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Once again, against all odds, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) came out on top.
On Sunday, Contador reached the Vuelta a España summit for the third time of his successful, if controversial, career. It wasn’t supposed to happen. The “Pistolero of Pinto” crashed out of the Tour de France with what he said were the best legs ever. The problem was that one of his legs — the crown of the right tibia-fibula — was broken. Not shattered in pieces, but enough of a hairline fracture to force him out of the Tour and cast doubt on the remainder of his season.
Barely two weeks before the start of the Vuelta, cycling’s comeback kid surprised yet again, announcing that his recovery had gone better than expected, and that he’d start the Vuelta. Against a world-class field that included archrivals Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and the best of the Spanish peloton, Contador downplayed his GC chances, insisting he would race simply to put a grand tour into his legs, maybe win a stage, and pay respect to his national tour.
“I didn’t want to end my season with a crash,” Contador said. “I wanted to race the Vuelta if I could, but I never expected to win. Things developed better than I could have ever imagined.”
Contador’s injury wasn’t as bad as many believed, and the recovery went better than expected, but he was short on training kilometers and he came to the Vuelta with a “wait-and-see” attitude on the GC.
But this Vuelta was more than another grand tour for Contador. The Spanish superstar was all but written off by many last summer after his humiliating drubbing at the hands of Sky and Froome in the 2013 Tour de France.
This Vuelta victory arrived just as Contador was desperate to regain his status as one of the top grand tour riders of his generation. After his poor 2013 season, his worst since his rookie year in 2005, Contador returned to his highest level in 2014, winning or finishing second in every stage race going into the Tour. Then disaster struck, and he never had a chance to show it on the roads in France.
This third Vuelta victory will be Contador’s sweetest. In 2008, he won his first when the Tour de France blackballed his Astana team from participating. In 2012, he won his second thanks to his spectacular raid at Fuente Dé, snatching away the jersey in an ambush against Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
“Each victory is special, including in 2012 when I managed to win in the most unexpected way,” Contador said. “But considering the level of competition here, and the fact coming back from my injury, this one will be very special.”
After both Froome and Contador crashed out of the Tour this year, the world saw the matchup in Spain that everyone wanted to see this summer. Both came into the Spanish tour unsure of their respective conditions — Contador with his bum knee and Froome way behind in preparation following his wrist injury. Yet each found their legs as the race unfolded.
“No one tells the truth here,” Rodríguez grumbled midway through the Vuelta. “Froome and Contador said they were not ready to race to win, but they are in top form. I don’t believe they didn’t come here knowing that.”
Even if he wasn’t at his best, Froome fought to the very end, putting Contador on his limit up La Farrapona and Ancares. Unlike in the 2013 Tour, Contador didn’t crack. Instead, he rode with cool maturity, marking Froome’s wheel, and then countering late to win the Vuelta’s two hardest stages.
“I gave everything on the final climb, but Alberto was stronger than me,” Froome said. “Considering my condition at the start of the race, I cannot be anything but happy with this podium. I didn’t know if I could be top-10, the podium, or the victory.”
One firm conclusion during this Vuelta is that Froome was not as good as he was in the 2013 Tour, and Contador was better than he was during that Tour. When the numbers added up in the Vuelta, Contador out-gunned his archrival to deliver a dramatic victory on home roads for what is Contador’s first grand tour win since the 2012 Vuelta.
Contador had those same doubts, but survived the first week on what he said was his “class” as a rider. Supported by a strong Tinkoff team, Contador avoided troubles in the first half of the race and delivered perhaps his best individual time trial in years, taking important gains on Froome and his rivals to move into the pole position in Borja at the midway point of the Vuelta.
A pair of crashes by Quintana — the first a heavy fall in the Borja time trial, and a second the following day that left him with a fractured shoulder — took out the Vuelta’s pre-race favorite. By then, Contador was gaining confidence by the day.
Contador then fended off Froome and used his advantage he won in the time trial to play off his Spanish rivals, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Rodríguez. Neither could pose a serious challenge to Contador, and the race was on for the podium. Froome gained strength throughout the race but could not recover the TT losses, giving Contador a margin he could use to control the attacks in the decisive mountain stages.
“I had a lot of highs and lows after the Tour. I worked so hard to be in top condition for the Tour, and I was truly in my best shape ever,” Contador said. “It’s been a great season, first or second in every stage race. I hope to return to the Tour next year in similar condition, but now it’s time to enjoy this Vuelta.”
With the third Vuelta crown, Contador now boasts six official grand tour victories on his palmares, the most among any active rider. Contador lost two in the aftermath of his controversial clenbuterol case, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport disqualifying his 2010 Tour and his 2011 Giro d’Italia wins as part of its retroactive, two-year ban. CAS did not buy into Contador’s claims of contaminated meat, but did not call it straight-up doping. Instead, it suggested contamination of nutritional products.
Since then, Contador has been battling to try to regain his position atop the peloton as cycling’s best grand tour rider. The rise of Sky, with back-to-back Tour victories in 2012-2013, led many pundits to believe that Contador couldn’t be competitive in “new cycling.” Younger, ambitious rivals, such as Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Quintana, only made things that much more complicated.
After last year’s Tour, Contador said he went back to the basics, forgoing media and sponsor obligations, and working harder than ever. He spent weeks and weeks at altitude training camps in Spain’s Canary Islands, and came out gangbusters in 2014. This Vuelta victory straight up against Froome will revive Contador’s claims as the best grand tour rider in the peloton.
“Alberto is a special rider. He is strong in the head, the legs, and the heart,” said Tinkoff manager Bjarne Riis. “There are not a lot like him.”
This thrilling and exciting Vuelta will inevitably raise expectations for next year’s Tour, when Froome, Contador, Quintana, and Nibali will all be gunning for the yellow jersey.
With this Vuelta win, Contador reclaims his spot at the elite of the sport. Quintana and Froome have only won one grand tour each, while Nibali has won one of each. Contador has earned one Giro title, two Tour de France titles, and three Vueltas. If he can win another Tour, in what would be his first official yellow jersey since 2009, he can rightfully reclaim his title as the peloton’s best grand tour rider. As it stands now, that crown is still up for grabs.