If there’s calm in the eye of the brewing storm gathering around Alberto Contador, he can find it in his hometown of Pinto.
As Contador is facing potentially crippling doping allegations, he can count on the loyalty and support of his hometown, a bedroom community one hour south of Madrid that his family has called home since Contador was a young boy.
Contador is the biggest thing that ever came out of Pinto and a stroll down the pedestrian streets of this city of about 40,000 people reveals the depth of support for the beleaguered Tour de France champion.
Stores hang Contador posters in their windows. Residents string banners, T-shirts and yellow jerseys from balconies. One sign reads, escolares con Contador, students with Contador. Another reads: AC gracias campeón.
On October 23, the local mountain bike club held a rally in support of Contador. Hundreds of cyclists joined together to form a cadena humana en apoyo a Contador, a human chain in support of Contador.
Another banner hanging over the portal of Contador’s family home says it all: Alberto, estamos contigo, we are with you.
Neighbors said that the pressure of the looming case is weighing heavily on Contador and his tight-knit family.
“I would bet a lot that that boy hasn’t taken anything,” said Gonzalo Sánchez, who lives in the apartment just above Contador’s parents. “No matter what happens, it’s put a stain on him. When you see him in public, he still smiles and waves and stops for a chat. It’s not right for me to bring it up, but there’s no doubt that he’s hurt by it.”
While Contador seems to have retreated from the public eye after traces of clenbuterol were found in his system during a control at the 2010 Tour, he sticks to his daily routine in Pinto. Neighbors say they see Contador walking around town, visiting his parents and going on training rides.
Contador and his brother, Fran, who acts as his manager, did not want to comment for this story. Jacinto Vidarte, the press officer who works with Contador, also said that Contador’s parents did not want to make public comments until the case is resolved.
Like many people in Pinto, Sánchez says he’s known the Contador family for 25 years. The plumbing store he owns just downstairs from their apartments is filled with Contador memorabilia. He pulls out an autographed poster that Contador’s father brought around the other day.
“I see Alberto all the time. He comes around with his brother Fran to see his parents just about every day,” Sánchez said. “He’s not just a good person, he’s cojonudo. And it’s not just him, it’s his entire family. They’re good, honest people. People love Alberto in Pinto because of what he’s given to the city and because he’s such a genuine person. He hasn’t changed since he’s become famous.”
‘Favorite son’ receives official recognition
It was a busy morning at Pinto’s town hall on October 28. A gaggle of unhappy local police officials gather outside the town hall after confronting the city council over budget cutbacks. They wore T-shirts, “Sin policia, no hay seguridad” (Without police, there’s no security).
“We don’t have money to buy uniforms for the winter. We’re here to make them realize this,” one police officer said. “And on Contador, I believe he’s innocent. We see him around the town. He’s always very cordial.”
Later, another big group of citizens were kicked out of another session after tempers flared. “This is the democracy they’ve left us with, baagh,” grumbled one elderly gentleman who might have been around long enough to remember Franco. “Oh, you’re with the media, eh? There are a lot of journalists here these days sticking their noses around about Contador. Why cannot you leave him in peace?”
Earlier that morning, 21 members of the city government voted unanimously to name Contador hijo predilicto — officially naming him as “favorite son” — the first time in the city’s history that someone’s received that honor.
“The town of Pinto is the envy of any town, not because the best cyclist in the world is piteño (from Pinto), but because he’s Alberto Contador Velasco,” read the official document signed by the mayor. “We want to express with full clarity that there doesn’t exist even the minimum of doubt about the sporting fair play.”
The gesture comes as Contador could use all the help he can get. His career and his reputation are hanging in the balance of what officials and scientists from the UCI and WADA will decide about his fate.
Locals believe and support Contador
That depth of support and belief in Contador’s innocence reflects the deep roots he has with the community.
His parents moved to Pinto into a modest, second-floor walk-up apartment right in the heart of the old town more than 25 years ago. Even though Contador makes enough money to buy everyone in his family a new home, his parents choose to remain in the same apartment.
Contador lives just around the corner from his parents and stops by every day when he’s not chasing bike races across Europe.
