Enjoy him while you can. Alberto Contador is cycling’s last great disrupter, and he’s intent on going out with a bang.
Whether or not he will retire at the end of this year or next, it will be almost impossible to replace him. The 34-year-old Spaniard is the last of the old-school attackers, a rider capable of throwing out the script and improvising on the road. It’s a skillset that is fast disappearing in a sport now defined by racing on power meters, not instinct.
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This weekend’s final two Paris-Nice stages saw Trek-Segafredo’s captain at his best, delivering thrills a minute, though he lost the overall by the slenderest of margins — two seconds, to be exact, the smallest in Paris-Nice history (after losing last year by four seconds). In going all-in, Contador proved that losing can be winning.
“That’s the way I am,” Contador said nonchalantly Sunday in Nice. “I have to try something. I can’t be happy sitting back. I have to take risks on the flats, on the climbs, and on the descents.”
Contador lit up Paris-Nice, turning what was already hailed as an extremely hard edition, both with horrible weather that marked the opening days of the eight-stage race, and by the intensity of racing. Riders limped into Nice on Sunday, happy that the suffering was over, and content to have survived with what they could take away.
“This Paris-Nice was murdering,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Tony Gallopin, who started the weekend in second overall, but sank to 10th by Sunday. “I was completely empty [Sunday].”
Credit to Sergio Henao (Sky), who didn’t succumb to panic or fold to pressure to take an overdue GC victory. The Colombian national champion, 29, survived two harrowing days of crosswinds that took out Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who was DQ’d for taking too much assistance after trying to chase back, and Contador, who lost 1:04 on the first day. Henao then started chipping away and hanging in there, two qualities that serve any GC rider well. With compatriot Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in control at Tirreno-Adriatico, Henao is holding up his end of the growing Colombian dominance in the peloton.
“I tried not to panic when Contador attacked, but I knew I was going to suffer,” said Henao, who found some allies on the road coming off Col d’Eze. “To win Paris-Nice is incredible, and it’s the biggest win of my career.”
Contador can take satisfaction out of doing what he always does, squeezing the most from his body and turning race dynamics to his favor. Contador is one of those rare riders who races to win every stage race he starts, even when he’s not in peak form, yet a rider who will risk losing to win.
“Sometimes you are at the front, and sometimes you’re not, so each day you must look at your position, and try to be more in the front,” Contador said. “That’s cycling. It was a beautiful day for racing, and that’s also important. I prefer to win, but this is the sport.”
Some of his famous coups are already legend — Fuente Dé to win the 2012 Vuelta a España or last year’s attacks on the road to Formigal that caught out Chris Froome (Sky) and handed Quintana the Vuelta crown last year — yet you can’t help but think that Contador is hoping he won’t have to rely on dramatic comebacks, and that things will go to script later this summer when he returns to France.
He’ll line up next at Volta a Catalunya (March 20-26) and defend his title at the Vuelta al País Vasco (April 3-8), but Contador’s big goal is the 2017 Tour. To have a chance against Mr. Regularity and his Sky Star Troopers, Contador will need everything to go absolutely right. And that hasn’t happened very often for Contador over the past several years at the Tour. If he has to revert to improvisation again in July, he’ll have almost no hope if Froome and Sky are in control.
Contador cannot afford a single hiccup this summer to have any realistic prospect of beating Froome. Since 2012, Contador’s been on a quixotic journey for another Tour title. With two official wins, and another vacated, Contador wants nothing less than to add one more Tour crown to his otherwise brilliant palmares before retiring.
While he can afford to light up much of the rest of the calendar, often to the delight of his fans and the media, he’s had neither luck nor legs to seriously challenge Froome at the Tour over the past half-decade. And with Froome going for yellow jersey No. 4 this summer after proving in 2016 he’s as nimble and adaptive as anyone in the peloton, Contador will need be flawless to have realistic odds of stepping on the Tour podium’s top spot on the Champs-Élysées.
Miracles rarely happen in July, even for a rider with as many merits and talents as Contador.