The grand exit: Contador’s hopes hang on 2017 Tour

Although Contador is old for a grand tour contender, 34 this summer, he may still be a threat to win the Tour de France one last time.

Photo: TDW

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There was a moment during the 2016 Vuelta a España when Alberto Contador knew he wasn’t going to win.

Another first-week crash knocked the wind out of his sails, and Nairo Quintana distanced him days later on the road to Lagos de Covadonga. With victory out of his grasp, Contador threw the script out the window. That’s when the Vuelta got fun.

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“El Pistolero” attacked impetuously during stage 15, and his aggression caught out Chris Froome, all but delivering the GC on a silver platter to Quintana and Movistar. Why? Contador was racing for fun, content to provide the spectacle and disrupt a sport that some believe has become reduced to little more than power numbers on a spreadsheet.

“That’s the beauty of cycling. Sometimes you can tear up the script,” Contador said. “Sometimes you have to forget what your power meter is telling you, and race on instinct. You need to attack, go flat out, from start to finish, without worrying who is following.”

This no-holds-barred racing and old-school aggression make Contador a popular, and frustrating, rider to cheer for in 2017. A decade ago, cycling fans delighted in watching Contador’s cavalier attacks turn grand tours into must-watch TV. These days, Contador still has the gusto, but the otherworldly speed is no more. Pundits still list Contador as a grand tour threat. Hardcore fans, however, know that he’s more likely a second-tier favorite, a few watts behind Froome and Quintana. It’s the Contador paradox: The most fun rider to watch isn’t the best bet to win.

Just don’t tell that to Contador or those in his camp. The Spaniard still believes he has one more Tour de France victory left in his legs. “The Tour’s not a thorn in my side — but I simply want and believe I can win it again,” Contador recently told the Spanish newspaper ABC. “I’ve had some really bad luck the past few years, especially with crashes.”

Is it a quixotic quest? Is Contador delusional? Nobody knows. Fans can only hope that the idealized version of Contador — the attacker, the disrupter, and the never-say-die warrior — is the rider who returns to the peloton in 2017 with new team Trek – Segafredo.

CONTADOR IS 34. By most measures, he has passed his prime. The last rider to wear the yellow jersey into Paris at that age was Cadel Evans in 2011, who is still the oldest post-World War II winner of the Tour. Still, the Tour looms large on Contador’s 2017 horizon. In fact, his ambitions in France are why Trek – Segafredo hired him for this season.

“I still think Alberto can win the Tour de France. He has more GC experience than anyone in the peloton,” says Trek – Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena. “Alberto is still very ambitious and we want to give him the support so he can focus on racing. If anyone can beat Froome, we think it is Alberto.”

Guercilena’s confidence, of course, stands in contrast to the immense challenge standing in Contador’s path. Froome is perhaps the most well-rounded grand tour rider of this generation, and has rarely shown any weakness at the Tour. Froome’s Sky squad is even more formidable. The British team’s Tour de France roster can snuff out attacks on the toughest stages.

“The most difficult part about taking on Sky is getting it to where it is a one-on-one battle,” Guercilena says. “I believe if we and the others can get to Froome, we all have a chance.”

What does a Contador Tour de France victory look like? More than a few stars must line up in his favor. First, he needs to stay upright — crashes robbed him of his ambitions in 2014 and 2016. Second, to even get to Froome, Contador needs to blast through Sky’s formidable defenses. If Contador and Quintana could work together to isolate Froome on a mountainous day, then either man could stand a chance at victory.

Thirdly, Contador needs to limit his losses against the clock. It’s incredible to remember that Contador beat Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara in a 40-kilometer time trial at the 2009 Tour. Contador hasn’t raced a major, flat time trial at the Tour since 2013, when he lost 2:03 to Froome in 33 kilometers.

It’s a lot to ask, of course, and perhaps that’s why European gambling websites peg Contador’s odds at a Tour victory at 8:1.