Locals say he has not let success go to his head.
“Everyone in Pinto loves him because he hasn’t changed at all,” says José Antonio Fernández, owner of the Trazos Cafeteria just across the street from Pinto’s main cathedral. “Alberto es uno más … just one more, like everyone else.”
Contador drops in regularly to Fernández’s bar to have a café con leche and reads the morning papers.
“Alberto was just here yesterday,” Fernández says, who wasn’t too happy to see the reporter’s notebook and pen. “You are not the first journalist to come around. Some come in here and ask the wrong kind of questions.”
Fernández pulls out a scrapbook filled with photos and memorabilia. Fernández says he started to train with Contador when he started racing in the juvenile division, beating riders older than him and quickly making a name for himself in regional races.
When asked about doping, Fernández reacts the same as just about everyone else in Pinto.
“There’s nothing. He’s very clean. He’s always been very proper, with the way he trains and he’s always being tested,” he says. “He’s never had a problem and I’ve known him since he raced juveniles when he was 14-15.”
What would the local butcher have to say about Contador, who claims that he ate Spanish meat tainted with clenbuterol?
The Naranjo Carniceria, just around the corner from Contador’s parent’s house, was crowded with morning shoppers loading up on the very meat that Contador claims caused him all his troubles.
“He’s number one. We believe him. None of this makes sense,” says Pedro Naranjo, one of five brothers who run the busy butcher’s shop. “He walks by here every day. He’s just like everyone else. He waves and says hello. He has remained as normal as he always was despite winning three Tours. And it should have been four, but they took one away from him (referring to 2008, when Astana was not allowed to race the Tour).”
What about Contador’s argument that Spanish beef triggered his positive?
The Naranjo brothers insist that’s unlikely. They show the ticket that comes with every cut of beef, which traces the place of birth, where it was fattened and slaughtered, and how it was transported. They say that source of every cut in beef in their store can be traced back to the original owner. Clenbuterol was banned for beef destined for human consumption in 1996 across Europe.
“You’d have to eat an entire cow to get clenbuterol in your system. Spanish beef is very controlled,” says Pedro Naranjo. “We’ve been here 60 years. No one’s died of eating beef yet.”
So if the beef isn’t the cause, how did Contador test positive?
“It’s something to do with the French. They haven’t won the Tour in 25 years and Lance Armstrong was too powerful to get, so they have to go after Alberto,” says José Naranjo as he expertly slices out filets. “They’re obviously going after him, because it’s zero, dot, zero, zero, zero, zero I don’t know what. It’s all political.”
‘Entre Pinto y Valdemoro’
By midday, the stores are shuttered for siesta. Only a few bars remain open. Pinto’s main plaza is vacant. Two cyclists spin past and take photos of the yellow banner hanging from the town hall. The draw of Contador continues.
“We wanted to come see Contador’s village,” says Victor Manuel Irizarry, a security guard in Madrid’s metro system. “He’s done enough to prove his innocence. He’s offered to freeze his blood, to test it for years. I don’t believe he did anything.”
His friend, Luís Cerdan Mendina, echoes the same sentiment: “They need more proof to ban him. He should be training, not having to give press conferences.”
Those views reflect many in Spain, where a poll conducted by the sports daily Marca found that 83 percent of readers believe Contador’s innocence.
Of course, what the residents of Pinto believe or think has no influence whatsoever on the outcome of his case.
That support could become priceless, however, if Contador is banned for two years and is stripped of his 2010 Tour crown. He knows he’ll never be alone.
Ironically, there’s an expression in Spanish that gave Pinto fame long before the rise of Contador’s star. When a situation is neither here nor there, or if a situation is muddled and unclear, a Spaniard will reply, “entre Pinto y Valdemoro,” referring another bedroom community just down the road from Pinto.
That proverb reflects exactly where the favorite son of Pinto finds himself as he waits to hear his fate.
Editor’s Note: Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood’s covered every Tour since 1996 and has been VeloNews’ European correspondent since 2002. He lives in Leon, Spain, when he’s not chasing bike races.