Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) had already said his goodbyes more than a month ago, but another full stop was added to the Spaniard’s illustrious and complicated career at the Shanghai Criterium on Sunday as he pinned on a race number for the final time.
In a sporting sense at least, it all came to an end at the Vuelta a España with victory on atop the Alto de l'Angliru and a hero's welcome into Madrid the following day. However, he has since made appearances at the Japan Cup Criterium two weekends ago, and now at the Shanghai Criterium laid on by the organisers of the Tour de France.
For all the specious proclamations from the organisers that Contador was somehow 'coming out of retirement', they were, of course, largely ceremonial appearances, though going through all the race rituals one final time nevertheless had its significance.
"For me it's a special day. I consider it as something symbolic. My last day with a professional licence," Contador told reporters in Shanghai. "I have to say that the Vuelta was my final bow, but it's true that it's nice to have the chance to say goodbye here, alongside some of the biggest names in the peloton, and in a different cultural environment."
Despite only finishing ninth at the Tour de France in July, Contador was paraded in Shanghai alongside winner Chris Froome, king of the mountains Warren Barguil, and five-time stage winner Marcel Kittel as one of the star attractions at the event, which seeks to export a flavour of the Tour to an Asian audience.
He posed for countless selfies with fans before taking to the race and breaking free from the peloton for a final display of his attacking style that was as well-scripted as Froome's victory on a short flat course in a field that contained Marcel Kittel.
"It was hard, I know the parcours was not the best for me and for that I tried to attack, attack, attack because I'm not fast in the sprint," Contador said in his official post-race interview, dutifully upholding the event's façade.
"Today was my last race with a number on the back, and I enjoyed it. I feel very happy, I'm very happy. I finished at the moment that I wanted, with the team I want, with all the support from the fans – I could not have dreamed of anything better."
One of the angles the organisers of the Shanghai Criterium struck upon in their billing for the event was 'the final duel' between Contador and Froome.
Contador had already won five Grand Tours – and had a further two struck off his palmarès – before Froome won his first Tour de France in 2013, but the Briton has since established himself as the dominant Grand Tour rider, with four yellow jerseys in five years and an unprecedented Tour-Vuelta double this year.
"I think he's one of the two strongest rivals I've had in my entire career, along with Andy Schleck in the first part of my career,” said Contador.
"They were completely different rivals because with Andy it was more a 'one-on-one' style of racing. Our two teams were very even, with two or three really strong riders and the rest normal. In contrast, Froome has a really powerful unit build around him that's very difficult to crack. Although he's still strong in a given moment when it's one-on-one, his teammates make things much more complicated.”
For Froome's part, he may have repeatedly got the better of Contador – the 2012 and 2014 Vueltas being the main exceptions – but things will be a little calmer for him from now on.
"I'm sure there are going to be a lot of people sad to see him go, but I'm not going to miss his attacks, and the way he causes a lot of angst back in the peloton to catch him again. Certainly, it was exciting racing with him - you never knew what was going to happen."
Contador, for all intents and purposes, has already been a retired rider for over a month but, besides his diet, he insists that not a great deal has changed.
"For the moment, I haven't really noticed the difference, because at the moment I'm travelling probably even more than when I was racing," he said.
"It's true that you don't have the stress of looking after your diet to the minutest of details, of training every day, of measuring your rest – that's the main difference. But I've handled it pretty well. I'm still travelling a lot, doing a lot of events associated with cycling, so I'm not noticing a huge difference."
Not even his weight has changed, as he explained that the inevitable increase in body fat has been mitigated by the loss of muscle mass as a result of not training or racing at high intensity. Rather than the physical, however, perhaps the greatest challenge for an athlete negotiating the transition from the structured world of professional sport to the relative wilderness of retirement is the psychological.
"In terms of spirit, I feel super good. I can do what I like now and I'm really happy about it," said Contador, explaining that he has plenty of irons in the fire to keep himself occupied.
As well as work as a brand ambassador, he is still heavily involved in his own development team, which helped produce Quick-Step's Enric Mas and which is now linked to the Trek-Segafredo set-up under the name Polartec-Kometa. On top of that, he is working with stroke charities, having suffered a stroke himself at the Vuelta a Asturias in 2005.
"I no longer have to go out on the bike every day but you can put that energy into other things. I have lots of great opportunities for the coming years. Pretty much everything will be cycling-related – apart from the work I'm doing with stroke charities. I'm motivated; I have lots of projects and lots of different motivations. You have to have something to motivate you when you get out of the bed in the morning, and I have many."
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