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Counting the Memories: The Day the Doubts Died

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Alberto Contador revived his image as a racer with one brilliant Vuelta escape in 2012

Contador Shocks the Peloton
Tim de Waele, Corbis/Getty

When Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador announced his retirement recently, effective following the imminent Vuelta a España that commences Saturday in Nimes, France, it touched off a predictable round of mixed feelings from all corners of cycling. To the cycling establishment, it signified the departure of a rare bird, a winner of all three grand tours, from its nest. To journalists, it was an invitation to celebrate some of the memorable days the Madrileño enjoyed on the bike in his storied career, from promising amateur nearly felled by cerebral cavernoma to champion of the sport. For fans, it was one last round of assessing the bad old days, which seemed to have lived on to some degree or another through Contador.

No year encapsulates the highs and lows of Contador’s career than 2012. He entered the year as the 2010 Tour de France champion — his third title — but with his legacy under withering assault. The “Chaingate” kerfluffle, when he rode away from Andy Schleck at the 2010 Tour just as the Luxemburger suffered a chain drop on the key climbing stage, had dented his image as a rider worthy of everyone’s respect. Then things got dramatically worse when he tested positive for clenbuterol in that same race, placing both those results and his future in doubt. 2011 brought little relief, as the case dragged on, causing Contador to focus on the Giro (which he won) until the CAS ruled in June on whether he could ride the Tour. The June date got kicked down the road, Contador went to the Tour and made a few memorable attacks, but eventually succumbed to the presence of those Giro miles in his legs, along with a few crashes, sinking to fifth in Paris.

Although 2012 began with Contador still in limbo, it didn’t last long as the CAS ruled against him in February, banned him for two years, backdated to the 2010 Tour, and annulled all his results from the date of the positive test. Saxo Bank canceled his contract, but re-signed him on June 8 and got him ready to contest the ‘12 Vuelta when August 5 came and his ban was lifted.

When the Vuelta departed from Pamplona, celebrating its return to the Basque Country and particularly the province Navarre with an all-northern route, Contador was penciled in among the favorites to win, but with lingering questions about his lack of race fitness he was regarded as a secondary threat to Chris Froome, who had just impressed at the Tour de France in helping Bradley Wiggins to the win, and who had barely missed out at the Vuelta win in 2011 behind the mercurial Juan Jose Cobo. Joaquim Rodriguez, Purito to his friends, was the top contender arriving via the Giro d’Italia, where only a few extra km of time trialling stopped him from winning that elusive grand tour title, something that wouldn’t be a big problem at the Vuelta.

2012 Vuelta Route

Cobo himself was back for another go, but after winning for the thoroughly discredited Saunier Duval team (rebranded as Geox), he’d jumped to Movistar and had a forgettable year, entering the race as the team’s “potential leader.” Those past associations surely didn’t do Cobo any favors as far as fans wondering about his ups and downs were concerned. But if you adhere to the principle that the simplest explanation is probably right, then his history of disappearing confidence (aided by depression) are maybe a better clue, and Movistar’s reluctant defense of his prospects undoubtedly made matters worse.

Missing from the startlist were both of the year's grand tour winners, with Ryder Hesjedal having played his remaining cards at the Tour de France, and Wiggins off on his historic victory lap, perhaps unwisely ceding control of Team Sky to Froome. Other potential riders to watch included Euskaltel’s perpetual leader Igor Anton, who looked like a winner in 2010 before dramatically crashing out; 2009 winner Alejandro Valverde; and an assortment of Colombians, Dutchmen and Belgies with no great history of grand tour excellence.

So these are the waters into which Contador swam upon his return. After the team time trial put Movistar in the driver's seat for a few days, the race hit a Basque ski resort on stage 4 where Purito inserted himself into the lead by a few seconds, which grew to about a minute after a couple rides through favorable terrain in Andorra. J-Rod then held on by the skin of his teeth (a/k/a one second) over Contador following a time trial, which he pushed out again to 28" over Pistolero and more than two minutes over everyone else. The race seemed like it was over, if Rodriguez was going to keep climbing like that. With no more time trial long left, conventional tactics were doomed to fail.

