GIJON, Spain (VN) — Alberto Contador saved his best shot for last Saturday to put an exclamation point on a racing career packed with drama and emotion.
The pistolero’s never-say-die attitude carried the day with an emotional stage win on the Anglirú. His 68th career victory, and his last, gave the Spanish superstar a fitting farewell to a career marked with dramatic highs and crushing lows.
“I cannot think of a better way to say goodbye,” Contador said. “To win on the Anglirú on the last climb of my career. I gave everything.”
Contador always gives everything, but on the penultimate day of the 2017 Vuelta a España, he seemed to have an extra gear. Knowing that this was the final major mountain stage of his storied and sometimes-controversial 15-year racing career, Contador was on intent on going out through the “puerta grande.”
Like a Spanish bullfighter being carried out of the bullring on the shoulders of his adoring fans, Contador wanted to add one more extraordinary page to his palmares.
“I knew I had to win today, and I knew it would be complicated,” Contador said. “I was getting frustrated in this Vuelta because my results were not matching my power numbers. Without a doubt, I wanted to win the stage today.”
In what was fitting with his personal trademark of, “where there is a will, there is a way,” Contador sliced through delirious crowds up the narrow, painful Anglirú summit. He gapped the GC group by more than a minute, even riding onto the virtual podium at one point. It was the stage that Contador wanted more than anything.
Even a late charge by Sky nemesis and 2017 Vuelta winner Chris Froome couldn’t spoil Contador’s fairytale ending. The pair has duked it out over the past half-decade, with Contador winning the 2012 and 2014 editions of the Vuelta over Froome, while Sky has frustrated Contador’s dreams of another yellow jersey over the past six years.
The peloton’s two best stage racers over the past decade embraced behind the winner’s podium. Froome can finally breath a sigh of relief knowing that he won’t have to withstand Contador’s attacks anymore.
“We did everything to try to catch Alberto,” said Froome, who finished third behind Sky teammate Wout Poels at 17 seconds back. “He was too strong today. Congratulations to him. For Alberto to finish his career like this is beautiful.”
Like a Michael Jordan or a Christiano Ronaldo, Contador has made a career on delivering the dramatic. His attacks became legendary in cycling. Fuente Dé. Formigal. Arcalis. Already a winner at Anglirú in 2008, Contador wanted to write a new page in the history books as the only two-time winner on Spain’s hardest mountain.
It was the descent off the day’s penultimate climb on the Alto de Cordal, even more treacherous when wet, that Contador opened up a promising, and stage-defining 40-second gap on the GC group.
“I could see Froome was on the limit on some of the corners. I know that the Cordal is a dangerous descent, so I pushed it a little bit,” Contador said. “[Jarlinson] Pantano descended like a kamikaze, and I could barely stay with him. Sky was blocking me a bit from passing, and once I got through, we went down the maximum.”
Weather conditions were Dante-esque in their extreme. The mountaintop podium had to be dismantled due to high winds. Rain, wind and fog enveloped the rocky shard-like summit, but the skies opened up briefly as Contador hit the bottom of the twisting, snaking 12.5km summit. It’s as if the cycling gods didn’t want to miss the show.
“Normally I like to ride out of the saddle, but today it was especially slippery, so I had to stay sitting down more,” Contador said. “I was getting goose-bumps with the support from the fans. It was a great day. I am truly happy.”
Spain’s “Pistolero” made the final mountain summit count. Just like Fabian Cancellara, who retired last summer with the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, Contador can leave at the absolute top of his game.
He could easily race another season, especially with how well he’s raced this Vuelta. He lost minutes in an off-day in stage three, but battled back from 30th place to fourth overall, just 20 seconds off the final podium.
“Despite the suffering, I enjoyed it so much today,” Contador said. “This was the last mountain of my sporting career. I had a lot of tension, but also I could enjoy the moment. I cannot imagine a better way to say goodbye.”
Contador promised to leave everything on the road, and he did. No regrets. Nothing left in the tank. And he did not disappoint.
“Cycling will miss him,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Dirk Demol. “Cycling has changed. Riders are afraid to attack today. Contador is almost the last of his kind.”
Contador painted his final masterpiece on a canvas of rock and wind. As he came into the finish line, even with Sky nipping at his heels, Contador zipped up his jersey. He waved to the crowd to savor the cheers one last time. And then he fired his final bullet.