Could there have possibly been a better ending for Alberto Contador? Sure.
The 34-year-old Spaniard could have gouged minutes from Chris Froome and everyone on the Alto de l’Angliru and left the Vuelta a España with the overall win and one last red jersey. But expecting that feat or even wanting it from Contador would have been too much. He came into the queen stage of the Vuelta, the final race of his 14-year career, in fifth place, three-and-a-half minutes down on Froome. Making it all up in one go never could have happened. But he came about as close as was plausible, producing a vintage Contador performance, leaving the sport with an iconic stage win on a foreboding climb, and securing a fourth-place overall finish.
Contador’s Vuelta was pretty much ruined from the start, as an infection cost him two minutes on the third stage. But he never stopped taking fliers, and even though Froome was clearly the best rider and coasted to a relatively easy win, Contador was pure action. He’s always been the pugnacious, irrepressible sort, and here he was, ending his career by attacking over and over again. It worked here and there throughout the three-week race, and heading into the Angliru on Saturday, he was sitting pretty at fifth place. His efforts to win a stage had thus far come up fruitless, and he’d faded late enough times to lead you to think that maybe it wouldn’t happen for him. After all, winning any single bike race takes guts, intelligence, stamina, and most cruelly of all, luck. It would have been a more than respectable end, and all he had to do was chill and let Froome’s teammates work themselves inside out protecting their leader.
That is not what Contador did. Towards the bottom of the descent leading up the Angliru, he sped off with a teammate and quickly hoovered up the splintered remains of the day’s break. The Angliru is a beast of a climb, at 12.5 kilometers with an average gradient of 10 percent and pitches of 24 percent. Its windswept slopes undulate and gradually steepen and it’s utterly unforgiving for about 45 minutes of hell. Froome and Wout Poels dropped the rest of the general classification pack towards the end of the climb but even as they raced together, they couldn’t catch Contador. El Pistolero got to fire one last shot.
Contador eventually finished fifth thanks to a weird peloton split on Stage 21, which preserved a career-long streak of only ever finishing on the top step of Grand Tour podiums. It’s a fitting and strange streak, one that shows what a ruthless and incisive bike rider Contador was. The Spaniard began his career with ONCE (now Astana), and picked up a few wins here and there, but a shadow was cast over his young career when he was implicated in Operacion Puerto. Contador was eventually cleared, although strong evidence linked him to blood doping with disgraced doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
Regardless, he signed with the Lance Armstrong-less Discovery Channel team in 2007 and his career took off. After Michael Rasmussen was booted from that year’s Tour de France, Contador took over the yellow jersey and held off Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer in one of the closest Tours of all time. 2007 was a dark year for cycling, as the sport was just emerging from its Lance hangover and lurching into a fresh batch of doping issues. Contador’s legacy is inextricably tied up with a series of overlapping scandals, and even if he’s pleaded his innocence in both cases he popped a positive, he’s long been regarded as a cheater. This is how it is for most every elite cyclist who was around a decade ago. That doesn’t make him any less exciting of a bike racer.
After Contador won that first Tour de France, Discovery was disbanded and Contador went on one of the greatest streaks in cycling history. From the 2007 Tour through the 2011 Giro, Contador won every Grand Tour he entered. He ripped off the Giro-Vuelta double in 2008, then won the 2009 and 2010 Tour, first beating his teammate Armstrong in his comeback season then defeating Andy Schleck in a controversial Tour, where he drew criticism for attacking Schleck as his chain slipped off. Schleck and Contador looked set to usher out the Armstrong era with a great rivalry, but Schleck was mentally broken and it never materialized. Contador kept at it though.
Unfortunately for Contador, that 2010 win and his dominant 2011 Giro win were both stripped after a positive test for Clenbuterol. He vigorously claimed that he ingested tainted meat, but the cycling world was unsympathetic and his vacated wins gave Schleck and Michele Scarponi their only career Grand Tour victories.
That was not the end of Contador, and even as Chris Froome and a new class of GC titans was coming up, Contador won a pair of Vuelta titles as well as the 2015 Giro. He’ll retire with seven official Grand Tour wins; nine if you count the two vacated ones. That comfortably puts him among the greatest cyclists of all time, as does his Triple Crown of Grand Tours. More than anything, Contador will be remembered as a thrilling rider, one who tried wacky shit that worked more often than it should have.
Cycling can be a monotonous sport, and the best rider in the world today is a robotic dude who stares at a power meter. Contador’s dominant career is an affront to the idea that steady, machinelike riding is the only way to be a winning cyclist. He spent his entire career bobbing and weaving above his handlebars, ripping away from his opponents with some of the most vicious and sudden attacks the sport has ever known, and punishing those who would try to keep pace with him. The sport is losing a star who, to some, represents the last vestiges of an evil era that the sport needed to move on from. But that’s not Contador’s most prominent legacy. He’s a true bike racer, a risk taking madman in a sport that’s growing more staid. Cycling won’t be the same.