And so, stage 17 got underway with everyone predicting it was a day for the breakaway. Funny, just a few days ago in my Viewers’ Guide I was musing that stage 5 was an oddity in that it included a finishing climb of only 4%, and I wonder when the last time they bothered with such weaksauce at the end of a stage? That one will be 3.4km of 4% (and an earlier climb of 13.2km at 3.7%). When have they ever made the riders suffer so little on a climb? Stage 17 in 2012, at least at the end. Here’s the profile:

Stage 17 to Fuente Dé

Pretty dramatic, in that ZOMG!!! way that profiles are, but the 17.3km involved averaged a mere 3.9%, and when you take out a few steep ramps it was mostly a false flat, at least as far as the top climbers on hand that day were concerned. Stories from before and after the stage present a clear consensus: the GC was going to take a pass here and save the final battle, down probably to Purito and Pistolero, for the final Bola del Mundo stage.

2012 Vuelta stage 17 map

Here’s where they were. Interestingly enough, this year’s 18th stage starts in Suances, just west of 2012’s start in Santander, and via a slightly longer route comes to the Collado de Ozalba and Collado La Hoz. But where that sprint point shows green on the map, at Potes, they turned right to Fuente Dé. This year they go left to Santo Toribio de Liebana and a shorter, still fairly easy, finishing climb.

OK, let’s break down the big day, By the Numbers! [Click to Embiggen]

Fuente Dé Stage... By the Numbers
Tim de Waele

1. El Pistolero

Yep, that’s Contador, wearing the white jersey of the Combinada Classification, a mashup of points, mountains and general classifications. He was keeping it warm, however, for Rodriguez, who led the classification almost throughout the Vuelta... only to lose it on the penultimate stage, to Valverde. Purito would go home empty-handed, apart from his stop on the third step of the podium.

Anyway, this is a fairly elusive image of Contador launching his initial attack. At this point the race had just over 50km left. Rodriguez would comment later that the Saxo Bank team seemed to be riding exceptionally well on the stage, and though the race humped along with no separation for its first 80km, by this point a breakaway was less than two minutes up the road, containing several teammates of both Contador’s and Valverde’s, while Rodriguez stayed nestled in his cocoon of Katusha teammates. Contador and Valverde had gotten some separation on the first climb of the Ozalba, but Purito and company closed it down before the next climb began. That’s where this photo happens, as Contador launches his fateful attack with a couple hours worth of racing left.

That the attack was completely unexpected is universally acknowledged, including Rodriguez himself immediately after the race. And yet, when last seen, Contador was at the 2011 Tour de France, launching a long-range attack on the Col du Galibier with Andy Schleck, putting Cadel Evans under pressure, though to no great avail in the end. Still, Contador the World’s #1 Rider and three-time Tour champion had made his bones by attacking in more conventional ways, late in stages, and the 2010 race was almost devoid of any real action until Schleck dropped his chain. So seeing him reach back in time and launch a heroic, desperate attack of Hinaultian character was stunning enough in the Tour. This time, it would provide more than entertainment. This time, he was attacking from a position of strength.

2. Igor Anton, Euskaltel

First, don’t quote me exactly on who is in the background, obviously it’s not that easy to make out positive identifications. But Anton, the Basque climber in the classic Basque mold, was the team’s leading rider that year, both at the start and the finish, taking eighth place. Maybe this was Amets Txurruka, or a very young Mikel Landa, but my guess is Anton.

Anton’s story is known pretty well, so I’ll just briefly recap it, but basically he’s a guy who hung around on the climbs, looking like a possible grand tour contender as early as 2006 when at age 23 he won a stage of the Vuelta to the Observatory at Calar Alto where this year’s race will venture on stage 11. But he had a knack for falling off his bike, and a powerful 2007 Vuelta was scuttled en route to the Angliru. Three years later he held a commanding position with 45 seconds on Vincenzo Nibali and climbing like a demon. Then he slipped on a descent, I believe on a paint strip?, and his Vuelta was over, taking his best chance to win one of the sport’s three-week events. His 9th place in 2012, behind Contador, was the only top 10 of his career since then.

But don’t look now! He’s still around, riding for Dimension Data, and was sixth in the Vuelta a Burgos two weeks ago. So you never know...

