Blazin' Saddles: Adieu Alberto – Contador's best moments
As Spanish veteran Alberto Contador approaches the Vuelta a Espana and his last professional race, our cycling expert Felix Lowe takes a look at the many ups and few downs of his illustrious career.
In a week that Peter Sagan raises the stakes by netting his 99th career victory, Contador confirmed that he would hang up his cycling shoes after a final attempt at glory in the Vuelta.
Whether you think that Contador has won seven or nine Grand Tours, there's no denying that he was the best GC rider of his generation – a rider capable of blowing a race apart and pulling off the most extraordinary moments of brilliance. Without further ado, let's reveal Bertie's greatest hits..
Tour Down Under 2005
It wasn't quite Hinault and LeMond at the top of Alpe d'Huez, but the sight of Luis Leon Sanchez in yellow going arm in arm with Contador before letting his compatriot and Liberty Seguros team-mate through to win on Willunga Hill in stage five still brings a tear to the eye – even if watched on a grainy video with Dutch subtitles.
Then 22, it was Contador's first win since coming back from career-threatening brain surgery for a cerebral cavernoma just eight months earlier. Given the circumstances – not to forget the fact that his only previous pro win was in a time trial in the Tour de Pologne – it was understandable that Contador described that victory as the best of his career; little did any of us know then that there would be another 65 wins and counting…
Contador wins maiden Tour after epic duel with Rasmussen
Forget that Michael Rasmussen was kicked out of the 2007 Tour while wearing the yellow jersey and leading Contador by three minutes with four stages remaining. Prior to the Dane's controversial expulsion by his Rabobank team, Contador had been the only rider capable of matching his rival in the mountains before the whole Mexican fandango kicked off.
In stage 14 to Plateau de Beille, the two uphill kingpins went at it hammer and tongs as Contador shaded Rasmussen; one day later, Rasmussen was the only rider capable of reeling in Contador after he put in four massive accelerations on the Col de Peyresourde.
Even after Rasmussen was booted out, Contador still had it all to do – thanks to the lurking time trial specialists Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer and a penultimate day 56km race against the clock.
In the event, Contador, then hardly an ITT force, held on to win the race by just 23 seconds over the Australian, and 31 seconds over his American team-mate.
Still, Rasmussen had the last laugh: two years later, when Contador celebrated his second Tour win in Paris, the organisers erroneously played the Danish National Anthem instead of the Spanish Royal March..
Astana ban opens doors for first Giro win
With Contador moving from Discovery to Astana – only to see the Kazakh-funded team promptly banned from the Tour for their part in Operacion Puerto and numerous Vinokourov-related doping offences – the Spaniard had to rethink his 2008 season. It could hardly have gone any better, mind.
Despite being on the beach when informed – just days ahead of the grande partenza – of his inclusion in the Giro, Contador shrugged off his sandy preparation by winning the Italian race at the first attempt. After two solid ITTs, Contador moved into pink on the Passo Fedaia in stage 15 en route to finishing 1:53 to the better of Riccardo Ricco, that bastion of cleanliness in Milan.
With a not imperceptible dig towards ASO, who had banned Astana from appearing in the Tour, Contador claimed that "taking part in the Giro and winning it was a really big achievement, bigger than if I'd had a second victory in the Tour de France".
Records tumble as Contador wins the 2008 Vuelta
In the space of 15 months, Contador entered the select club of riders with overall wins in each of cycling's three Grand Tours.
The foundations of Contador's Vuelta victory came in stage 13 when he seized the golden jersey with a searing solo win on the mythical Angliru ahead of fellow Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez.
Contador doubled up one day later at Fuentes de Invierno, and, despite pressure from team-mate Leipheimer in the decisive time trial, held on for his third consecutive Grand Tour victory. Joining the likes of Anquetil, Gimondi, Merckx and Hinault, Contador became the youngest rider (25) to win all three major stage races.
Close but no cigar in stage 8 of 2009 Paris-Nice
One of the stand-out days of Contador's career was arguably one on which he failed to win. But the Spaniard's no-holds-barred attack in the final stage of Paris-Nice in 2009 exemplified the win-or-die attitude which made him such an explosive and popular rider.
Having cemented his overall lead by taking almost a minute on nearest rival Luis Leon Sanchez on Montagne de Lure in stage 6, Contador looked set to retain his Paris-Nice crown. But in the last 20km of stage 7, a dramatic defaillance in Fayence saw Contador sensationally drop to fourth place, 1:50 down, ahead of the final stage to Nice.
Most riders would have accepted defeat; not Contador. He attacked on the Col de la Porte after just 40km to open up a two-minute advantage – only to be pegged back on the descent of the Col d'Eze inside the final 10km. The upshot is that Contador slashed his deficit by 26 seconds, but still stayed fourth. You win some, you lose some – but in Contador's case, you practically always do so in style.
