It is a sign of Alberto Contador’s stature within the sport that despite winning the Giro d’Italia this season, the year closed with a slight tinge of disappointment for the Spaniard after he missed out on victory in the Tour de France.
After all, this was the campaign in which the multiple Grand Tour winner was transfixed with the aim of winning the Giro-Tour double, a feat that had not been achieved since the late Marco Pantani in 1998, and one that no other rider of Contador’s generation has dared to even contemplate. As it stands, Contador plans on making 2016 his final season in the professional ranks, with the Tour de France firmly in his crosshairs. Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru, watch out.
We find Contador, of all places, in Porec, a small idyllic sea-front resort in Croatia where Tinkoff-Saxo are gathering for an end of season debrief. It’s gone eight o’clock in the evening and Contador, having just concluded a press conference, is sat in a quiet corner of a hotel bar, his relaxed demeanour a stark contrast to the ferocious competitiveness he has become famed for on the bike.
“I’m happy because I won a very beautiful, and very hard race,” Contador opens with, pointing to the Giro d’Italia that he won back in May.
“It’s a race that only a few cyclists in the world have won but of course the objective was the Giro and Tour.”
Fast forward to July and Contador was more of a sputtering spent force than an all-out contender. He suffered when Froome accelerated on the Mur de Huy in the first week and then capitulated once more on stage 10 – the first proper summit finish of the race. The podium remained a realistic and admirable possibility but the brutal Giro, along with a crash in the Alps, saw Contador slip to fifth by the time the race reached Paris – coincidently the same position he finished in back in 2011, when he last rode the Giro and Tour.
“I was tired in the Tour and couldn’t be at the right level," he says. "During that race it wasn’t a question of my head being in the right place, I was mentally 100 per cent but it was a really hard race. Astana were very aggressive at the Giro and then maybe between the Giro and Tour, when I raced again, maybe I could have done that differently but overall I’m happy.”
Memories fade and Froome’s Tour demolition and Dumoulin’s Vuelta a Espana downfall are fresher to recount but this Giro d’Italia was arguably one of the most memorable editions of the race in recent years. Contador’s performance oozed tactical nous as much as it did prowess in the saddle – features that were demonstrated perfectly on the stage to Aprica. That day, Contador found himself on the back foot, with Astana’a blitzkrieg approach threatening to turn the race on its head and eliminate the Spaniard from the GC picture.
At the foot of the fabled Mortirolo, Contador began an ascent that would easily fit within his back catalogue of hits, just between Fuente De and Verbier. He scythed through a splintered peloton, before joining the elite group of GC rivals in double time. Before the summit had been crested he had dropped Fabio Aru – his principal adversary – and although the stage win went to another Astana rider, Contador had gone some way to cementing his grip on the race.
“For me, this, together with the Gardeccia stage in the 2011 Giro, was maybe the two hardest stages of my entire life," says Contador. "When I finished the Mortirolo stage I went to the press conference and didn’t feel too bad. Then when I was heading back to the hotel I started to vomit and I was like that for two hours. I’d put my body on the limit, right on the limit, for a very long time.
“The Giro had some good moments. People remember the Mortirolo but there was also the time trial, which went very well for me."
To the Tour and the battle with Froome
Contador’s willingness to seek out the limits of athletic capability will be put to the ultimate test next season at the Tour, where, all being well, he will line-up as one of Chris Froome’s main competitors for the maillot jaune. The pair are the only former Tour winners still competing in the WorldTour and have two titles each to their names. However, while Froome has won two Tours in the last three seasons, Contador has not reached Paris in yellow since 2009, although he still believes himself the rightful winner of the 2010 edition, stripped from him when he received a ban for a positive test for clenbuterol.
This July, Froome and Contador were at contrasting levels. Froome had prepared meticulously for the Tour and peaked accordingly, while Contador’s engine had been revved to the max in May before a slight re-tune in June at the Route du Sud. Nairo Quintana, another contender for July next season, emerged as Froome’s main rival and finished second overall.
“I think Froome is the most difficult rider I’ve faced,” Contador replies when asked if the Team Sky leader is the toughest opponent he has ever faced in Grand Tour competition.
