Alberto Contador 6/12/82 – 10/02/13

July 5, 2014 2:08 pm

Renowned Spanish cyclist and multiple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador dies at home in Pinto, Spain.

It is a beautiful sun soaked day in July 2009. Spectators crowd a long, fiercely steep road that leads to the top of the Verbier. A mountain of epic proportions located in the Swiss Alps, 1,445m above sea level. At certain points it becomes too steep for the team cars to negotiate. They are forced onto a side road and stop. Soon they are overtaken by men. Men with pain etched on their sinewy faces. Every muscle in their toned, lean, weather beaten legs pronounced. All trying desperately to keep their full revolution but gears soon struggle. All suffer. All but one.

Alberto ContadorHe stands out from the rest of this small group of elite cyclists, who have broken away on the final climb and are battling for a stage win in the Tour de France. All are tired, some more than others and it is taking its toll on them. They begin to struggle with their gear and slowly fade from the group but he looks completely at ease. He sits relaxed and, time after time, effortlessly jumps out of his saddle and dances on his pedals. His strides are seamless and graceful. No emotion is shown on his small, weathered face. He peers over his right shoulder and into the pained, expressive faces of his competitors and seizes his moment. Within seconds he is ten, then twenty bike lengths ahead and soon enough he is gone. Untouchable. He rides himself into legend by climbing the last 4km of the Verbier in record time and into the maillot jaune and on his way to his first Tour de France victory.

Alberto Contador Velasco was a giant in the cycling world. His 5ft 9’ whippet thin frame saw him climb some of the biggest and steepest mountains Europe has to offer and he claimed every jersey available in every Grand Tour. He won the Tour de France on three occasions, the Giro d’Italia twice and his native Vuelta a Espana twice.

In the summer of 2008 while he was relaxing on holiday in Spain, news came through from his team that he would be riding the Giro d’Italia. He had just a week to train and yet he won it by almost two minutes. In cycling terms a minute lead on a rival is a massive cushion. With two equally matched climbing specialists a few seconds is generally what will separate them. Generally. Contador proved to be the exception, and he made it look so effortless.

“He’s the strongest rider I’ve ever had on my team. He’s simply an animal in the mountains” commented his Saxo Bank-Tinkoff team leader Bjarne Riis.  He returned to the Giro 3 years later and won it with a 4 minute cushion on his nearest rival. It was an insurmountable lead and an infallible ride from Contador. The rest of the top riders were simply vying for second and third place. El Pistolero, as he was affectionately known, rarely sought anything other than the top position. He was not a trusted lieutenant, but a general directing his troops on those fierce mountains.  “My willpower and my non-conformism are part of my way to approach the competition which is fighting for  the number one spot” Contador told reporters after a devastating display in the 2012 Vuelta, “ I never ride for second place, I only ride to win”.

Contador was born in 1982 to a working class family in Pinto, a town on the outskirts of Madrid. His older brother Fran, who would become his agent, and his father were both passionate about cycling and soon their fervour affected a young Alberto. He began riding for local teams at 15 and gained a reputation as an instinctive and attacking climber. Soon professional teams began to look closely at Alberto and, at 16, he dropped out of school and signed professionally for ONCE –eroski. He won some minor mountain classifications but didn’t find his top form until late 2004 when he won a stage of the Tour de Prologue.

Alberto ContadorJust as Contador began to show signs of greatness a horrific accident at the Vuelta a Asturias, a small tour in Spain, almost ended his life. On a routine stage surrounded by team-mates, Contador fell from his bike and went into convulsions. He was rushed to hospital and operated on immediately. Later he was diagnosed with cerebral cavernoma – a congenital vascular disorder which meant that not enough blood was being pumped to his brain and he was sensitive to blackouts. Doctor’s urged Alberto not to train to the standard he was used to. The extra effort he used to climb mountains and the additional pressure on his heart might trigger another blackout which, doctors told him, could lead to brain damage or death. Contador disregarded his doctor’s advice and began training again in late 2004 before resuming professional racing in 2005, in Australia. He won a memorable stage early on and later said it was the most important of his career.

2005 for Contador proved to be a very fruitful year. He won stages in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Tour de Romandie. He was now moving from a straight climber into a more rounded cyclist and began showing his potential for winning grand tours. The big 3 – France, Italy and Spain are the biggest and hardest tours in the world. Straight climbers don’t generally always win the overall classification as there are individual time trials to contend with. A straight race against the clock and other cyclists and it’s the physically bigger men in the peloton who are used to winning these stages. The bigger the frame, the more power they can generate. Climbers are physically smaller compared to a time trial specialist and so don’t expend as much power, making them slower in a time trial. Contador was the first of the slighter men in the peloton to convert his prowess and power on the steep slopes into an advantage in time trialling.

Armed with his climbing abilities and his newly acquired skill against the clock, 2006 was marked as Contador’s attempt to win his first grand tour. But just as plans and training schedules were being arranged, the ugly topic of drugs was injected into the plot and leading player Contador would be without a team and barred from entering the ‘06 tour. His then team – Astana- were under investigation for drug usage the previous year (2005).

He won some minor races but patiently waited until his time came. During the next 3 years Alberto Contador attacked every grand tour, every competitor and every mountain stage. “I attack instinctively. I can’t ride a race and not attack. I feel at home in the steeper slopes and want to make the race exciting so I always like to try and attack. Cycling should be a spectacle and the fans yearn for excitement”. His winning margins in grand tours were marginal, such as the Tour de France in 2009 and the 2012 edition of the Vuelta but he always made the races exciting because of his natural attacking style. Joaquim Rodríguez, who finished 3rd to Contador in the 2012 Vuelta said of his competitor, “It’s ridiculous. How many times has Contador attacked? I don’t know, 32 or 33, isn’t it? I suffered under his pressure. At times it was almost too much”.

On that fateful soaked sun day in July, Alberto also relentlessly attacked. Again and again he would rise from his saddle and swing his hips in his distinctive style, peerlessly climbing each section of the Verbier and always gaining time. Attacking each kilometer like a man possessed. He was a force, an awesome sight to glimpse on a bike, a ferocious athlete and a true legend of the sport.

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