A similar scenario played out in this year's Paris-Nice where, in the final stage, Contador threw caution to the wind and came within two seconds of prising the yellow jersey from the shoulders of Sergio Henao.
Contador turns tables and gives Armstrong the look
Seven days into the 2009 Tour and Contador won the psychological – and physical – struggle for supremacy with his Astana team-mate Lance Armstrong. Back from retirement and rekindling his bromance with Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong's arrival at Astana cast Contador in the shade and created instant divisions – particularly when the Texan said he was "back to win".
But Contador clearly had no intention of letting one legend getting in the way of developing his own – and in stage 7 to Andorra Arcalis, the Spaniard humiliated his team-mate with his rival's weapon of choice: the look. Turning around twice and fixing Armstrong with a stare, Contador made his explosive move on the final climb 5.6km from the summit. His gains were minimal – but he did move above his team-mate and into second position on GC.
There followed a fraught two weeks as Armstrong and Bruyneel ensured that Contador was frozen out of his own team – the Spaniard on one occasion having to hitch a lift to a stage start after being marooned by the Astana bus.
But Contador ensured the overall win with a solo victory in stage 15 to Verbier to take the yellow jersey, second place at Le Grand Bornand in stage 17 and victory in the Annecy ITT. Come Paris, it was a bit of a parade for Contador – who bettered Andy Schleck by 4:11 and Armstrong by 5:24.
If a second Tour triumph marked his fourth consecutive Grand Tour victory for Contador, that ITT win in Annecy – a whole eight years ago now – tellingly marked the last time the Spaniard won a stage on the world's biggest bike race.
"Chain-gate" mars 2010 Tour win-that-never-was
When Andy Schleck attacked on the decisive Port de Bales in stage 15 of the Tour, Contador responded – only to see the yellow jersey drop a chain near the summit.
Forgetting the unwritten rules – after all, the race was arguably on, and Schleck had not only made the initial move, but had committed the cardinal sin of shifting while out of the saddle – Contador attacked the faltering yellow jersey, to arrive at the finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon 39 seconds to the better.
Contador in 2007Getty Images
Bizarre scenes followed when Contador mounted to podium to pick up the yellow jersey – only to be booed and met with whistles and cat calls by large sections of the crowd. Heightening the importance of the incident, Contador's eventual winning margin on riding into Paris a week later was… 39 seconds.
It's said that Andy Schleck never forgave Contador for his actions that day, although the Luxembourg whippet would have been best served taking note of some wise words from Ryder Hesjedal that day..
Schleck has last laugh after Contador's clenbuterol positive
If, as Schleck attests, his "stomach was full of anger" that day, then Contador's was filled with arguably the most famous piece of contaminated Basque beef in the history of dodgy Hispanic cuisine.
Yes, a Contador high- and lowlights piece would not be complete without the prime cut that split his career in two: the positive test for Clenbuterol which saw the Spaniard stripped of his 2010 Tour win. But Contador remains adamant that his positive test was merely due to contaminated beef.
Contador was also denied his 2011 Giro win – attained while appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport – to bring an end to his hot streak of six consecutive Grand Tour wins. All because of 0.000,000,000,05 grams of the banned substance: some 40 times below the minimum standards of detection capability required by WADA.
Vintage Contador on Fuente Dé
Trailing leader Joaquim Rodriguez by 28 seconds after the queen stage, Contador turned things around quite unexpectedly after the second rest day of 2017 Vuelta. On paper, the stage to Fuente Dé looked quite innocuous – with only three lower-category climbs on the menu. But Contador noticed that his rival looked out-of-sorts and went for the jugular.
It was a day when everything went according to a script that couldn't have been written any better – from attacking with his old Astana team-mate Paolo Tiralongo from having his dependable lieutenant Jesus Hernandez sandbag an out-of-sorts Purito all the way up the final climb.
Contador's ecstatic celebrations as he soloed to victory said it all – with Rodriguez eventually coming home the best part of three minutes in arrears, another Grand Tour dream left in tatters. The pictures in this tweet pretty much sum the day up for the two Spanish rivals…
Vuelta hat-trick in 2014 after Tour setback
If riding on for 20km during the Tour with a broken leg summed up Contador's grit and determination, then the Spaniard's bouncebackability was highlighted in the third of his Vuelta wins less than two months after the injury that curtailed his duel with Vincenzo Nibali in France.
In winning his third Vuelta in three attempts, Contador subjected Chris Froome to his second runner-up spot in Spain in a rare example of the Spaniard coming out on top in a head-to-head with his British rival. The highlight of the race came when Contador resisted Froome's raft of attacks in stage 16 to win the queen stage to La Farrapona to extend his lead in the red jersey: a sight loaded with what-ifs two months after both rivals crashed out of the Tour.
