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ORNANS, France (VN) — Even cycling’s superstars are not immune to misfortune. In a Tour de France that’s consumed Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), and Chris Froome (Sky) in the first week, the peloton pedaled into a trio of stages across the lumpy Vosges with a sense of impending doom.
Alberto Contador’s Tour de France hopes came crashing down Monday, with his absence dramatically reshaping the fight for the GC even before the Tour reached the Alps. The Spaniard reached back into his jersey, hit a hole in the road, and suffered perhaps one of the worst crashes in his career, somersaulting over the pavement at 70kph. In an instant, his Tour was over.
Ever defiant, Contador tried to remount his bike, hoping in vain to recover contact with the main pack, disappearing down the road, four minutes clear and counting. Shaken, and perhaps in denial, Contador succumbed to the inevitable. His jersey tattered and torn, Contador pedaled ahead, hugged Tinkoff-Saxo teammate to say goodbye, and his Tour was done. The diagnosis: a fractured tibia, throwing the rest of his season, and perhaps his Tour future, into doubt.
“It’s difficult to describe. You feel tremendous sadness. I’ve worked so hard for this Tour,” Contador said overnight. “I can honestly say I’ve never worked so hard for a Tour in my life. Even though I was back in the GC, I was content with the situation, and with how my legs were feeling.”
The implications for the 31-year-old and the Tour were immediate. Without Contador, the Tour loses its proven winner and the last true menace to Vincenzo Nibali’s ever-tightening grip on the yellow jersey. And Contador’s painful exit will inevitably raise questions about his future as a Tour contender.
Tinkoff-Saxo hastily cancelled a rest day press conference scheduled for Tuesday, because with its star rider out of the race, the team was in dire need of the rest day to regroup.
“It’s so frustrating, because Alberto was in the form of his life,” said Tinkoff-Saxo manager Bjarne Riis. “The entire team was backing him for victory in Paris.”
Knowing how Riis operates, the team will ride full gas later this week as the Tour turns into the Alps, sending riders such as Michael Rogers and Rafa Majka on the attack, but those will be humble goals in contrast to the yellow jersey dreams that Contador and Riis had been nurturing since last summer.
“I started out thinking about winning the stage, but everything changed with the crash. I tried to keep going, but after being on the bike for a minute, I could tell the injury to my leg was pretty serious,” Contador recounted. “I did everything I could to continue, but the pain on my knee was too much, I could not bend it, and I had to stop.”
His bitter exit is the latest chapter in Contador’s long and bumpy road at the Tour de France.
Now 31, Contador knows he might only have a few more shots at the Tour, and he wanted to win this year’s Tour more than ever.
Following his controversial clenbuterol case in 2010, that resulted in a back-dated, two-year ban, and the disqualification of his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro d’Italia titles, among other results, Contador wanted to prove to everyone he could still win the Tour.
“There are so many months of work and sacrifice,” Contador said. “I did everything possible, but the Tour is done with me.”
Under contract through 2015 with Tinkoff-Saxo, Contador’s immediate future is uncertain. He returned to Spain Tuesday morning, flying on Oleg Tinkoff’s private jet. After meeting with doctors, the team announced that he’ll try for an ambitious 40-day rehabilitation program, leaving door open, if ever slightly, to riding the Vuelta a España.
“Without an operation, it’s 100 percent I couldn’t ride the Vuelta,” he said. “With an operation, maybe, but the problem isn’t starting the Vuelta, but to be in condition to win.”
With this Tour a wash, Contador will need to dig deep once again to find the motivation and drive to return from injury, to build up the form and fight yet again to climb cycling’s highest mountain. Ever for a rider as stubborn and ambitious as Contador, that won’t be easy.
And, with the rise of such riders as Froome, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Nibali, Contador knows it won’t be easy to reclaim his position as king of the Tour. He’s already hinted he doesn’t planning riding beyond his mid-30s.
Contador was once on track to come close to matching or beating Eddy Merckx’s record of 11 grand tour victories. With two erased from his clenbuterol case, he has five, but all that seems like a long time ago. Contador will have to fight back one more time.
Monday’s painful exit is the latest chapter in Contador’s love-and-hate relationship with the Tour. Here’s a quick glance at his Tour history:
2005 — 31st: In first Tour appearance, he was third in the young rider competition, arriving in 31st to Paris. He rode as a helper to Roberto Heras and Joseba Beloki at Liberty Seguros, proving that he could develop into a grand tour contender.
2006 — DNS: Did not race after he was among nine riders removed from the Tour in a final-hour decision by ASO and the UCI for links between the team and the Operación Puerto doping scandal unfolding in Spain. Also removed were Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso. Initially linked to the Puerto dossier, Contador’s name was not confirmed during a hearing in Madrid last year. The cloud of doubt, however, has hung over Contador ever since.
2007 — 1st: Won his first Tour in the wake of the controversial expulsion of race-leader Michael Rasmussen. Contador won a stage in the Pyrénées, and then took yellow when Rasmussen was removed from the race by his Rabobank team.
2008 — DNS: After a move to Astana, Contador was unable to race the Tour after ASO decided to not allow the team to start the Tour following blood-doping positives from Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin the previous year. Contador won the Giro and Vuelta instead.
2009 — 1st: Contador’s Tour woes continue when he’s forced to share leadership with the return of Lance Armstrong. Contador, however, rides his own race and refuses to fold to Armstrong’s will, attacking him in the Pyrénées. Contador wins two stages, a mountaintop finish at Verbier and a time trial at Annecy, confirming his status as the new Tour dominator.
2010 — DSQ: Contador battles Andy Schleck to the wire, winning by just 39 seconds. He later tests positive for traces of clenbuterol, which he claims entered his system after eating steaks brought from Spain on the second rest day. Despite maintaining his innocence, the Court of Arbitration for Sport hands him a two-year ban.
2011 — DSQ: As his lawyers battled the clenbuterol case, Contador raced and won the Giro d’Italia. After earning an unexpected window to race the Tour, he could only muster fifth, only to see all of his results from 2011 swiped clean by the CAS ruling following a 17-month legal process.
2012 — DNS: Contador missed the Tour yet again after CAS handed down its ruling in February 2012. He returned in time to race the Vuelta, which he won in a spectacular raid in the Picos de Europa.
2013 — 4th: Back to the Tour again, Contador is out-gunned by a superior Chris Froome (Sky), who attacks him in the final mountain stage to knock Contador off the final podium.
2014 — DNF: After a spectacular run across the spring season, winning or finishing second in every stage race he started, Contador starts the Tour with high hopes. He loses nearly three minutes to Nibali over the cobblestones and crashes out in stage 10 on a descent in the Vosges.