Paris: Tour de France champion Alberto Contador believes the three-week Giro d`Italia which begins this Saturday could provide the biggest test yet of his status as cycling`s most talented stage racer.
Contador returns to the Giro for the first time since 2008, the year he was forced to skip the Tour de France and went on to secure victory in both the Giro and the Tour of Spain.
In recent years the Giro has grown in stature, winning as many plaudits as complaints for its heady mix of flat and climbing stages, some of which have taken place on roads more suitable to four by fours than 10,000-euro bikes.
While Contador awaits a decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which could lead to a lengthy doping ban following his positive test last year for clenbuterol, he is focusing on what he believes is his toughest Grand Tour challenge yet.
"In terms of the route, I`m sure (it`s the toughest)," said Contador in a statement released by his SaxoBank team Wednesday.
This time, he got the chance to reconnoiter some of the key climbs -- a different approach to 2008, when he was called into Astana`s team at the last minute.
"There are some pretty big ones (climbs). In 2008, I knew absolutely nothing about the Giro. This year, on the other hand, I know the riders that are going, I know the route, and I`ve been able to do tailor-made preparations for the Giro.”
"I think the route is much harder this year than the one I rode in 2008, although it`s true what some riders say, that the 2008 route was really hard, too. But I still think this one is more difficult."
The three key climbing stages are stages nine, 14 and 20.
The peloton will tackle Mount Etna in Sicily twice on stage nine, while the formidable Zoncolan -- which has an average gradient of 11.9 percent and some sections at a lung-busting 22 percent -- is the highlight on stage 14.
Stage 20 is a whopping 242 km long and includes the climb -- on unasphalted roads and around 48 bends -- to the summit of Finestre, with the race finish in Sestriere.
Contador is not forgetting the race`s three time trials. The Giro starts with a team time trial in Turin, stage 16 is a 12.7 km climb and stage 21 is a 32.8 km race against the clock on flatter roads.
"They`ll be important, because any seconds you can gain will be crucial," added Contador.
"The team time trial though won`t have the same significance that it has had on other occasions, like in the 2009 Tour (de France), when it left its mark on the general classification.”
"Here, it will serve to create some differences, but it won`t be decisive at the end of the Giro.”
"The mountain TT (time trial) has some very tough stretches, and the last ITT (individual time trial) is tough because everybody`s legs will be shattered towards the end of the race, and that might tip the balance in the case of two riders being really close in the GC (overall standings)."
Contador has won the Tour de France in 2007, 2009 and 2010 but is awaiting CAS`s ruling, set to come in June, following appeals by the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) against a Spanish federation decision to clear him of all wrongdoing following his positive test.