3. OMG... that’s Damiano Cunego???

Or Przemyslaw Niemiec. Maybe even a young Winner Anacona. But I think it might be Cunego! OK, let’s move on.

4. The Salad Days of Andrew Talansky

Talansky doesn’t merit much attention nowadays, but the Garmindale franchise has stood by him, starting with this, his first grand tour leadership campaign, where he bagged seventh. With him in this photo is Koldo Fernandez and either Thomas Dekker (!) or one of the Kreders. Had there been a best young rider competition in that year’s Vuelta, Talansky would have won it (I think, depending on whether Robert Gesink (!) would have qualified in this hypothetical). Talansky was fifth last year, the finest GC result of his career in a grand tour, and is back to lead Cannondale this month. Is it as exciting as it was five years ago? Not really, and with a 49th place at the Tour expectations aren’t soaring like they once were.

5. Alejandro Valverde, Movistar

Sporting the green points competition kit (on behalf of actual leader Rodriguez), the Green Bullet was one of four former winners on hand for the Vuelta in 2012, along with Denis Menchov (now a Katusha helper), Contador and Valverde’s teammate Cobo, who in keeping with the low expectations set by the team was nowhere to be seen on this day. Not that it mattered, but he would lose 20 minutes, hanging around the caboose of the train, while Valverde could count on the assistance of Beñat Intxausti and a very young Nairo Quintana.

Valverde had ridden a decent race, taking the overall lead for a day with a punchy stage 3 victory, but as the race wore on the gap from him to Purito grew ominously. Still, for all the negative things one might say about the man and his career, he knows how to read a race, and on this day he would sense something was up with Contador. Like Contador, he got away from Purito on the first climb of the day. Like Contador, he had teammates up the road who could help him if a move happened. it didn’t quite unfold that way, as Contador gets away cleanly in the photo, but for all the heroism heaped on Pistolero, Valverde would eventually get free, pick up a couple stragglers, and finish a mere six seconds behind Contador on the stage. He leapt over Rodriguez by half a minute, reversing a two-minute deficit, and by the end he had second overall, plus the points and combined classification victories. The man knows how to pay the bills.

6. Katusha Team

Like I said above, Purito enjoyed plenty of company around him as events unfolded, with a battery of climbers on hand like Alberto Losada, Menchov, Dani Moreno and so on. It’s nice to have friends around when things go wrong.

But missing from this picture are any Saxo riders, apart from Contador. His were up the road, a trio consisting of Bruno Pires, Jesus Hernandez and Sergio Paulinho, and when Contador got away, he caught his friends and stretched his lead over Purito, Valverde and the rest to some two minutes as the climb to Fuente Dé began. Even better, once Contador attacked from that group, he had only Matteo Tosatto for company, an Astana rider who’d been Contador’s teammate for a few years and had zero reason not to continue riding with him on this day. They traded pulls and kept the peloton at bay until a mere 7km remained in the stage, at which point Contador was left to fend for himself and preserve enough of his buffer.

This is probably as good a place as any to insert a highlight reel.

7. Chris Froome, Sky

The African-born Brit was emerging from his last gasp of anonymity, having gained notice the previous fall as the guy who briefly led the Vuelta before passing it on to his teammate Wiggins, then sat a mere seven seconds out of the lead, until Cobo dusted them both with a heroic solo win on the Angliru, a Spaniard showing those outsiders how to boss a Cantabrian beast. Froome was more or less back at it at the Tour, where again he rode as well as Wiggins, or well enough to raise questions as to who was best suited to be the first British winner of the Tour, before an emphatic time trial victory sealed it for Wiggo. Still, he as clearly the second-best rider at the race, meaning he was the second-best rider in the world, and the top one wasn’t at the Vuelta.

In the end, a physically and emotionally draining summer caught up to Froome at the Vuelta. His same-time performance put him a second behind Purito when the latter took the lead on stage 4, but from there he let seconds out in dribs and drabs, up to seven, then 51, then 1.41, then more than two minutes, and finally out to 10.16 by Madrid. Froome now owns his four Tour wins, and zero victories in any other three-week event, including now a string of three second-places at the Vuelta. Winning one has become a matter of pride, and we will see how far that takes him this year.

