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Alberto Contador: Hero or villain?

James Witts
14 Mar 2016

Also known as 'El Pistolero', Alberto Contador divides opinions but no one can dispute he is among the great Grand Tour winners

Hero or villain? Which one is Alberto Contador? This thought runs through my mind as I await one of the Spaniard’s rare appearances in the UK. He’s certainly one of the greatest Grand Tour riders in history, but his record is haunted by suspicion thanks to Operación Puerto in 2006 and the clenbuterol affair in 2010. 

Grey thoughts match the grey weather outside the swish grey offices of SaxoBank, the former joint sponsor of Contador’s team, which has morphed from Tinkoff-Saxo last year to Tinkoff Sport this year (and will morph into something new once more in 2017 if team owner Oleg Tinkov makes good on his promise to leave the sport at the end of 2016). When Contador arrives he is wearing, appropriately enough, a smart grey suit, and he attracts admiring glances as he passes through the Canary Wharf office in London. His tan and golden-boy smile light up a miserable winter’s day.

Alberto Contador

‘Good morning,’ says Tinkoff press officer and Contador’s foot solider Jacinto Vidarte. ‘Where shall we start?’ I consider for a moment. ‘Let’s start with the double,’ I say. 

Chasing Pantani

The 2015 WorldTour’s main narrative centred on Contador’s bid to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same season. The seeds, Contador explains to me, were sown after winning the 2014 Vuelta, despite breaking his leg at the Tour de France less than six weeks before. ‘That was the first moment I started to think about the double,’ he says. ‘I thought if I could win the Vuelta with such a disrupted preparation, maybe I could do the double.’

The Spanish call such a challenge mayusculas – something bigger than life, something beyond ordinary. Of course, it still wasn’t quite grandiose enough for the shrinking violet that is Russian millionaire Oleg Tinkov. At the end of 2014 he said, ‘If Quintana, Froome, Nibali and Contador all agree to ride all three Grand Tours, I’ll get Tinkoff Bank to put up €1 million. They can have €250,000 each as an extra incentive. It’s good that Alberto is going for the Giro-Tour double but the best riders should race against each other all the time.’

Contador seemed content enough with his reported €4 million salary to leave Tinkoff’s offer on the table and focus on just the two Grand Tours. Things started well for him when he won the Giro by 1 minute 53 seconds over Astana’s Fabio Aru, but the race clearly took its toll, and Contador hadn’t recovered sufficiently by July to mount a strong challenge at the 2015 Tour de France, where he eventually finished fifth, almost 10 minutes behind Chris Froome. 

Alberto Contador

‘In hindsight, maybe I’d have raced a different programme,’ says Contador, reflecting on the year past. ‘If you have the right parcours [route characteristics] at the Giro and the Tour, I still think it’s possible to do the double, but I wouldn’t do it again. I sacrificed everything in 2015 and after the Tour I felt physically and mentally drained. It took a while to rediscover the motivation. I started by cycling lightly, stopping as and when I wished. It also gave me time to catch up with sponsor meetings… and now I’m training seriously again and looking forward to the 2016 season.’

Retirement… definitely maybe

It’s hardly revelatory to say that Contador will never go for the double again, after the Spaniard hinted in February 2015 that he’d retire at the end of 2016 before making the news official in Milan last September. Still, as Contador says, he wasn’t in a good place after the Tour - his motivation was low, every pedal stroke seemed a chore. But here in London after a long rest, Contador cuts an altogether more positive figure. Was he a touch hasty in signing off his career when he was at such a low ebb?

‘It’s still possible that I’ll race beyond 2016,’ he reveals. ‘But I don’t want to think about that at the moment as I’m totally focused on 2016. My main objectives are the Tour de France and the Olympics, but we’ll see what happens after that. There is a possibility…’

Contador is only 33 years old. For an endurance athlete, that’s hardly pensionable age. Just look at Chris Horner. The American won the 2013 Vuelta at the ripe old age of 41 years and 314 days, so there’s plenty of time for the Spaniard yet. Whether this proves to be Contador’s final year probably depends on how he fares at the Tour and at the Olympics, so how does he feel about his chances?

‘At the Tour the two time-trials stand out and are probably the ones that make the difference from the 2015 parcours,’ he says. ‘The mountain stages are also evenly spread out from start to finish and you’ll have to manage your forces very well in order not to reach the final stages worn out. Is it a Tour for climbers? Yes it is, although last year’s Tour was even more so since it didn’t have so many time-trials.’

Alberto Contador

Contador is renowned for his climbing prowess – out of the saddle, hips rocking from side to side – but the time-trial is also a discipline in which he can take on the world’s best. Last year’s Tour de France was virtually devoid of individual time-trials, and when Froome and Contador went head-to-head at the previous year’s Vuelta a Espana it was the Spaniard who proved the stronger in the 36.7km time-trial, beating Froome by 53 seconds.  

If Contador can TT his way to Tour victory, he’ll line up at the Olympics in Brazil for his own double. The 256.4km road race features 5,184m of vertical ascent and 8km of cobbles. The mix of short, sharp ascents and stretches of cobbles have bookmakers leaning toward punchy riders such as Alejandro Valverde, Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski. The bookies currently have Contador at 50/1 for the win, but despite those long odds, Contador is confident he can challenge in Rio.

‘I haven’t been to Rio yet to recce the course but I know many riders who have,’ says Contador, alluding to teammate Peter Sagan’s Rio reconnaissance after his season opener at January’s Tour de San Luis. ‘I know the profile of the parcours and I like it. We’ll be there for a week or so before the race so will have time to prepare properly.’

