Cynics cruelly challenge Contador coup
Alberto Contador wins Vuelta Stage 17 (Image: AAP)
Alberto Contador has never shown as much emotion as when he crossed the line to win stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana after one of the most incredible days of cycling in recent memory.
The audacity and bravery of Contador’s all-or-nothing break was quite breathtaking; it was a piece of tactical brilliance by the Spaniard and his Saxo Bank team-mates.
It’s no surprise that its author was holding back the tears as be overtook Joaquim Rodriguez as the new race leader in what is proving to be the best Grand Tour in years.
Contador’s move had so many layers of deliciousness.
First, it came from far – more than 50 kilometres from the finish – and in a stage where no one expected such a game-changing attack. Catching Rodriguez completely unawares, it was also a supreme piece of all-encompassing team-work, with three Saxo Bank riders paving the way before two of them dropped back to thwart the faltering red jersey’s chase.
It also had a cute backstory, what with Contador being paced by his old friend Paolo Tiralongo: as a thanks for helping him win the 2010 Tour, Contador gifted a stage win in last year’s Giro to his old Astana team-mate; this was the latest in the pair’s yoyo-ing exchange of mutual largesse.
The sight of Jesus Hernandez grinning and clenching his fist behind Rodriguez as he crossed the line at Fuente De almost three minutes down on Contador captured the bittersweet dynamic of the whole move.
Not only was ‘Purito’ devoid of any team-mates, he had to ride most of the last 50km with Hernandez sandbagging his wheel in what must have been cycling’s equivalent of an English cricket batsman withstanding a barrage of Aussie sledging in an unwinnable Ashes test Down Under.
Contador started to cry when Hernandez approached him while he was being interviewed and the two room-mates embraced.
“These tears are from emotions because everything that has happened has been so difficult,” said Contador, referring to a tough two years which culminated in the Spaniard being stripped of his titles since July 2010 and banned for six months.
Explaining his “kamikaze” attack, Contador said: “I had an angel on one shoulder, saying: ‘Don’t do this, they’re going to roll you over’ and a devil on the other saying: ‘Go for it’. On this occasion, I didn’t listen to the angel.”
That’s some highly apt imagery from Contador there – because, for many, the 29-year-old is the demon of this whole story.
Where I revelled in what Eurosport commentator David Harmon described as “the most remarkable day of proper old school racing”, most people were quick to point out that as a result of the dramatic stage – which saw Alejandro Valverde also leapfrog Rodriguez on GC – the Vuelta was being led by two convicted dopers.
Where I revelled in seeing a slice of history in the making – a sumptuous piece of cycling that was both off-the-cuff and intricately thought-out – cynics the world over suggested it was all too good to be true.
“I am always reluctant to celebrate these type of wins, maybe in 20 years…” one fan tweeted me. Another said I was favouring “lying drug cheats” by conveying my excitement of the scenes just witnessed.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the comments posted below my race report on Eurosport’s website were doping related and, lamentably, around a third of them included out-dated jokes about rest day steak consumption.
“It’s such a shame that as soon as we witness something as brilliant as Contador’s coup, everyone immediately thinks of Landis,” I tweeted.
There was a surge of replies, including one from German sprinter Marcel Kittel of Argos Shimano, who said: “It depends on if you are pessimist or optimist. I think it’s good to have critical cycling fans.”
I replied to the effect that I understood why people were cynical but found it sad that crass criticism was often the default reaction of most people.
“To be honest: sometimes I have this ‘default reaction’ too,” replied Marcel. “It should be a goal for everyone in cycling to get that straight again,” he added.
Ironically, as we were having this little debate on Twitter, somewhere on the other side of the world Garmin-Sharp directeur sportif Jonathan Vaughters was writing a deliciously candid post on a cycling news forum.
On the post, Vaughters went to length to explain just why he, a confessed former doper, has signed so many other former dopers for his squad, and yet steadfastly refused to consider signing the convicted Jorg Jaksche. Vaughters denied it was down to hypocrisy within the sport, as suggested recently by the retired German rider.
With admirable frankness, Vaughters confirmed that Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie and Tom Danielson – all former American team-mates of Lance Armstrong – had a doping past, and defended his decision to work with them at Garmin.
In one of his long post’s juiciest soundbites, Vaughters had a dig at teams such as Sky who pride themselves with hiring no one with a doping history, saying such a stance was “just stupid in cycling today.”
“It’s just glorifying those who managed to slip by and damning those who got caught, even though the crime is exactly the same. It’s ethically untenable for me.”
Personally, I think it is wonderful that a directeur sportif of a World Tour team will put himself out there and share such personal views on a topic which still heavily weighed down in omerta. It’s also great that a rider like Kittel – himself subject to lurid doping accusations in the recent past – feels comfortable to join in the debate on Twitter.
Cycling fans have a right to be cynical given the history of the sport and the seemingly relentless shattered illusions dealt to us by the likes of Landis, Ricco, Mosquera, Armstrong et al.
But I still refuse to live in a world where I immediately suspect foul-play whenever I see something of merit being played out before my eyes on two wheels. Although there is clearly a lot of work to be done, I like to think that the professional peloton is the cleanest it has ever been at the moment.
So when I receive a tweet asking me to “just be an honest **** and admit that Alberto was superbly doped yesterday – as 80-90% were”, I refuse to give it any credence.
I am not denying that Contador – like Danielson, Zabriskie and Vande Velde – has a past. But if ever there was a race in which the Spaniard was riding on agua y tapas alone, it’s this Vuelta a Espana.
Even Vaughters indirectly leapt to Contador’s defence, claiming that his rider Andrew Talansky completed the final climb on Wednesday at around 5.9 watts per kilo against a predicted 6.1 w/kg of the leaders.
“This is not exceptional,” he said. “6.1 w/kg gets you around 15th place on the 2001 Tour de France.”
It’s just a shame that the rider who finished 15th on the 2001 Tour de France was Roberto Heras. But the sentiment is there, and I, for one, appreciated it.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.