Alberto Contador has accomplished more in his short career than most riders could expect to achieve in a lifetime. At just 28, the same age at which Lance won the first of his seven Tours, the Spaniard already has six grand tour titles to his credit—the Tour de France in 2007, 2009, and 2010; the Giro d’Italia in 2008 and 2011; and the Vuelta a España in 2008—as well as countless one-week stage races.
Despite his impressive cycling palmarès, Contador’s image has taken a beating in recent years. In the 2009 Tour, Contador engaged in a very public squabble with his then-teammate Lance Armstrong, which ultimately ended when Contador won the race. More recently, there’s the protracted doping scandal. Following his 2010 Tour de France victory, anti-doping officials announced that a blood sample taken on the second rest day of the Tour contained traces of the banned substance clenbuterol. Contador has repeatedly and categorically denied any wrongdoing; last January, after a months-long investigation, the Spanish Cycling Federation cleared him of the charge. But the UCI and WADA appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration of Sport in March, leaving Contador to compete—he won the Giro d’Italia in May and took fifth place at last summer’s Tour de France—while he awaited the outcome of the appeal, which is now set for November.
Last week, the Spanish champ made a surprise visit to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit Specialized, one of his main sponsors. Over the course of two days, he sat down and talked with us about his cycling career, the tough season behind him, and whether he’ll be able to continue to dominate cycling as he has for the past five years.
With a full schedule in the spring, two grand tours, and all the politics surrounding your clenbuterol trial, it must have been a tough season for you. How are you spending the off-season?
I have a lot of stress all year with the competition. So in these months I relax and take time away from the bike. I have been riding only a couple of times a week and it’s usually with friends, sometimes on the mountain bike, just for fun. I need this time for relaxing my head.
How did you get into cycling?
I didn’t start cycling until I was 15 years old because my family couldn’t afford a bike. In my family, we are one sister and three brothers. My younger brother has cerebral palsy, and this is expensive, and my parents did normal work. My father was a factory worker and my mother worked at town hall, and buying a bike costs a lot of money. My older brother, who is three years older than me, had a bike two years before me, and when he finished high school my parents bought him a new bike and I took the old one. It was an Orbea, but it was maybe 13 years old and it had only five gears in back and all the other kids made jokes about it. But after three weeks of riding, I was stronger than my brother.
The next year I went to a team, and they gave me a new bike and after one month I was training with the riders who were two and three years older than me because in the mountains I was strong. I never won races in those years; I didn’t understand the tactics yet and other riders always won. But I always won the climbs.
Rather than targeting just one big race a year, as many of the top grand tour contenders do, you race throughout the season and you race a lot. Where do you find so much motivation?
For me, I like the competition. I like to race my bike, and I like to win. And I love to have an objective and go for it. So it all starts by saying this is going to be my objective, and then I give 100 percent to get it. Also, racing smaller races like the Volta ao Algarve and the Volta a Catalunya helps me find the rhythm for racing and lets me and the team practice for the bigger races.
I assume the objective at the Tour de France last year was to win? So was finishing fifth a disappointment for you?
Yes, I went there for the victory. But remember, the norm for most riders isn’t to win. Most riders would work very hard and take fifth and this would be a good result. But when everyone looks at me they expect that I always win. It’s just because I win so many races. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to always win. So it was a good learning experience for me to remember that.
Actually though, I would say that the Tour was a success because I came out of that race with more confidence than ever. I had a lot of problems. I was tired from the Giro, which was very difficult this year. And I had problems with some crashes. And there were many moments when I was alone, which made it difficult to win. But the fact that I was able to have all of those problems and still be so close gave me confidence for the next years.
Do you look back and think, ‘I could have won if I’d done this or that’ or if something had gone differently?
Yes, of course. When you don’t win a race it gives you the opportunity to analyze all the small details and see what you could have done better. I could have done things better to arrive at the Tour in better shape. That would have probably meant compromising on the Giro and perhaps not racing it. But I believe that there are many races besides just the Tour, and I would never exchange the season that I’ve had and the things that I’ve accomplished just to win the Tour. It’s not the only race.
Will you win the Tour again?
Winning the Tour is complicated and it takes a lot of things lining up. But I took great confidence from this year, which wasn’t a course that was suited for me. It had a team time trial, which was hard for my team. There was only one time trial, not two like many years, and it wasn’t even that long. And there weren’t that many decisive mountain stages. If I can do as well as I did with the bad luck I had and after already winning the Giro in the same year, I’m confident that I will win more Tours in the future.
As you say, there were some key moments in the Tour when you were isolated. Do you need a stronger team? Will Saxo Bank be stronger next year?