A natural talent

Meticulous preparation has been key to Contador’s successes since discovering cycling at the age of 14. Alberto Contador Velasco was born on 6th December 1982 in Pinto, Madrid, the third of four children. He has an older brother and sister, and a younger brother who has cerebral palsy. The young Alberto played football and competed in athletics but was introduced to cycling by his elder brother Francisco Javier.

A year later he began to race at amateur level, joining the Real Velo Club. He soon received the nickname Pantani for his remarkable climbing skills, which he used to secure numerous victories in 2000. In 2001 he showed the versatility that would make him a GC contender, winning the under-23 National Time-Trial Championships. In 2003 he signed his first professional contract with ONCE-Eroski, winning the eighth stage of the Tour of Poland. But just around the corner in 2004 was an episode that nearly derailed his cycling career before it had truly begun.

Alberto Contador

‘It was my second year as a professional. It was the year that the team wanted to go to the Tour with me as lead rider. I was preparing for France by racing the Vuelta a Asturia [a stage race in southern Spain]. Before the race, I’d started to experience severe headaches and didn’t know why. Still, I was obsessed with racing my first Tour so continued to train hard. The first stage of Asturia went OK but I really didn’t feel well the next day. In fact I don’t remember anything about it.’

Contador had to ask his teammates what happened next. Apparently, around 40km into the second stage, Contador lost position in the pack, blacked out and began convulsing. 

‘I was rushed to a hospital in Madrid where the doctors discovered a blood clot of the brain. But the doctors weren’t sure whether it was caused by the crash or I’d had it before.’ The doctors sent Contador back to his nearby parental home in Pinto. ‘Around 10 days after, my parents discovered me convulsing again. We went back for more tests.’

That’s where the medics diagnosed Contador with cerebral cavernoma, a congenital vascular abnormality. The doctors told him it would be a risky operation but, without it, his career would be over. The operation went well, although Contador still bears a scar that runs from ear to ear over the crown of his head. 

By November 2004, Contador was training again and just six months after surgery he won the queen stage of the 2005 Tour Down Under. ‘Everyone thinks winning the Giro, Tour or Vuelta would be my proudest victory but it was that stage win in Australia. There was a lot of emotion around it.’

For an already highly motivated individual, Contador got his scarred head down and set about finishing the job that he was looking to begin in 2004 – namely winning the Tour. 

Racing for Discovery Channel in 2007, he won a stage at the mountaintop finish of Plateau de Beille to leave him second in the Tour GC to Michael Rasmussen. Rasmussen then won Stage 16 to all but sew up victory, only for his team, Rabobank, to remove him from the race that evening after discovering Rasmussen wasn’t where he’d said he’d been before the Tour. The Dane eventually admitted doping for almost his entire career. Contador assumed the overall lead and cemented victory after a monumental effort on Stage 19’s time-trial.

Cloud of Fuentes

Contador won again two years later, in between winning the 2008 Giro and Vuelta double. He was establishing himself as one of the great Grand Tour riders, but his critics argued that he shouldn’t have even lined up for that first Tour victory in 2007.

Alberto Contador

It was all down to Operación Puerto, one of the highest-profile doping cases in the history of sport but worth recapping. In 2006, the manager of Contador’s then-team Liberty Seguros was arrested outside a Madrid clinic while carrying a ‘significant amount of cash’. It proved the catalyst for a series of events that implicated Dr Eufemiano Fuentes as a major player in helping sportsmen dope. 

Liberty Seguros and Contador were refused entry to the 2006 Tour de France and soon nine high-profile names were included on a list associated with Dr Fuentes. They included Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde and Contador himself. While Basso and Valverde subsequently received two-year bans, the UCI and a Spanish court cleared Contador of any wrongdoing.

Then there was the contaminated steak affair. In 2010 Contador won the Tour de France for the third time, beating Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck by just 39 seconds. But at the second rest day in Pau, Contador tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol. He denied taking the banned drug, blaming it on a contaminated piece of steak. (Clenbuterol is a hormone used in some countries to make cattle meat less fatty but is banned in Europe and is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list.) Despite Contador being initially cleared by the Spanish cycling federation, the Court of Arbitration for Sport eventually confirmed a two-year ban, backdated so that he was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France win and 2011 Giro d’Italia title.

Contador is often accused of being selective when reflecting on past controversies – even more so when there’s a translator involved, as there is now – but speaking about the clenbuterol affair he recently told The Guardian, ‘For me, in that moment, I cannot believe it. I never thought this could happen to me. My parents taught me to do things in a clean and honest way. I was so frustrated [but] I don’t want to speak more about that now – it’s in the past.’

Whatever the truth, Contador now has seven Grand Tour victories to his name, though he would argue he has nine. What’s not disputed is Contador’s desire to add a further Tour title and Olympic gold medal to his palmarès, which would, he acknowledges, be a fitting way to end a 13-year career during which he had to adapt to the increasing demands of racing. 

‘Professional cycling has changed a lot since I started,’ he says. ‘It’s more professional now and much more scientific. Everything is measured and competition between riders is even more intense. There has always been pressure but it’s bigger now, especially as the strength in depth in the peloton is growing. It’s made me improve, too. I remember before the 2009 Tour I did a test session that told me I was at my peak. The test I did is similar to what I now do on a normal day.’ 

Whatever your opinion of El Pistolero, you can’t argue with the positive work undertaken by his foundation to promote cycling, and the fact that, if he stays fit and strong, he could well be Froome’s major rival at this year’s Tour de France. Victory might not silence the naysayers but, for Contador, he’s simply grateful for a career that he thought he’d lost 12 years ago.

Fundacion Alberto Contador is a non-profit organisation that promotes the health benefits of cycling and raises awareness to help prevent strokes.

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