“In terms of talent I think that Andy [Schleck] was ahead. He was class. Remember, he was in Saxo before I came here so I know a bit about his training, so I know that he was super, super class. He wasn’t stronger than me in the time trials and that’s really the problem with Froome, especially now in the flat time trials. If it’s an uphill or hard time trial then I don’t have too much of a problem but when it’s flat like the one we had in Mont-Saint-Michel in 2013 and you look at his average of 55kph, I can’t do that with my weight. If the speed is down at 49-50 then I have a chance.”
The lack of a flat out-and-out time trial in next year’s Tour should enhance Contador’s confidence but usurping Froome’s crown could be the biggest challenge of Contador’s career. The Spaniard may be the best stage racer of his generation, but in the last three years, despite success at the Giro and Vuelta, that label has been harder to pin on one man.
And Tour success doesn’t come down to just beating Froome. Contador will have to deal with Sky’s rich armoury of super-domestiques.
“It’s not just Froome and they’re a very strong team,” Contador says, before listing out the back-up Team Sky’s leader will have in the mountains.
“Look, in the final every rider has pain in their legs and in 2014 I trained so much because I realised from 2013 that I needed to reach another level. Froome put that pressure on me and I gained the right level and I’m sure that in the Tour in 2014, before my crash, I was in the form of my life but the sport is the sport and these things happen.
“But you look at Team Sky and they can have two teams, two incredible teams, for the Tour. I can only believe in my team and I think I’ve a really good squad around me that has a lot of experience, more than Team Sky, which is really important in the big tours.”
A future after professional cycling
Assuming Contador’s season goes to plan he will hang up his wheels at the end of 2016 and retire from professional cycling. He has dismissed the thought of returning as a director sportif but with cycling such an engrained part of his life it is hard to see him distancing himself from the sport entirely.
His Specialized-Alberto Contador Foundation is based in Spain and helps young and aspiring riders develop their skills. For a nation that has seen races cut, teams fold and is suffering from a lack of up-and-coming replacements to carry the cause once riders such as Contador retire, it’s an important marker within Spanish cycling.
“I’ve given my life to cycling and after I retire I’ll concentrate more on the foundation, which is a really good project,” he tells Cyclingnews.
“We don’t yet have a new generation coming through and that’s part of why we set up the foundation. We’ve put a lot into it and it means so much to me. I’ve looked at what’s in the U23 and juniors and if we don’t work together in Spain then it’s going to take a long time before we see Spanish riders coming through and being successful.
“You look at France and Holland and they’re producing more young pros. That’s not happening in Spain. If I’m a young Spanish rider there’s not enough riders at the same level so we’ve put a big part of the foundation budget into travel so that Spanish riders can travel to Europe, otherwise they’re not competing at the highest level. Look at me, Froome put on me the pressure to improve my level and it’s the same for the younger riders in Spain. They can win races at home but then they go to the Worlds and they don’t finish. So we take our riders to France, Belgium, all over the place so they have the experience.”
The foundation recruits from all over the country and invites riders to trial with them. The numbers of applicants are whittled down before a final selection, based on a variety of criteria, is made. Contador, who is no stranger to a strained team dynamic – see 2009 at Astana – pinpoints rider cohesion as one of the most important aspects when it comes to selecting riders.
“We have a camp in September for riders of around 15. We analyse these riders and we take around 40 riders who we think can be good juniors. Then we take them to a camp and we interview them and give them activities. We also talk to their parents as well as looking at their results. We try to look at everything, from on the bike talent to education. We also want riders who bring something to the atmosphere. If you can win a lot of races that doesn’t mean you’re in – we look at everything. Then our U23 team only takes riders from our junior team.”
For now, and for one more year at least, the Foundation will burn in the background as Contador has one final tilt at the Tour – a last chance for the rider to cement his place within the history books and win his final Tour de France. It is not a matter of legacy for Contador, however. The trophy collections can be looked over nostalgically at a later date. This is all about the Tour, one final challenge, and the perfect way to bow out.
“I’ve not thought about it [legacy]. I don’t believe in doing that right now. For me it’s important to remain focused and to work hard. Of course year-by-year, month-by-month, I’m getting closer to the end of my career and next year could be my last but I don’t believe in looking back, yet. Maybe when I’m finished with cycling I can get all my trophies together that are around the house and put them all together. Maybe, but I don’t believe in doing that now.”