Following the completion of his two year ban on August 6th, Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) has described his overall victory in the Vuelta a España on Sunday as giving him “an enormous sense of liberation.”
“I put myself under so much pressure that right now I feel as if I was set free,” Contador said.
“I’m very pleased both for myself and for the people who are thanking me for this spectacle, when in fact it’s me that should be thanking them.”
This is the 16th time that there has been an all-Spanish podium at the Vuelta and the first since 2004. For Contador, even discounting the Tour and Giro titles he lost as a result of his ban, he is one of just ten riders with five Grand Tours in his palmares, and one of five to have won the ‘Grand Slam’ of Giro, Tour and Vuelta.
The build-up for this fifth Grand Tour win of Contador’s career, however, started well before his ban ended on August 5th. After checking out all of the summit stage finishes of the Vuelta during the Tour, for the week before the Eneco Tour he and four key team-mates - Jesus Hernandez, Benjamin Noval, Dani Navarro and Bruno Pires - stayed at the foot of the Madrid climbs, training every day on the climbs that formed the Bola del Mundo stage: Navafria, Canencia, Morcuera, Cotos and the Bola itself.
After finishing fourth overall at the Eneco Tour, Contador headed directly to the Vuelta, his first Grand Tour since the end of his suspension. “Finishing second would be no disgrace,” he told reporters before the race, but it was clear from the way he personally dragged his Saxo Bank team-mates across the pave of Pamplona’s city centre at the end of the opening team time trial that he was determined to hit the ground running.
On the race’s first uphill finish, stage three to Arrate, Contador launched seven all-out attacks, which culminated with a select group of four riders - Chris Froome (Sky), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Contador. Valverde took the lead, but the next day, after the famous echelon-crash incident en route to Ezcaray, Rodriguez took over.
And try as Contador might on the summit finishes in the Fuerte del Rapitan - where he faded and lost time to Rodriguez - at Andorra and on difficult run-ins like Barcelona, the Spaniard could not crack ‘Purito.’ At the time trial to Pontevedra, he came so close to taking the lead that some journalists even told Contador he had done it, but in fact Purito was still one second ahead.
Contador claimed that he was heading into ‘his terrain’, the three mountain stages of Ancares, Lagos de Covadonga and Cuitu Negru, but in fact his position steadily worsened. By the second rest day one newspaper interviewed two dozen cycling journalists and television commentators - most of them Spanish. Not one said that they thought Contador would win.
However, stage 17 to Fuente Dé, which saw Rodriguez’s lead dissolve in a 51 kilometre long-distance attack by Contador and his Saxo Bank teammates, will go down as one of the most memorable in recent Grand Tour history. Nobody expected it, it was not really planned, but on a stage that seemed designed for a boring breakaway to succeed, Contador turned the race upside down. In doing so, he clinched the lead, the stage win and - although he is not thinking about it yet - will now head to next year’s Tour as one of the race’s top contenders.
Contador is no longer looking at winning three Grand Tours in the same year - “I thought about it, but not any longer” - but will be aiming at taking part in the team time trial at the World Championships, the individual time trial and the road race. After that, he will race in the Tour of Lombardy. We may be in September, but several key challenges for Contador have yet to come.
“One thing is clear: winning gives you more confidence and it drives you to win again. If not, you’ve always got that niggling doubt.” In Contador’s case, thanks to one of the most spectacular Vueltas in years, those doubts have gone now gone.