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Alberto Contador’s emotional goodbye Sunday marks an end of an era for Spanish cycling.
Contador, 34, was the leading light of a golden generation of Spanish riders dubbed the “Spanish armada” that dominated much of the peloton over the past 15 years.
With Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) struggling with a career-threatening knee injury, Spanish cycling looks to enter its next generational cycle without a clear leader poised to take over.
“After 15 very hard years of fighting, today is a special day,” Contador said at the line Sunday. “When I started as a pro, I dreamed of racing the Tour de France, and then winning it. I also dreamed of finishing like this, at the top of the sport. I couldn’t ask for a better goodbye.”
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Contador, with 68 professional victories and countless thrilling attacks, will leave a big void to fill.
The self-styled “Pistolero” officially won seven grand tours, with two taken away as part of his controversial clenbuterol case. His eternal attacking style, his never-say-die attitude, and his penchant for delivering unexpected coups makes him one of Spain’s greatest cyclists.
“With Contador goes the last of the crazy adventurers, a rider capable of turning a race on its head,” said former ONCE manager Manolo Saíz. “There are not riders like him anymore. Cycling today is too predictable, too controlled. [Vincenzo] Nibali is a bit like him, but he’s almost at the end as well. It will be difficult to replace him. Today, riders don’t even dare to attack until 2km to go.”
Saíz, speaking to the Spanish wire service EFE, helped Contador turn pro in 2003. He quickly left his mark, and become one of the top stars in the post-Miguel Indurain era. At his best, Contador dominated stage racing, winning nearly two dozen other stage races during the arc of his career.
During its heyday, the “Spanish Armada” was a dominant force, even challenging Lance Armstrong during the Texan’s scandal-marred, seven-year run at the Tour de France.
Beyond Valverde and Contador, there was Joaquim Rodríguez, Carlos Sastre, Joseba Beloki, Oscar Freire, and 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez.
Yet as Sánchez’s inexplicable doping positive at the start of this Vuelta revealed, more than a few riders during that era were marked by doping scandal. Valverde served a two-year sanction for links to the Operación Puerto doping ring and Contador was handed down a two-year, back-dated ban for testing positive for traces of clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour.
The Spanish stars also helped the Spanish peloton endure some hard times during what was called “la crisis,” the economic downturn that swept the Spanish economy in 2008. What was once a thriving cycling scene, with four major teams, has now been dramatically reduced.
The only remaining WorldTour team is Movistar, with such teams as Euskaltel-Euskadi and the former ONCE and Kelme teams closing down as sponsorship dollars dried up.
The Spanish cycling calendar has also taken a beating, with many races either being canceled or reducing their race to just a one-day event.
While the Spanish scene struggled, Spanish riders went international. Contador raced for Astana, Discovery Channel, and Saxo Bank. Rodríguez landed at Katusha and Freire went to Rabobank and Mapei.
As the Spanish economy has recovered, there is hope that more teams could emerge to help provide a launching pad for the next generation of riders. Caja Rural remains at the Pro Continental level, while other teams such as Euskadi-Murias and Burgos BH have big plans for the future.
Many see Mikel Landa, set to join Movistar next season, as the rider who can carry the torch into the future for Spain. A grand tour victory would go a long way toward cementing his position as heir apparent.
“We believe Mikel can emerge as a major grand tour rider,” said Movistar general manager Eusebio Unzué. “We’ve seen his class, now he is position to confirm it. We believe he can win a race like the Giro d’Italia or perhaps even the Tour someday.”
Landa, 27, is already at the highest level, with big performances in the 2015 Giro and a fourth overall at the Tour this summer. Others waiting in the wings include David de la Cruz and Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) and Marc Soler (Movistar).
Landa, however, is the only one who seems to have the natural charisma and determination to possibly fill the Contador void.
No matter who might emerge in Spain, it will be hard to replace Contador.
He was the lone rider who engaged the larger Spanish public often more obsessed with soccer. His fearless attacks and trademark determination won him fans across Spain and the world.
“Alberto was a unique rider, someone who could capture the imagination of the fans,” said Vuelta director Javier Guillén. “He marked his era, and we were honored that he chose to race the Vuelta as his final race. Every day has been special on the road.”
On Sunday, Contador savored his final day in the saddle. The peloton let him ride alone onto the final circuit in central Madrid. He even sat up in the final sprint to enjoy the moment, something that allowed Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) to nudge into fourth overall. Contador later rode a lap of honor with his Trek-Segafredo teammates and waved a Spanish flag over his head.
“I don’t have words to explain this moment,” Contador said. “Now is the right moment to stop. I did everything with my heart. I always gave 100 percent. Cycling is a sport where the victory is the most important thing, but I also believe that the spectacle is important as well. I did everything I could in this Vuelta.”
His teammates and fans teased him with chants of “one more year!” but Contador is resolute in his decision to retire at the top of his game. Fans, housewives, and even a few journalists were tearful when Contador soloed to victory Saturday up the Anglirú. They know they won’t be seeing the likes of Contador for a long time.
It was the perfect parting shot for a rider who marked his generation.