As last year’s Tour de France unfolded, and the whips began cracking, I was left utterly bemused at the form of Alberto Contador.
Here was a man who only the year before, in one of the great sporting jousts I had ever seen, battled with Andy Schleck and looked utterly untroubled throughout.
This was a guy who I had never seen falter. Powering up mountains like a machine, out of the saddle with the legs firing away.
As I waited for last year’s tour, my hopes for Cadel Evans were dampened by a firm conviction that Alberto Contador could not be beaten.
It was a belief that Evans, though gritty, simply did not have as many gears as the Spaniard, that while he may win a tour in a mediocre year, Contador would always have something in reserve.
Last year, that was not the case. Where he had once one marched, in 2011 Alberto Contador limped. The peerless, domineering cyclist of his previous tour victories did not appear. The man who turned out in his stead appeared utterly ordinary.
When he attacked, he seemed to do so based on what he remembered being capable of rather than what he presently was. When he defended, he clung on rather than cruised.
So now, halfway between the last tour and the next, we are left to wonder. It is a question which has been asked of and debated about many of this sport’s more decorated champions of the past, and it is one which now, is demanded of Alberto Contador.
There had been positive tests but there had never been a knockout blow. He always had an excuse which was just plausible enough to keep us wondering, and the most romantic of us keep believing. Even the famous dodgy meat story.
All of it was held up as evidence that cycling’s finest, and by extension cycling itself, was pure.
The various regulations regarding doping helped. Those regulations contain enough red tape and legal procedure to line the entire route of the next five Tours, and so a series of inquiries and appeals mean that still Contador’s papers have not been conclusively marked.
He remains the official winner of the 2007, 2009 and 2010 tours, and thus remains innocent until proven guilty. He is not yet tarred with the same ignominy of say, Floyd Landis or Alexander Vinokourov, as a confirmed doper who has been stripped of titles and victories.
Despite all of these caveats, I must admit my patriotism and a bit of a dislike for Contador’s manner made me an arch-cynic in his case.
It’s so easy for that national pride to have one spouting that he couldn’t have produced that time trial performance in 2007 without some help. It was easy to point to his absence in 2008 as evidence of something not quite right. Though despite all this, my suspicions and those of so many others were not quite definitive, never rising above circumstantial intriguing.
After last year’s tour however, for many it must have fallen into place. He was a shadow of the Adonis of previous tours. Something was clearly missing, and there were plenty of wits and cynics ready to jump in and state what they thought it was. For the sake of cycling’s purity I hoped I was wrong about Contador.
Last year, I was left with barely a scrap of doubt.
So this, in my view, is the most crucial year of Alberto Contador’s career. Not just because it will likely see the conclusion of his battle to retain his previous victories, but for a broader reason.
This year, in not only the Tour but every professional outing he makes, Alberto Contador will need to prove to both cycling an those who like to deride it, that he is the real deal. For the good of himself and the sport, he needs to prove that last year’s Tour was an aberration brought on not by a lack of illegal assistance but by a lack of form.
If Alberto Contador is again a shell, or if he again tests positive and this time has no alibi, he will simply be more fodder for those who seek to discredit cycling’s integrity.