Mortirolo masterclass to deny Aru in the Giro
Contador entered the 2015 season with lofty ambitions of pulling off a rare Giro-Tour double – and he was half-way there after bettering Fabio Aru in Italy. Despite never falling below 10th place on GC, Contador was forced to do things the hard way after dislocating his shoulder in a crash in stage 5 to Abetone.
While he was soon in pink, things took another turn for the worse after a pile-up in stage 13 saw Contador concede a first leader's jersey of his career – although he returned to the summit one day later with a strong performance in the only ITT of the race.
But the overall win was secured in a dramatic stage 16 to Aprica which saw Contador once again battle back from the jaws of adversity. Victim of a mechanical on a vital descent, Contador caught and passed most of his rivals on the Passo del Mortirolo – finishing more than two minutes ahead of Aru.
Alberto Contador poses for a selfie with fans.Eurosport
The Sardinian bounced back himself with a commanding win in Sestriere in stage 20 – but Contador showed his class by limiting his losses on the dirt tracks of the Colle delle Finestre despite being dropped early on.
But Contador later paid for his efforts in May after stuttering to fifth place in the Tour almost 10 minutes down on Froome: still, victory and fifth over the two races easily betters Nairo Quintana's double efforts this year, when the Colombian could only muster second and twelfth.
Victory in Les Gets keeps Tour hopes alive
The opening uphill prologue of the 2016 Criterium du Dauphine was branded as one of the hardest ever seen. So, when Contador rolled back the years to beat Richie Porte by six seconds and Froome by 13 seconds, it looked like the Alberto of old was back in town.
Forget that he eventually finished fifth in the Tour's annual warm-up race – or that he crashed out of the Tour one month later in Andorra; for one afternoon in June, it looked like Contador had become relevant again on the roads of France – and cycling felt all the better for it.
The ambush of Formigal
Another Contador masterclass that didn't result in the Spaniard winning anything – but which will go down in history as one of his best moments on a bike – was the so-called ambush of Formigal in stage 15 of the 2016 Vuelta.
On paper, the short 118.5km stage looked rather innocuous. But as he did four years earlier at Fuente Dé, Contador grabbed the race by the scruff of its neck with a pulverising early attack which caught a napping Froome out something proper.
Froome lost the best part of three minutes on a day that saw his hopes of the overall victory go up in smoke, while 92 riders – 92! – finished outside the time limit. It all came down to Contador's stroke of genius – an attack which saw the Spaniard form a temporary alliance with race leader Quintana.
Contador faded to finish sixth as Gianluca Brambilla won the stage – but everyone will remember that stage as the day Contador tore up the script and animated the Vuelta just because he could.
While there were glimmers of such audacity in this year's Tour – most notably on the stages to Foix and Serre-Chevalier – Contador has been unable to pull off such a coup ever since. Not that that is a slight: to have done it in the first place deserves praise enough.
The final verdict
Having become all sizzle and no steak of late, Contador clearly bows out of the sport at the right time. He could ride on and perhaps concentrate on shorter stage races or being a super-domestique – but that's really not his style.
The Spaniard's career could be split in two: pre-ban and post-ban. His popularity in his native Spain, perhaps tellingly, soared after his positive test for Clenbuterol – and although he still added three Grand Tours to his palmares after serving his retrospective ban, Contador has been unable to match his swashbuckling form of old.
Tipped as the heir to Armstrong when he burst onto the scene, Contador seemed destined to join the five-Tour club from an early age. Instead, he has – at least, officially – just two Tour wins to his name, with the pendulum swaying instead to Froome.
Despite their much-hyped rivalry, Contador has never really been a threat to Froome on the roads of France in July, and it's Froome who could well make it five next year while Contador watches at home on TV.
And yet, Contador is a much more loveable figure than Froome – and has more success across the board than the Briton. Contador is the only rider alongside Bernard Hinault with multiple victories in each of the three Grand Tours – and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of the Frenchman and his fellow greats.
If Contador's legacy will forever be soured by the Clenbuterol positive for which he was burned at the stake, it's worth remembering that the likes of Merckx, Anquetil and Coppi were all no stranger to doping controversies, while Team Sky's recent successes have also been soured by their apparent abuse of the TUE system.
That the site of Contador's most memorable day – Fuente Dé – is a near anagram of a certain Dr Fuentes is perhaps an apt coincidence in a career that straddled two opposing eras but has nevertheless dazzled and delighted at every turn. If it's sad yet understanding that Contador has forever denied any wrongdoing, it would be doing wrong to deny that the Spaniard will be sorely missed by the sport.
El Pistolero may be firing blanks in the twilight of his career, but the many occasions he hit the target throughout his career will ensure that he is remembered as one of cycling's genuine icons.
-- Felix Lowe