhieres.

"The next day we will have other very hard climb at the end, Bales, with the finish line after 20 kilometres of descent. On the third day there's legendary climbs like the Tourmalet and L'Aubisque, where a lot of people will crack despite the race still being far from over.

"And the final day (in the Pyrenees) is the main course, with the finish on the summit of Tourmalet, the last chance of victory for the climbers. By then, overall victory should become a lot clearer."

Among Contador's big rivals will be last year's runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, who rides for the Saxo Bank team with his older brother Frank.

According to the team statement, Contador meet both brothers Monday on the summit of the Tourmalet. He had come from the direction of the Col d'Aspin, while they came from the other direction, from the Soulor.

Contador is now set to have a look at the race's alpine stages, of which there are only two - on stages eight and nine - on this year's race. But he already knows that the Pyrenees will have the final say in the destination of this year's yellow jersey.

"The Pyrenees will decide and, of course, this tour will be harder than last year's," said the Spaniard, who also won both the Tour of Italy and Tour of Spain in 2008.

So far, Contador says his pre-race plans are running smoothly.

"I'm preparing just as I wanted," said the 27-year-old. "I had a long break of 10 days after the (one-day) classics and after that it was hard to start again, but everything is going as planned.

"I'll be racing the Dauphine without any pressure, looking to perfect my set-up," he said.

© AFP 2010

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