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.
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.”
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."
“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.
“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.