Is defending Tour champion Alberto Contador this year’s Tour villain?
Pause for a moment and ask yourself, how do you feel about Alberto Contador?
Is he the premier stage racer of his generation — and possibly the best of all time? Is he a rider without equal in the high mountains, his sharp attacks and brash accelerations serving as debilitating upper cuts to the hopes of his competition? Is he a skilled time trialist, able to roundly dispatch all but the world’s elite TT specialists?
Is he the only rider who ever truly stood toe-to-toe with Lance Armstrong — and won? Is he a victim of tainted meat and an overzealous anti-doping system that’s sweeping up innocent riders with its draconian rules of strict liability?
Is he using legitimate means to effectively prepare his legal case in the wake of testing positive for the banned anabolic agent clenbuterol on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour? Is it simply coincidence that the delay of his hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport will push its start date to a week after the 2011 Tour de France concludes?
Or is Contador the personification of all that is wrong with cycling and sports in general? Is he a selfish teammate, who only knows how to ride for himself? Is he a simple-minded athletic anomaly, surviving on genetic gifts, but lacking any modicum of grit, guile or tactical sense? Is he an egomaniacal showboat, his El Pisteloro finish-line salute bike racing’s version of a preening wide receiver moon walking across the end zone?
Is he using deceitful legal tactics to push back his inevitable suspension from the sport just long enough so that his Saxo Bank-SunGard team can secure another round of sponsorships? Is he another in a long line of dopers, willing to do whatever it takes to win, assuming everyone else is doing the same thing, and not caring what effect it has on the rest of the sport?
Should he be starting the Tour de France — or racing at all?
How you answer these questions says a lot not just about your opinion of Alberto Contador, but also the state of cycling in broader terms. Is the sport riding steady tempo toward a cleaner future? Or is all the tough talk about biological passports and changing culture just hollow lip service aimed at placating a fan base grown exceedingly weary of doping — not racing — dominating cycling’s headlines?
Indeed, there is a strong argument that the 28-year-old is the best stage racer of his generation, a rider in possession of cycling’s rare and deadly double, the ability to climb and time trial with equal brilliance.
Yes, Contador did square off with the great and powerful Armstrong two years ago, and if you believe the Spaniard’s version of the events, he successfully fended off attempted fratricide and beat Big Tex at the Tour.
And until the courts say differently, Contador has totaled six grand tour wins, earning a career grand slam by grabbing the final leader’s jersey in the Vuelta (once), Giro (twice) and Tour (three times), something only four others have accomplished in cycling’s century-old history. Win this year’s Tour and he’ll equal Armstrong for grand tour triumphs, and be the first rider in 13 years to notch the Giro-Tour double.
But clearly Contador’s presence in France will be unwelcome for many. Shortly after announcing his plans to race despite his ongoing doping case, a poll claimed that two-thirds of French cycling fans preferred the defending champion stay home in July. The sport’s governing body, preparing for the expected negative reaction, has urged fans and media to exhibit the “utmost sense of responsibility” toward Contador, who has the “statutory right to take part in any competition.”
Some of his peers have also chimed in, Sky’s Bradley Wiggins telling the Associated Press that Contador’s presence at the Tour’s 98th running will be “bad for all those teams that are fighting to be clean.”
So what now? Do you marvel at Contador’s jaw-dropping ability, knowing that like Armstrong, Bonds, Jordan, Clemens and Tiger, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent whose achievements (tainted or not) may never be equaled? Or do you see him as a fraudulent pariah who’s doing irreparable damage to an already battered sport?
Sadly, we may never know with absolute certainty the answer to any of these questions, meaning in the end, how you feel about Alberto Contador is the only answer that really matters.