‘The result is an imposter’. So said the footballer Xavi Hernandez in an iconic 2011 interview with the Guardian newspaper. The diminutive playmaker, describing himself as a ‘romantic’, was talking about Barcelona’s commitment to their aesthetically pleasing brand of possession-based football, in the season after they’d been knocked out of the Champions League by Jose Mourinho’s rugged and pragmatic Inter Milan side. “Other teams win and they're happy, but it's not the same,” he said. "The identity is lacking.”
Alberto Contador may hail from Madrid rather than Xavi’s Catalonia, but he is cut from very much the same cloth. The way he rides – the constant need to attack, to make things happen, to dare – matters more, he says, than the result or trophy it may or may not yield.
“It’s true there are times people think there’s only one option but it’s possible to look for other possibilities. I’m not giving myself any credit but that’s how it is. There are times when you have to roll the dice,” the Spaniard says in a sit-down interview with Cyclingnews and a couple of Spanish journalists at the Abu Dhabi Tour.
He looks back on three memorable days when he did just that. There was the stage to Alpe d’Huez in 2011 when he blew the race open from inside 20km, then the long-range tactical coup to Fuente De that won him the 2012 Vuelta a Espana, and the famous stage to Formigal stage at last year’s Vuelta, where he ripped the race up in the opening kilometres and Chris Froome’s hopes of winning the race took a terminal blow.
“At Fuente De, I rolled the dice, because they could have caught me five kilometres from the top, passed me, and I’d have lost second place,” says Contador. “The day of Alpe d’Huez, maybe on a normal day I could have won that stage but the effort I made at the start, I paid for that attack and at the end, well, [Pierre] Rolland passed me and he took the stage from me.
“But it’s true, of those three days, only one of them had a reward in the form of a victory, but the other two, although there was no victory, there was certainly a reward in terms of recognition. A reward that, genuinely, I prefer, and that people remember better, and value more – more than having a trophy in the cabinet.
“Obviously it’s professional sport and results matter but this type of thing, genuinely, is more important even than winning.”
There’s no getting away from the suggestion that Contador, now 34, will have to be at his swashbuckling best at this year’s Tour de France to crack Chris Froome in a race that has been dominated with increasing force by Team Sky over the past few years.
“They have 28 or 29 riders from which they could make two teams for the Tour. If they don’t take one they could take another, so they’re always going to have a top team that will be the reference of the Tour,” he says.
In that light, he is asked what he makes of Romain Bardet, the inventive Frenchman who prized last year’s Tour open for a brief moment in the Alps, hoisting himself onto the podium.
“He’s a very bold rider, a rider who is developing year-by-year. Last year used his weapons very well – like he has done many times before, attacking on descents. He’s a rider who goes really well off the front, and he’s a risk taker."
Could he be an ally, at the same time as a rival, in July?
“Well, he’s a bold rider, a rider who ‘moves’, and I have to admit that in certain moments maybe he could be a good option – when the moment comes to try something,” says Contador, though he does insist the priority is be in peak physical condition himself, and at least have the legs before he can think of pulling any stunts.
A new dawn at Trek-Segafredo
Contador seemed in a relaxed mood all week in Abu Dhabi, though this is February and he was a late addition to the startlist, with little personal ambition beyond building form and helping teammate Bauke Mollema.
Nevertheless, his happiness at his new team, Trek-Segafredo, seems genuine.
“It might sound trite but the truth is that it couldn’t be better,” said Contador, pointing to the “extraordinary” response to the opening stage chaos, in which he and Mollema both crashed with 5km to go before the whole team quickly organised and pulled off a chase back to the bunch.
“It’s incredible that we are in February and it seems like we’ve been teammates for years. We have a truly great relationship between the riders – one that is often hard to come by. Either you have it or you don’t, and in this case, fortunately, yes we have it.”
That said, it’s possibly no surprise Contador is feeling happier and more at ease, given where he has come from. His relationship with his boss at the Tinkoff team, Oleg Tinkov, became increasingly strained and the Russian, in an interview with Cyclingnews, laid into him for being a ‘boring guy who has a terrible life’ and a ‘limping duck that is going to look stupid’ this season.
“No, that’s not the right word,” says Contador when asked if he ‘suffered’ mentally at any point last year. “Maybe some aspects weren’t the ideal at the time of tackling a Tour de France – that was well known. But suffer? I didn’t suffer.
“Now I’m in a new environment, one which is completely different. And they are truly motivated with the objectives this year – in every race we go to, we go to compete. Last year there were maybe some races we went to without clear objectives. It’s looking good with my teammates and I can see they have that extra bit of motivation compared perhaps with previous years. As for whether I’m more relaxed… clearly I am more relaxed.“
Contador only brought one rider with him from Tinkoff – his trusted domestique Jesus Hernandez, though he did bring along Steven de Jongh, a mechanic, a press officer, and his friend Ivan Basso following in a behind-the-scenes role.
There are a lot of new faces, then, and, rather than wasting too much time worrying about the collective might at Team Sky, Contador is currently preoccupied with building his own unit.
“Obviously I would like to have 10 riders all killing themselves to be the last ones helping me in the mountains, but it’s not like that. The budget is different, and that obviously means you don’t have the same options,” he said.
At the moment his support cast for the Tour is unclear beyond Bauke Mollema and new signing Jarlinson Pantano, who will be his most important allies - the last ones to leave his side in the mountains. Beyond that it will be down to him personally to reach July at the top of his form, and he says his performances and numbers in training and racing show no reason why he cannot win a third maillot jaune – even if he hasn’t done so (on paper at least) since 2009.
“I know there are options to try and win the Tour,” he said. “Whether the percentage is higher or lower this year, I don’t know, but there are options – that I do believe. If I didn’t think there was a chance of winning the Tour I wouldn’t be at the start.”
‘The Tour is just another race’
Contador signed a one-year deal with Trek, but with the option for a second. He had originally pencilled in 2016 as the final season of his career, but now retirement is far from the front of his mind – an open-ended matter.
“I don’t want to go back to saying it will be this year or another one, or another, and keep changing it,” he said. “When the time comes to say ‘stop’, that’s when I’ll say ‘stop’.”
When asked about the possibility of returning to the Giro d’Italia in 2018, he responded that it’s “a possibility that is… quite probable”, which begged the question: could this year be Contador’s final Tour de France?
“That’s a question that doesn’t have an answer,” he said, going on the explain that the Grande Boucle is not the be-all and end-all.
“There are many, many races apart from the Tour. The Tour is obviously the biggest race – above all for sponsors and the media exposure there – but there are many other races. For me, this year for example, the Tour is the most important race, but just because it’s the most important doesn’t mean is the one I’m going to enjoy the most. The Tour, it’s just another race in my calendar, at which I have to arrive in optimal condition, just like I do for others. But that’s it. It’s just another race.”
‘It’s not just another race, though, is it? Counters one Spanish journalist. It’s the Tour – it’s bigger than everything else combined’.
“Yes, but let me tell you this. That’s what you see from the outside,” comes the response. “What I see as a rider, speaking for myself at least, is another race that I am trying to win. With a greater prize, but nothing more. I know, that when you win the Tour it changes your life. But still, when you win the Tour, you go home and, in my case at least, you carry on doing the same things.”
And, however long he keeps going, Contador will carry on doing the same things: Attacking, risking, daring. And when it is all over, the races, the results, the trophies – the imposters – will all fade; the spirit is what will endure.