Immediately on his return from a ban for doping Alberto Contador delivered a searing win in the Vuelta a España thanks to a devastating ambush. El Pistolero is back with a vengeance… Or is he? As Procycling discovers, Contador envies the lower pressure on those less successful, has wanted to quit the sport altogether and, despite winning it twice, refuses to put the Tour de France on a pedestal. He may not even race it next year. Yet ambition still burns brightly for the Madrileño: “If I go to a race, my only intention is to win it,” is how he puts it. But where, exactly, will that ambition take him now?
When we ask Alberto Contador if he has ever thought of quitting cycling, he answers without a moment’s hesitation.
“Yes, without a doubt,” he replies, “because there are moments when you see what you’ve given to cycling and you have serious issues about whether cycling has given you the same back.
“There are years when you spend 220 days away from home and you are giving away a big part of your personal life, the youngest years of your life, for cycling.
“It’s also true that cycling gives you some sorts of satisfactions that few people can experience and you have to make the most of that. But on many occasions, yes, I have thought about giving up racing. What helps me [not do that] is that cycling is part of my life, not my life. It helps me because when you want to disconnect from cycling, you do, and when you want to race, you’re able to do so 200 per cent.”
For a rider who has dominated grand tours since 2007 and who has been at the pinnacle of his profession for five years, freely admitting he has wanted to pack it all in on numerous occasions sounds more than bizarre. But is it really so strange for a rider with the roller coaster career of Alberto Contador?
It’s a fair bet that Contador’s answer to the same question would not have been so emphatic before 2010. Yet his positive result for the banned substance clenbuterol and the subsequent interminable to-ing and fro-ing over a two-year ban that was finally enforced had an inevitable effect – in an interview with Procycling in June 2011, Contador voiced similar thoughts about walking away rather than contesting his case. Regardless of whether you believe Contador to be guilty or innocent, the one point everybody seems to agree on is that the case dragged on for so long that it ended up causing a great deal of collateral damage to the sport’s image. It can hardly have benefited the rider, either.
The complexity of both side’s arguments and the time provided by its drawn-out nature helped further divide the sport’s fans – not to mention the media, anti-doping experts and participants in cycling forums worldwide. For or against Contador, there was so much time for everybody to express their opinions that the debate became as endless (and tedious) as the case.
For some, the principal of absolute responsibility in anti-doping law means that a two-year ban had to be issued to Contador: a positive is a positive and that is the penalty for a first-time offence. Yet it’s equally true that the quantity of clenbuterol in Alberto Contador’s sample was 40 times below the minimum required to be reported by an anti-doping lab and WADA themselves said that a contaminated food supplement was the most probable cause. Small wonder some still view the case as, at best, a walnut being smashed with a sledgehammer and, at worse, as victimisation.
The 18 months it took for a definitive decision to be made on the Contador case meant that the rider lived through a period of prolonged stress that would arguably cause any sane individual to question whether it was worth carrying on.
But Contador stuck with cycling and in September, if there were any doubts, post-ban, that he wanted to remain the world’s best stage racer, his performance in the Vuelta removed them. Anyone who saw how he attacked en route to Fuente Dé to wrench the lead from Joaquim Rodríguez, the hunger with which he ate up the 20 kilometres between himself and the finish, knows it would be very unwise to say that Contador is less ambitious than he was pre-ban.
It can hardly have damaged his morale, either. The outcome of that ambush – hailed by many Spanish journalists as the greatest day of the greatest Vuelta ever – captured him his fifth grand tour title since 2007, even discounting the Giro 2011 and Tour 2010 which were lost to his doping charge. And at 29, he’s only now in his prime.
So what’s changed, if anything, between the Alberto Contador that racked up grand tour after grand tour prior to 2010 and the Contador who gambled everything on one all-out attack in the Vuelta, burst into tears when he crossed the line and later called it one of his most important wins?
In some ways, very little. He still lives in his hometown of Pinto near Madrid and still meets Procycling in the same modern-looking concrete cube of a hotel on the outskirts of the town where he has always done interviews and where he also announced the positive for clenbuterol. Although preferring to give the interview in a conference room to avoid autograph hunters, and despite a sore throat, he’s happy to talk at length.
There is one big change though. Previously, while never keen to look for the media limelight, he didn’t shun it either. However, this interview is a very rare event. Contador hasn’t talked one-to-one to the press for months and two days later, when USADA’s Reasoned Decision about Lance Armstrong is published, he quickly goes back into hibernation and makes no comment.
Maybe that’s initially what’s most noticeable in the interview: what Contador doesn’t talk about. Gone, as he sips coffee and honey to ease that throat infection, are the days of talking about winning all three major tours in one year. When questioned, he rejects any talk of a switch, Miguel Indurain-style, to the track for a bid at the Hour Record. As for the Classics, Contador says he has come to the conclusion that, “they are a lottery for me”, although he adds that he has a huge appreciation of their history and affection for them. For proof of this, recall that in April 2010 he drove more than 1,500 kilometres across Spain and France to race La Flèche Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège when a cloud of volcanic ash made air travel impossible. “Contador doing that was the greatest thing about Ardennes Week,” said Bernard Hinault at the time.