We have a very powerful team and many strong riders, but it’s not just about the riders it’s also about their program. Five of the same guys from the Giro were on the Tour team, and we all had the Giro in our legs and you could see it. Maybe I can do the Giro and recover in time, but not everyone on the team can. The team did a great job, so it’s not a complaint. We just need more strong riders. I think Bjarne [Riis, Directeur Sportif of team Saxo Bank] is working on this and will make some announcements in the next few weeks.
You lost 28 seconds in the team time trial on Stage 2 this year. Would you prefer there not be a TTT in the parcours next year?
We can do a good TTT, but it’s better for us if we don’t have to. For the Schlecks, they can just ride behind Cancellara and the other strong riders on their team the whole time and it becomes a rest. For me, because I’m good at the TT, I end up working a lot, so I’m losing power and I end up tired. Over three weeks, small differences like this can add up to winning or losing.
And yet the individual time trials are a good thing for you.
In 2011, there was only one time trial and it was only 42 kilometers long. So it was a perfect race for the Schlecks and not as good for me. I hope that next year will have more time trials. A race with more time trial kilometers is a better course for me. [Editors' Note: On Tuesday, Tour owner Amaury Sports Organization released the official 2012 race route. Next year's course will include two ITTs, a 38-kilometer stage from Arc-et-Senans to Besançon and a 52-kilometer stage on the penultimate day of the Tour from Bonneval to Chartres, no team time trial, and only three mountain-top finishes.]
When he signed you to ride for Saxo Bank, Bjarne Riis said that he thinks you can win all three Grand Tours in a season. Given how this season played out, do you think that’s possible?
It would be something extremely difficult, but given the right set of circumstances I still think it’s possible. I know that I would need many things to be just right. You need to have the perfect build-up, you need to have a very strong team in every race, you have to have three courses that would suit you. And at the end you have to have a lot of luck. It’s a goal, but it’s not an obsession because the situation has to be right.
You’ve accomplished at a very young age what most cyclists would love to accomplish once in their career. What now?
Cycling is my job, but honestly it’s also my passion. So I have a strong desire to race and to win. This is good enough motivation to keep me racing for years. And remember, it’s difficult to win races. It might look easy from the outside, everyone expects that you just do it, but it’s very hard and everything has to go right. So the difficulty is also great motivation.
When we see races like the Giro, where you dominate everyone, it seems like it’s not that hard for you?
It doesn’t correspond to the reality. What you see might look easy, but it takes a lot of work and I have to give an incredible amount to be at that level. In the Giro, I had such a high level of form that it helped me concentrate on all the other aspects of the race, all the tactics and the nutrition and everything else that goes into it. Sometimes the very fact of being strong puts you in that much stronger of a situation. But it also comes down to luck. Remember that in the Giro I was fortunate to never have a bad day.
In spite of all your success, you’ve never enjoyed the same popularity in the US as Lance did. Tell me about your relationship with him.
From when I started riding, Lance was always my reference point and my idol. When I had that health problem, I read Lance’s book and it was motivation for me to keep my dreams of winning the Tour alive. [Editors' Note: In 2004, Contador crashed during the Vuelta a Asturias, went into convulsions, and was subsequently diagnosed with cerebral cavernoma, a congenital vascular disorder of the brain. It was thought he wouldn’t be able to ride again, but after a risky surgery he returned to cycling the following year.]
Did you ever talk to him about that?
No. I never really had the chance. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to, but the situation just was never right. Lance always had a lot of people around that created a sort of a barrier that stopped me from ever getting intimate with him.
What was it like when Lance made his comeback and came to race on your team?
It was very difficult for me because I had gone to Astana with the understanding that the team was built to support me winning the Tour. But then all of a sudden there was this change, and I felt like I started to lose my confidence and my foundation. I respected the situation, though, and I understood that Johan Bruyneel had always been connected to Lance, and so not only did it make sense that he would come to Astana but I had to remember that I was where I was at, racing with Johan who had so much experience winning the tour, because of Lance.
Everyone knows that Lance is a great champion, but at the time not everyone remembered that I was also a champion. I had already won three grand tours. So we were two champions on the same team with the same goal, and that put us at odds.
I learned a lot from that season. I learned about my own strength, both as a cyclist and in my head, and those are lessons that I carry into my career and the rest of my life. I have a great respect for Lance, and I’m appreciative of those lessons I learned from him. I would love to see him now and greet him with respect.
Recently there were rumors that WADA would create a threshold tolerance for clenbuterol. Were you disappointed that they did not?
I believe that in the very near future WADA is going to change the rules on clenbuterol. Given the science, which has shown that you can get the drug in your system by what you eat, they are going to have to. But I understand that given the politics of my case this is not the right moment, and I accept that. I’m quite certain that it’s only a matter of time before that change is made.
The appeal to your clenbuterol case is set for November. What will you do if you aren’t cleared in the appeal?
I don’t think about that. I am optimistic because both the truth and the science are on my side. I trust that justice will be served and I’ll be cleared.