Contador planning final season of Tour de France success
Exclusive interview with seven-time Grand Tour winner on rivals Froome and Quintana
Better to burn out than to fade away. There is some common ground between Kurt Cobain's parting maxim and Alberto Contador's career outlook.
"I have always wanted to retire at the highest level – that's the way I want people to remember me," the Spaniard tells Cyclingnews as we sit down in a hotel nestled in the Italian Alps.
With the 2016 season likely to be Contador's last, next year's Tour de France is being lined up as the final firework and, though the 2015 season is not yet over, he already seems immersed in his project.
"The primary objective is the Tour de France. I'm a rider who likes to be competitive in every race I enter – I want to do well in the races at the start of the year – but the focus will be purely on the Tour. The only thing I can guarantee is that I'm preparing for it 100 per cent," says the seven-time Grand Tour winner.
It may be almost 10 months away, but Contador has already plotted his path to the Grand Départ in Mont Saint Michel. There will be plenty of winter days spent in the mountains of the Stelvio National Park, which is where we meet on the eve of the rhxdue – a mass climb of the Passo Gavia organised by rh+ and Polartec along with the Fundación Contador set-up.
"I'm planning a, let's say, traditional calendar," he says, explaining the shape 2016 will take. "I will for certain start competing in the third week of February at either the Volta ao Algarve or the Vuelta a Andalucía.
"Then I'll do a race that will probably be the most important for me, and that's either Tirreno-Adriatico or Paris-Nice. That will be crucial in giving me a base. Then I'll do another one, shortly after, likely to be Catalunya. Then I will start to really focus; I'll do the Dauphiné, and then the Tour. That's more or less the plan."
'Froome has bad days at the end of a Tour – that's interesting'
Some riders react cagily when asked who their most threatening competitors are, but not Contador. Rather than offering a banal platitude along the lines of all of them being really strong, he immediately picks out two names.
While Nairo Quintana "has come a long way" and is "now in a very high category of rival", the main trepidation is triggered by the name of Chris Froome, who got the better of him in the 2013 and 2015 Tours – though he is keen to point out he was below his best on both occasions.
"This year the Tour didn't have a long time trial, and long time trials, especially flat ones, are an advantage for him over his rivals. That makes him an incredibly strong rival," Contador says of Froome.
That said, the 32-year-old – clearly carefully considering all this while most other riders are still in competition mode – has identified an area of weakness, and gave a subtle hint as to his intention to exploit it.
"I thought he was strong at the Tour, especially the stage to La Pierre Saint Martin – he was incredible. However, it surprised me that towards the end he had some bad days. It made me think back to the Tour of 2013 that he also won. The final days there were also not so great for him. These are interesting things to look at.”
One factor that Contador indirectly suggests might have contributed to Froome's fatigue was the degree of speculation and sour innuendo surrounding his performance in July. Contador, of course, is no stranger to the sort of abuse his rival had to stomach, having served a ban and had two Grand Tours taken from him as a result of a positive test for Clenbuterol, which he has always insisted was caused by a contaminated steak.
One particularly memorable incident saw him punch a roadside spectator who had taken the opportunity to dress up in scrubs and run alongside the Spaniard brandishing a stethoscope.
"It's something that's hard to shoulder. Sometimes you have your limits. Things like people throwing urine on you. You have to remember that these things are being done by stupid people. It can feel like everyone feels that way towards you but that's not the case," says Contador, sympathising with Froome.
"I'm a rider who needs to isolate himself as much as possible from the press, media, internet, everything. When I'm at a race I'm focused 100 per cent on the race and not on stuff that's going on around it. Otherwise it's just another thing that wears you down."
Next year's Tour may be the stage for Contador's planned final flourish, but in light of his desire to leave cycling in his pomp, he almost achieved a feat this year that would have been nigh-on impossible to top.
The Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double – something only managed by nine men in history and not since Marco Pantani in 1998 – was the audacious goal, and he nearly pulled it off, too. After ticking off the Giro in convincing fashion, Contador could only manage fifth in France, clearly some way off his swashbuckling best and unable to match those who had built their seasons around that one race.
"I am very happy with the season that I've done. I enjoyed trying the double. I sacrificed myself like never before to try and pull it off," said Contador, who admits he was concerned by his legs in the opening days of the Tour but thought he would be able to ride them back into shape.
"If I had to go back to try it again I would make some changes. The calendar is the main thing – I would have fewer races at the start of the season. Also the Route du Sud – between the Giro and Tour – I maybe wouldn't race that. That way you wouldn't have the rhythm going into the Tour but you would be a bit fresher. I didn't manage the victory in France, but the truth is that I'm happy with how the season played out."
Froome was the man who did emerge victorious and has stated that he'd like to push on in the coming years and take his tally of Tour titles to five. At 32, just two year's Froome's senior, and still winning Grand Tours, why does Contador not think he can be successful for several years to come?
"Froome in the end rose to the highest level three years ago. On the other hand, for me, since 2007, each time I've gone to Grand Tour I've been one of the favourites," he explains.
"I have been at the very top level for almost 10 years now, and that starts to show. Basically I want to pack it in when I'm still in a good state in my sporting career."
With the Olympics on Contador's radar, the Tour won't be his final race, but victory there would nevertheless mark a fitting final chapter in the career of the man widely acknowledged as the greatest stage racer of a generation.
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Deputy Editor. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2022 he has been Deputy Editor, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
By James Witts