History will forget that Alberto Contador’s final outing as a professional cyclist wasn’t the summit finish win on the Alto del Angliru, or his lap of honour in Madrid to confirm fourth overall in his final Vuelta a Espana.
The Japan Cup Criterium race doesn’t count. Contador, the man nicknamed ‘the pistoleer’, went out with a bang.
There will be no fading away into obscurity or turning to two-wheeled domesticity. Contador won’t be coming back to the sport after four years like one of his former teammates. Aged 34, he is chucking himself into retirement and he’s giving it both barrels.
Giro d’Italia owners RCS wasted no time in snapping him up as an ambassador. He’s getting to work with his development team and with his charity, which aims to raise awareness and prevention of strokes, a personal cause given that he suffered from one while racing in 2004.
During the Vuelta he quipped that he would also get fat. He’s earned it. If you bump into Contador at the Rouleur Classic in November, hand him a beer and some nibbles and help him reload.
In one way, the trifles of ordinary life seem incongruous for a sporting deity. There was one supporter on the Angliru who was bowed down on his knees in the wind, waving his outstretched arms in praise like a monk who had crawled up to a craggy hermitage to take himself closer to God.
But we like Contador precisely because he is human. He is the rider that other riders imagine themselves being. Dig into your mates on a climb – could be on the Galibier or a little hill in the home counties – and you channel Contador. You don’t channel Chris Froome.
When Contador heaved at his cranks inside the final kilometre on the Angliru, he was ungainly and he didn’t hide his pain. There was a level of honesty that fans could connect with. He was like us.
“Whenever we discussed anything with Alberto, ‘yes’ meant ‘yes’ and ‘no’ meant ‘no’,” says Mauro Vegni, the Giro’s race director, explaining why Contador is now a Giro ambassador.
“Despite other people trying to change things, he’s always been a man of his word.”
Contador has earned the honour of being defined as one of sport’s ‘great champions,’ a nebulous title awarded not just for his victories – officially three Vueltas, two Tours, two Giros and umpteen week-long stage races – but for the way in which he rode.
“He put on a show, he attacked, he rode aggressively, and in a way which people felt was exciting, so he really conveys the message of the great values of the sport,” Vegni adds.
In his final Vuelta, Contador attacked on 11 stages, winning one of them. A hit rate of nine percent is an astonishing statistic, and this was no case of happy-go-lucky Voeckler-esque showmanship either: Contador had the quixotic belief that he could win.
That defiance became his calling card. When you close your eyes and remember Contador’s career, you’ll remember him gritting his teeth, standing almost bolt upright and dancing on the pedals, leaning slightly to one side, usually on a mountain, usually alone.
Contador refused to fear failure. If sport holds a mirror up to us then he showed us something we desperately want to see in ourselves.
“If Alberto is so popular, it’s not just down to his victories on the road,” says Ivan Basso, a contemporary of Contador’s and now a fellow Giro ambassador. “It’s how you ride, how you split your time with the team, with your fans, with the cycling world.”
Just as Raymond ‘Poupou’ Poulidor was the squidgy and fallible human counterfoil to the ruthless winning machines of Merckx and Anquetil, so Contador was the upstart to the playground bully when he raced alongside Armstrong in 2009 and the rebellious punk against the hard-boiled defence of Chris Froome and Team Sky since 2013.
The whole peloton can’t all be like Contador because Contador needed an establishment to rail against. Just as he looked like becoming it himself, along came that steak and with it his fall from grace.
In one sense, Contador’s ban – for all the complexity of it, he officially cheated – made his results more tangible than any optimistic guesswork around a rider who has never tested positive in a sport without much to genuinely believe in.
But Contador gave us something more than victory, both in sport and in the wider world. In the wake of Operacion Puerto, Contador’s first Tour win came as the queues formed outside Northern Rock. He became the youngest ever rider to win all three Grand Tours, at the age of 25, just six days after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September 2008.
The world continues to float adrift in the waves from those events and we’re still grasping for something firm to cling on to. Contador’s riding was a real as a bullet from a pistol. He was a champion for dreamers in confused times.