The Tour de France
Perhaps the biggest development since Contador last took part in the Tour de France has nothing to do with him – the emergence of Team Sky as the dominant force in July, not to mention at Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné. Even worse for El Pistolero, his favoured tactic of shooting off on the climbs at the slightest provocation could become a series of misfires thanks to Sky’s counter-strategy of suffocating mountain attacks with a relentlessly high, steady pace from their climbing experts. This tactic, in fact, is specifically designed to ensure that moves by rivals take them so far into the red that they are inevitably doomed to fail. On this point, though, Contador begs to differ.
“We’ll have to see the route but I think the Tour next year will be completely different,” he states [ed. full route and Contador's reaction] bluntly when asked about Sky’s tactics. Yet he also then changes the subject as if to suggest that he does not anticipate a problem with the British squad in that area. While he explains at length that he has nothing but admiration for Sky and their tactics with Wiggins at the Tour – “they do everything well” – Contador nonetheless believes that it’s Froome who could pose the greater threat in 2013. On top of that, Contador argues that what he calls a “standard route” (ie one with more mountain stages than in 2012) would benefit the Spaniard – and, by implication, hinder Wiggins.
“For a Tour route to favour me, it’s got to be a normal route. Last year was different, not that good for the race, where there was a lot of time trialling and that was where the differences [on GC] were all established.
“It reminded me of my first Tour victory back in 2007, when there was 115km of time trialling.” That’s compared to just over 100km in 2012.
“But the difference was that in 2007 there were enough mountain stages to create a balance: Plateau de Beille, Peyresourde, Aubisque. You could attack the time triallists, whereas this year I don’t think the route of the Tour has been the most suitable in all senses: visually, in terms of spectacle and in terms of the race itself because there was nowhere to attack.
“There were really hard stages, lots of climbing, days that people don’t appreciate as being hard unless you were riding a bike in the race. But at the end of the day, if there is no final climb, it’s much harder to create those differences.
“The Vuelta was the complete opposite, though I think having 10 summit finishes as the Vuelta did was over the top. But in that sense, I believe far more in summit finishes than in stages that finish 20 kilometres after a climb.”
Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez (left) lock horns at the Vuelta. Roberto Bettini
So does that mean he rules Wiggins out in 2013? “No way,” he says, looking almost shocked at the suggestion. “Of course not. Wiggins is the most recent winner and he deserves absolutely all my respect. He’s going to be a clear candidate for the overall win. We’ll have to see what the route is like but when a rider wins a Tour, it’s not exactly by chance.”
For all Contador seems to see himself and Wiggins as different, curiously, their racing styles have far more similarities than might first have been thought. Over the years, Contador honed his programme to the point where he would, pre-Tour, only race when he would have a very good chance of winning. This season, Wiggins pursued an identical strategy.
“It’s a philosophy I adopted since my first year as a professional, I’ve always worked that way,” Contador says. “I don’t regard a race from any other point of view than winning it.
“It makes racing far tougher because at races, everybody is following you and every move you do, to see if you attack or don’t attack. It’s much more complicated.”
Much as Wiggins does, Contador sees his ability to fight for the win in every race as a result of “the hard work I do outside racing. I don’t know how much time I spend away from home but I do know I spend more than double that of riders who race a lot more than me – training, checking out stages. Over 200 days a year. You have to sacrifice a heck of a lot but I don’t see racing from any other point of view than fighting for the win.”
Does that go for the Tour in 2013? “We’ll have to see the route but I think that if you race there aiming to win, either you’ll win or make the podium. But if you start out aiming for the podium, you’ll make the top 10. And if you are aiming for the top 10, you’ll make the top 40.
“To start out with, you have to – at the bare minimum – be thinking about fighting for the win. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t, but you have to think about that and visualise it.”
He grins when reminded that, on the second rest day of the 2012 Vuelta, when Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez seemed unassailable in the mountains and Contador was apparently forced to settle for second, a Madrid newspaper carried out a survey of some two dozen Spanish cycling experts. Just two of the 24 journalists, ex-riders and TV commentators said they believed Contador had even the slightest chance of winning the Vuelta. Yet he turned the tables.
“I remember in the press conference on the second day I was asked who I would bet on for winning, and I said ‘me’. You have to believe in yourself. But I remember that newspaper article, too! It was a very complicated Vuelta. If I hadn’t believed victory was possible, there’s no way that I would have done it and when I attacked on that stage, it was double or quits. I risked them crushing me.
“Alejandro Valverde [finally second overall] was closing the gap on me constantly. He had two team-mates, he could have caught me with two team-mates at 10 kilometers from the finish, or Joaquim, and I would have been finished. Instead of taking second…” hardly a poor result for a rider returning to racing so recently, “…I would have done much worse. But I knew I had a few days to try and win the Vuelta and this was one of them.”
