Twenty years from now, how will we remember Alberto Contador? Will we remember his heartbreaking crashes in 2014 and 2016? Will we recall the times in 2013 and 2015 when Chris Froome executed the cycling equivalent of Hulk Hogan’s leg drop on him? Will we remember that time when his eccentric boss, Oleg Tinkov, mooned the entire cycling world?
Probably not. My guess is that, 20 years from now, we will know Contador as that guy with the fun, bouncy climbing style, who celebrated his wins by shooting imaginary bad guys at the finish line. We will remember him driving a wrecking ball into the Lance/Johan comeback party in 2009. And perhaps, we will know Contador as the guy with more grand tour wins than Miguel Indurain and Jacques Anquetil.
Contador’s legacy has been on my mind since he abandoned the Tour de France on Sunday. As we all know, Contador endured the opening Week from Hell at this year’s Tour. He crashed twice. He was dropped twice on seemingly innocuous stages. His once-favorite domestique, Roman Kreuziger, left him in the dust before seizing control of the team. And, as you may have seen, his boss Oleg Tinkoff got naked on the side of the road.
Worst of all, Contador was reduced to punching-bag status in the GC fight. When the gloves finally came off on the stage 8 ascent of the Col du Peyresourde, Contador was the first GC man to suffer a TKO. I mean, he didn’t even throw a punch.
Back to Contador’s legacy. As a fan of Contador, I’m glad he dropped out. The last thing I wanted to see was a great Tour champ like Contador reduced to hunting for stages alongside Thibaut Pinot. Ugh, the humiliation.
And as a Contador fanboy, I’m going to take things a step further: I think El Pistolero needs to forget about the Tour de France entirely. Instead, he should go win the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia as many times as possible, before finally riding off into the sunset.
Look, Contador’s 2016 Tour ambitions were doomed the second he hit the deck on stage 1. There’s just no way to topple Fortress Froome or to out climb Nairo Quintana when you’re nursing a mangled body.
And let’s be honest, it really does appear that Contador’s best days are behind him at the Tour. Cycling is a cruel sport to the over-30 crowd, and at 33, Contador is inching his way toward old age. He can still hang on in the climbs, but his famously punchy acceleration appears to be gone. Each year, he loses another step to his rivals. These days, Quintana dominates Contador on the climbs, and Froome beats him consistently on the climbs and in flat time trials.
Contador has entered the Roger Federer/Tom Brady phase of his career. He’s still capable of winning big races, but he can’t rely on his physical gifts for victory. He needs a strong team, plenty of tactical acumen, and a little bit of luck. That’s how he won last year’s Giro d’Italia against Astana’s Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa. Contador was strong, but more importantly, he was smart.
As we’ve seen at the Tour, winners must have equal parts brain and brawn. At the moment, Chris Froome is the best of both. And once a Tour great loses the race, he rarely — if ever — wins it again.
So what can Contador hope to achieve in this phase of his career? He can still be competitive at the Giro and the Vuelta. Both races historically favor up-and-coming riders, however multiple over-the-hill riders have also won — looking at you, Chris Horner. Does Contador have several Giro- or Vuelta-winning efforts left in his legs? Maybe so.
More importantly, Contador can boost his legacy during this final phase of his career. Officially, Contador has won seven grand tours — the UCI history books threw out his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia win due to that Clenbuterol positive. Still, seven wins ties him with Miguel Indurain and Fausto Coppi for fourth place on the all-time list. Jacques Anquetil has eight. Bernard Hinault has 10 and Eddy Merckx has 11.
Could Contador get to nine grand tours? What about 10? I bet he could. Toppling Merckx is pretty far-fetched, at this point. If Contador were to target the Giro/Vuelta double over his final few seasons, that would require him to go unbeaten for the next three seasons. That’s highly unlikely.
And those races aren’t small potatoes, as we all know. To target the Vuelta and the Giro is to battle the sport’s most talented up-and-comers, such as Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez and Esteban Chaves of Orica – BikeExchange. Perhaps that will be El Pistolero’s final act: schooling the kids at the world’s second- and third-most prestigious races.
Yes, I realize that winning the Giro and the Vuelta just isn’t the same as winning the Tour de France. It’s like winning the FA Cup but losing the Premier League, or like winning the world championships but sitting out the Olympics. I’m sure Contador would happily trade his three Vuelta wins to have beaten Chris Froome at the Tour de France just once.
That’s just not going to happen. And 20 years from now, will anybody really care?