Bradley Wiggins vs Contador – a contest to relish next summer
Or will Chris Froome be the Brit to beat when Spanish cyclist returns to the Tour de France?
TENS of thousands of cycling fans turned out in Ipswich on Sunday to cheer Bradley Wiggins as the Tour of Britain got underway. Chants of 'Wiggo, Wiggo' rang out as the man with the slickest sideburns in cycling made his first appearance on a bike since winning gold in last month's Olympic time trial.
Wiggins clearly enjoyed his reception, and although he finished down the field at the end of the opening stage, he can expect more adulation in the days to follow before the eight-stage Tour ends in Guildford on 16 September.
But a little bit of Wiggins's mind will have been on events 1,000 miles south where Alberto Contador announced his return to competitive cycling by winning the Vuelta a Espana title, otherwise known as the Tour of Spain.
The 29-year-old Spaniard, who rides for the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team, was so far ahead of second place Alejandro Valverde that he could afford a comfortable day on the Tour's final stage between Cercedilla and Madrid.
Contador claimed his first Vuelta crown in 2008, a year after he had won his inaugural Tour de France title. Another Tour de France victory followed in 2009 and again in 2010 but it was during that race that Contador is alleged to have taken the banned substance clenbuterol.
He's always proclaimed his innocence, not unlike a certain Lance Armstrong, saying it wasn't drugs but a piece of contaminated steak that he had for his supper which was to blame for his positive test.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport didn't go for that, however, and after lengthy legal arguments they banned him in February 2012 from all racing until August 5. In addition Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title and the 2011 Giro d'Italia.
A month after the ban ended Contador is on the winner's podium once more and he's delighted to be back in the saddle. "This victory is maybe the most beautiful of all my wins," he said. "I am really happy, almost liberated with regard to the pressure that I put on myself.”
Far from turning people off cycling in Spain, the return of Contador – a national treasure at the time of the positive test – has captivated a country in which many believe him to be beyond reproach. More than two million Spaniards watched the final stages of the Tour of Spain, the highest viewing figures for the race since 2003.
And while some in cycling may regard the reappearance of Contador as the last thing the sport needs in the wake of the Lance Armstrong affair, organisers of the Tour de France will relish the prospect of the Spaniard battling Bradley Wiggins in next year's race.
'Wiggo' became the first Briton to claim the most prestigious prize in cycling this year, although he was given such a comfortable ride by his Sky team-mates that it was a Tour short of nail-biting drama.
But Wiggins versus Contador is a duel to set pulses racing. The only time the pair have clashed before in the Tour de France was in 2009 when Contador came first and Wiggins finished fourth, a result that convinced the Englishman he had what it took to one day claim cycling's blue riband race.
Contador, however, believes his biggest challenge in next year's Tour de France is likely to come from Chris Froome, the 27-year-old Briton who finished second to Wiggins in this year's Tour. Froome is a stronger climber than his compatriot and there were times as they ascended the mountains of France that he was visibly frustrated at having to obey Sky team instructions and wait for Wiggins.
Next year Froome won't be under such instructions and Contador believes Froome riding for himself rather than his team presents a formidable challenge. "He is a great rider," said the Spaniard. "If he is on the Tour next year and that it is probable I will be as well, I will have to beat him."
Wiggins might have something to say about that, but for the time being Britain's greatest ever cyclist is enjoying the sights and sounds of his homeland. ·