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Bye, Pistolero

Alberto Contador’s announcement that he will retire calls me to remember his career.

Contador in Red Jaime Reina, AFP/Getty Images

I’d watched cycling before the 2010 Tour de France. I mean, I’m sure I must have — I was aware of its existence and the Tour de France sufficiently permeates the media that I’d have seen a bit beforehand, but the first time I truly, consciously remember paying attention to cyclists slogging up a mountain, the mountain was the Port du Balés. Yes, it was that stage. I think it was Contador’s opportunism in pulling off the move which he made that day that drew me to him — I supported him pretty much from the moment of his attack forward. In the last couple of years I’ve grown slightly impatient with his clinging on to past form, but I’ve always held a fondness in my heart for the Pinto man. So therefore, when I refreshed my Twitter at 9:42 this morning, and saw a link to an Instagram post with the caption “thanks to all,” I knew what was coming, and couldn’t help but feel a twinge of melancholy.

Gracias a tod@s! Thanks to all!

A post shared by Alberto Contador (@acontadoroficial) on

I’ve never been the type of cycling fan that overappreciates the animators, those who made suicidal attacks. I always like to see someone keeping their matches in a state of non-conflagration until they make that decisive attack, it’s just the style of racing that appeals to me, but Contador could animate and win. The 2012 Vuelta belonged to Joaquím Rodríguez. On mountain finish after mountain finish, he made Contador’s pistol appear loaded with nothing but blanks. I’d say Contador ripped up the script on the way to Fuente Dé, but in truth he never even knew there was one. It wasn’t a hill on which to win the Vuelta. He didn’t bring legs that should have had any business winning that Vuelta. He did it anyway. It was hard not to appreciate the man who could do it anyway.

That Vuelta performance was so impressive that you could almost be forgiven for forgetting that it was only his second race since coming back from a doping ban. Because Alberto Contador took banned substances...or that’s what the pretty convincing authority of CAS say. Fifty picograms per millilitre of Clenbuterol is not a stunning indictment of the Spaniard, but it’s what was found in his sample, so the spectre of the sport’s past is practically corporeal when it comes to Contador, a rider who shared a bus with Johan Bruyneel, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, Alexandre Vinokourov, and many others with a past not so much tainted as graffitied with doping.

Does that harm his reputation? It’s hard to believe, for me at least, that Contador was any dirtier than his rivals — I don’t think anyone would say that doping in cycling stopped before Contador started winning Tours de France: ask Michael Rasmussen. Certainly, the doping ban didn’t lose him too significant a proportion of his fanbase. He had a seamless re-entry to the pro peloton, something not afforded to everybody: ask Michael Rasmussen.

His post-ban career forms all my most vivid memories of the man — I can see him grovelling behind Roman Kreuziger on Ax Trois Domaines in 2013 while Chris Froome, his replacement as multiple Tour de France winner, began the work of replacing, I can picture the races of the 2014 season where he was truly glorious to watch as he took the road that ended on the wet descent of the Col du Platzerwasel, a descent which stole his last chance of winning the Tour de France (He would have won it, I cannot be convinced otherwise). Then I see him with strapping all up his leg as he rode Valverde, Froome and Rodríguez off his wheel on the way to winning the 2014 Vuelta. I remember him taking off his pink helmet behind an eight-man Astana train at the next year’s Giro but there he is, paying for his efforts seven weeks later on La Pierre Saint-Martin.

contador giro GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

Not all of these memories are good. Post-ban, Contador’s career has been full of as many defeats as triumphs. He’s been so close to victory so many times, robbed by crashes or more often mere seconds in Paris-Nice, the Vuelta a Andalucia, the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Volta a Catalunya, race after race. These narrow defeats come from the inexorable slowing of his legs which forced his announcement, but the closeness of them also stems from the attacking spirit that brought Paris-Nice down to bonus seconds for two years running, that turned the Dauphiné into anarchy and the Mûr du Péguère into a silent theatre. No cycling race has ever been dulled for the presence of Alberto Contador.

I’ve been a fan of the man, I’ve been a detractor. I’ve seen him at the front of races and I’ve seen him get dropped. I could have turned this piece into a tribute and I could have turned it into a tirade. I don’t think that the career of Alberto Contador suits either of those things. He will leave the sport with seven Grand Tour wins. Or nine, depends on how you count. He’ll leave it with fans. He’ll leave it with critics. He says he’ll leave it without sadness. I’ll see him leave it with some sadness of my own.