Contador says he had thought of attacking on the last climb but he had already started the process of wearing down Katusha with devastating effect on the first uncategorised ascent of four, telling his team-mates who had made it into an early break to work on the front. Then on the second, the Collado de Ozalba, attacks by a number of other overall contenders further upped the pressure on Rodríguez’s squad.
“I started thinking – shall I attack or shan’t I? – and then just as I reached the last part of the descent of that climb, I looked up and saw the breakaway group ahead of me on the next climb [Collada La Hoz], which started immediately afterwards, and I radioed through to the guys in that group – ‘Go all out. Full gas. Full gas.’
“They didn’t have a clue what was happening but they followed my orders and when we had started climbing, after 300 or 400 metres, I attacked. I didn’t think about it, I just said to myself, ‘Okay, let’s take this as far as we can.’
“I caught the group ahead and it went well. It was a pity I lost [team-mates] Bruno Pires and Jesus Hernández, because there was still a long way to go, but they dropped back a kilometre from the top. They were only 13 or 14 seconds back but we had to go flat out so more people couldn’t get across.”
Alberto Contdaor (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) went out on the attack and was rewarded with a stage win. Roberto Bettini
Did he surprise himself at how deep he was willing to go that day? “Not really but there were points where I had no idea if I could keep up the same pace all the way to the finish. It was a long ‘time trial’ and from the first point that I got across to the break, I was working on the front, first with [team-mate Sérgio] Paulinho then with Paolo Tiralongo [Astana] and finally alone.”
A relentless, long, shallow climb to the finish, Contador says, “It was complicated terrain, where if you’re sitting on somebody’s wheel, it isn't hard, but if you’re alone you use up a heck of a lot of energy. By the end, I was seriously worried whether I could make it to the finish.” It was a stunning victory and, after a Tour in which all-out mountain attacks were notable for their absence, one of the high points of the 2012 season. It also confirmed his old aggressive spirit, his fondness for ripping up the script, remains intact. “I won the race out of refusing to conform,” Contador said at the time.
But those thinking Contador must be hellbent on some kind of revenge on the sport or on the Tour de France would be mistaken. Although he concedes to Procycling he will most likely be racing the Tour in 2013, it only comes after highlighting the virtues of the Giro and the Vuelta. In fact, what is notable is the length of time it takes him to get round to the idea of racing it.
“Right now, I haven’t talked with the team and we want to see the routes of each of the three,” he says, “but the Giro has a route which suits me a lot. On paper I’m not ruling out any of the three. With the Giro and the Vuelta being so far apart, that’s the easiest option to shoulder and I did it in 2008.”
When asked if it means he no longer finds the Tour as attractive, he dodges the question. “What I do is enjoy my time on the bike. Of course the Tour is the most important race in the world but the Giro and Vuelta are very attractive too. It will depend on the team. If I had to say, though, which was the most probable race I’ll do next year, it would be the Tour.”
This kind of take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the biggest bike race on the planet seems surprising but if Contador has learned one thing in recent years, and especially from his doping scandal, he says it's a sense of perspective.
“I have one thing clear in my mind,” he tells Procycling, “above all after the [life-threatening] accident I had in 2004 and the number of experiences I've had afterwards, including that of 2010, [that] is to enjoy life, on and off the bike.
“Like in the Tour of Lombardy. It was raining from kilometre two of the race to kilometre 250, the descents were dangerous as a result and you ask yourself, 'What am I doing here?' But on the other hand, you’re doing what you like, you’re there because you want to be and you have to enjoy every moment of it.”
His ability to disconnect seems vital to the way he handles the sport. He never takes his laptop to races and says, “My first question when I reach a hotel isn’t ‘Is there wi-fi?’ It’s if the mattress in my room is comfortable.” But there are times, he says, where even he cannot escape the pressure.
“Often, during the off-season, when winter comes I think I wouldn’t like to be right at the top of my sport, rather one of the top five or top 10 riders who are the big names, so that when the season’s over, I can relax, go walking, rather than have meetings and stuff to organise that means you can’t disconnect like you’d like to.
“There are times when I look at team-mates who maybe don’t get so much in return in other areas” – financially – “but who enjoy a much calmer life you can’t have. And you do miss that.”
Contador’s attitude to success, then, is far more cautious and objective, you might even say world-weary, than perhaps it used to be. Certainly he’s not one to say, as Tom Simpson put it in his autobiography, that ‘cycling is my life’. But if anyone can derail the Sky train on the slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees next summer, it will surely be someone like Contador – willing to go for ‘double or quits’, as he did in this year’s Vuelta. And the success he experienced there will do nothing to discourage him from trying again in the Tour’s far tougher terrain next summer.
Will he go, though? Because if Contador is back, what exactly El Pistolero will now aim for remains anyone’s guess. The consequences of that decision for the outcome of the grand tours are – as before 2010 – certain to be very significant. Just ask Joaquim Rodríguez.
This feature appeared in the December issue of Procyclinig. To subscribe to the magazine click here.