But pro cycling is as challenging to predict as the weather, which is why other riders still see Contador as a real threat. “Sure, Alberto can win another Tour,” says BMC’s Richie Porte, a former teammate. “I raced with Alberto and I saw how good he is at reading the race. Anyone who writes him off is wrong.” Froome, who’s been beaten twice by Contador at the Vuelta, agrees, “Alberto is a big fighter. You don’t want to give him any time, because it’s very hard to take back,” he says.

CONTADOR’S MOVE TO TREK – SEGAFREDO was one of the biggest transfers of the 2017 offseason. Guercilena says that he initially wanted to bring Vincenzo Nibali onto the team. When Nibali signed with Bahrain – Merida, Contador became the team’s target.

The one-year deal includes an option for a second, which is a smart move, given Contador’s recent history of changing his retirement plans. Contador says he was prepared to leave pro cycling at the end of 2016, until his passion for the sport made him reconsider. He told ABC that his drive to train and race is still strong, even though he was contemplating retirement.

“First off, my data from training just keeps getting better, and I believe I can keep fighting and gain results,” Contador told ABC. “Cycling is my life, my sport, and my passion.”

It turns out, Trek – Segafredo is the perfect new home for Contador, whose former team Tinkoff folded at the end of 2016. Flush with dollars from the Italian coffee maker and the exit of Fabian Cancellara’s big salary, the U.S.-registered team went on a buying spree for 2017, signing 11 new riders, including classics star John Degenkolb. Trek made room for Contador’s big entourage that includes his personal mechanic and soigneur, sport director Stephen De Jongh, advisor Ivan Basso, and longtime pal Jesus Hernandez.

“Trek believes in me and have wagered that I can win the Tour,” Contador says. “It’s an important team, balanced and capable of taking on the challenge of the Tour. They are deep, both from its quality of riders to its technical support.”

CONTADOR’S LEGACY IS HARDLY pristine. He tested positive for minute traces of clenbuterol during his 2010 Tour victory, and eventually forfeited that victory as well as his win at the 2011 Giro d’Italia. Contador’s argument that he dined on tainted Basque beef and his eventual two-year ban remain controversial on many levels. Other riders have since been cleared after testing for even larger traces of clenbuterol.

Contador has also been linked to some of the sport’s most unsavory characters, such as Manolo Saiz, Johan Bruyneel, Bjarne Riis, and former trainer Pepe Martí, who was banned for eight years as part of the Armstrong scandal. Contador remains defiant and maintains his innocence against all doping allegations.

“Querer es poder,” Contador likes to say. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Contador’s grand tour record is the best of his generation, with seven official victories. (He still counts the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro that were taken away.) Vincenzo Nibali is the closest to that tally with four grand tour wins. After all the asterisked wins are erased from the official record books (including Armstrong’s seven Tour wins), Contador is tied on the all-time list for fourth. Add those two other wins and he would be third, just behind Eddy Merckx with 11 and Bernard Hinault with 10. He is one of only six riders who have won all three grand tours.

But cycling may be passing Contador by. His last official Tour win came in 2009, more than eight years ago. He has twice beaten Froome at the Vuelta, but in both instances, neither Froome nor Sky were at their best. His victory at the 2015 Giro d’Italia was impressive, but neither Froome, Quintana, nor Nibali were in the mix. What Contador wants more than anything is a clean shot at the Tour.

The only thing that’s certain is that Contador will go down fighting. No one in the peloton has more grit. And the highly unconventional Tour de France parcours on tap for 2017 favors his style of unpredictable, tactical racing.

Like a proud Spanish bull fighter, Contador wants to exit cycling through the “puerta grande,” with his fans carrying him out of the arena hoisted on their shoulders. He has already promised he will retire on the Champs-Élysées podium if he wins in July.

“It’s what sets Alberto apart, his will to win no matter what setbacks he’s had,” says former Tinkoff sport director Sean Yates. “No matter what, he will attack. That’s a guarantee with Alberto. He will attack until he cannot pedal anymore.”

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