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Throwback Thursday: Alberto Contador as cycling’s last action hero

The Spanish star's career was marked by searing victories, emotional highs, and devastating lows.

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In our latest installment of “Throwback Thursday,” VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt take a look at Alberto Contador.

The now-retired Spanish all-rounder ranks among one of the most successful grand tour riders in cycling history, with seven official titles. Take away his controversial clenbuterol case, and he would have two more. Few riders endured as many highs and lows as the tenacious climber. Contador was a singular rider who had the legs to attack, the ambition to win, and the character to take on such rivals as Lance Armstrong and Chris Froome. Let’s take a look back:


When was the first time you realized Contador was special?

James Startt: That was in 2007 when he won Paris-Nice. After all, so many Tour champions win Paris-Nice first. It may be “just” a one-week stage race and it may be early in the season, but it is a telling race. And in Contador’s case, well, it didn’t take long for him to confirm, as he won his first Tour de France only months later. Obviously, it was a weird Tour with Michael Rasmussen being kicked out of the race while wearing the yellow jersey, but you don’t win the Tour de France in luck alone. And he quickly confirmed, winning the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España the following year, not to mention winning the Tour again in 2009. The 2009 Tour was perhaps his most impressive victory ever, as he even managed to win the final time trial with the yellow jersey on his shoulders.

Andrew Hood: The 2005 Tour Down Under. That’s when Contador won on Old Willunga Hill just months after his comeback from a cerebral cavernova, which required brain surgery. Contador was already hailed in the U23 ranks in Spain, but that emotional victory — which Contador continues to call one of his most important of his career — really struck a chord for many inside the peloton that Contador was a fighter. Another standout moment that revealed Contador’s tenacity and strong character came during the Mallorca Challenge in February in 2008. Contador was racing one of the stages when it revealed that his then-Astana team would not be allowed to race that year’s Tour de France due to team captain Alexander Vinokourov’s blood doping case. Contador actually heard the news mid-stage, and angrily waved his arms at the news, and then blindly attacked in rage. Of course, that meant there would be no yellow jersey defense, and he promptly went on to win the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España in the same season.

Photo: James Startt

How does his clenbuterol case mark his legacy?

Hood: Right or wrong, the controversial case will forever be part of the Contador story. For anyone with a skeptical view of professional cycling, it was an open-and-shut case of the presence of a banned substance. A more nuanced view could point to subsequent examples where riders and other athletes were cleared after testing for levels higher than Contador returned. The cover story of eating contaminated Spanish beef seemed fanciful at the time, but there are several cataloged cases of athletes who have seen charges dropped after returning clenbuterol positives from eating spiked meat. His legacy could come down to which side on the ethical debate one stands. Contador was a proven winner before, during, and after that case, and besides his clenbuterol case, never tested positive for a banned substance. Yet he was also associated with some of the most notorious figures in the peloton. Like anyone who was a winner during that era, there will always be question marks. The case certainly had real-life consequences for Contador. He saw two grand tour victories disqualified — the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia — and never won another Tour.

Startt: It is really hard to say at this point. When the news first came out, I really thought it was a case of food poisoning, as the traces were very small and the half-life of the first results seemed to confirm such a possibility. The only problem is that a positive doping result from food poisoning still qualifies as a positive test. And this perhaps explains the weird story about getting contaminated by some imported meat from Spain, which, well, didn’t seem very credible. So I really don’t know what happened. It definitely tarnished his career and I think that the emotional strain really weighed on him. Contador still won some great races, but he didn’t dominate like before.

Photo: James Startt

What was Contador’s finest moment?

Startt: That is really hard to say. His 2009 Tour victory was so impressive. Not only did he have to win the race, but he had to survive all of the in-fighting on the team between Lance Armstrong and himself. And he did it in flying colors. And then there was that amazing 2012 Vuelta a España and that incredible duel between himself and Joaquim Rodriguez. What a race that was! But really, what I remember most about Alberto was that fighting spirit. He may have been down, but he never gave up. Contador would attack until quite literally he had no fight left in him. This was never more evident than in his many matches with Chris Froome towards the end of his career. Froome was just hitting his prime while Contador was on the decline. And Froome had the best team in the world. But time and again, Contador just kept looking for opportunities. He was brilliant, winning his third Vuelta against Froome in 2014, and that same fighting spirit gave him that wonderful stage win in his final Vuelta in 2017, a fitting swan song to a memorable career. Contador simply never went into a race without hope of winning it. He is a pure competitor, and that sense of competition has continued after his career, as he showed this past year with his Everesting record.

Hood: Like James said, it was Contador’s indomitable fighting spirit and strong character that made him stand apart. Rivals from Lance Armstrong to Chris Froome said it was nearly impossible to crack him. Contador was one of the few riders to dare stand up to Armstrong, and again he was one of the few riders single-handedly strong enough to take it straight to Froome and Team Sky. Though he never won another Tour after his ban, Contador’s aggressive racing and never-say-day “grinta” won him over legions of new fans. Winning the stage to Fuente Dé in a daring raid to snatch the 2012 Vuelta is a stand-out moment that encapsulates all the racing qualities that Contador brought to the peloton. Spain will be looking for its “next Contador” for a long time.