8. Purito

The story of the day, of the entire Vuelta, was the saga of Purito, so many times a bridesmaid in his career but never the bride. The 2012 Vuelta, however, was both a high and a desperate low. He’s retired now, but his record says that his first ever podium finish at the Vuelta was in this very race, the race that laid him low and showed future rivals how he could be beaten when it’s time to turn on the pure power. If it hurt, that had to do with his having been fleeced for second in the Giro just months earlier. But before 2012 he was a guy still trying to emerge from Valverde’s shadow, having jumped to Katusha in 2010 when it looked like he had a future riding for his own results (with an immediate Tour stage win), and finally breaking through to the top in 2012. He was close, and even if the misses were cruel, they surely didn’t suggest the futility that was to be his until his career petered out in 2016.

It’s tempting to wonder when another grand tour was won through larceny such as Contador practiced on this day, and to try to draw parallels to the ultimate act of thievery, the 1985 Vuelta. Then, Robert Millar led the race comfortably on stage 18, a three-mountain affair where he needed to keep close tabs on Francisco Rodriguez and Pello Ruiz Cabestany, ten and 65 seconds back. But a flat at the start of the second climb put him on the defensive and forced him to chase back until he reeled them in on the final climb. The superior scalatore, he accepted congratulations from his rival for his fine work, assuming he had won. All the while, Pedro Delgado, who was six minutes behind to start the day, was building a winning margin up the road, Millar completely unaware of that fact. Ah, 1985 information technology.

But while both results were stunning turnarounds, the parallels end there. Contador was in no way sneaking away from anyone; he was taking the race right up into Purito’s face and daring to match his power against Rodriguez’ punchy style. There was no subterfuge involved, just good ol country hardball racing tactics. Millar and Rodriguez might share some similarities in their profiles as pure climbers (otherwise limited, significantly on this day in 2012) and a handful of glorious grand tour performances that ultimately fell short. But like I said, that’s where the parallels end.

On this day, Rodriguez had nobody else to blame. Not Contador, who was racing to win, not Valverde, who ditched him on the last climb, not really anyone else. As others ground out the final km, Purito sagged backward, betrayed by his one-dimensional talent that cried out for double or triple the gradient, not this paltry 4% ramp. While Valverde nearly stole back the stage, closing two minutes in the final 7km, Rodriguez would concede 2.38.

*****

Contador’s performance had to have been spurred on in part by the slings and arrows he absorbed in almost two years of waiting for his doping case to play out. Surely he knew he wasn’t going to change public opinion on a dime, but he could use his racing acumen to at least change the subject.

A rider coming off suspension is generally assumed to not be stupid enough to start doping again, so it’s at least my own recollection that Contador’s heroic performance to Fuente Dé didn’t carry the taint of his suspension too overtly. Yes, he was powerful, but not enough to maintain his advantage, nearly all of which he lost as he clawed his way to the finish. Yes, he crushed Rodriguez on the stage, but so did Sergio Henao, Rinaldo Nocentini, Jan Bakelands and others. The victory smelled a lot more like brains and guts than anything more sinister.

Truth in such matters is elusive, though, and at best I can say that it raised some questions about whether we should be too quick to dismiss Contador as a hopeless cheat and fraud. The guy knew how to race, and had the guts to try hard things, something in increasingly scarce supply by 2012 and today. Yes, his career stretches back into the shadows of the bad old days, and in tangible ways that he cannot excuse. But it also reaches out into the brighter times (such as they are), and is marked more lately by the style of racing that any fan would love. I can’t speak for everyone, but I firmly believe that this win, as well as his subsequent failures in the Tour, did a lot to rescue his reputation and standing with the cycling public after it bottomed out in 2011.

He would go on to win another Vuelta, in 2014, which was sort of a reunion of guys who had broken themselves in the Tour. Contador recovered faster than Froome did, and won the race as a result. He added a Giro victory against a forgettable field (at the time) in 2015. And with that we can close the book on this checkered-yet-storied career. Unless he’s got one more card up his sleeve.

Best part of all? Here’s what Rodriguez said at the finish line, the taste of defeat fresh on his lips. That’s what we’re here for,” he said. “Sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t but it’s sport. The stage to Fuente Dé will make history and I’m proud to be part of it. Contador has demonstrated that he’s the strongest and his team as well.”