Alberto was late for dinner. It was quarter past seven at San Francisco's Café des Amis, and eight of us, including Specialized founder Mike Sinyard and a couple of other bigwigs from Contador's bike sponsor, were silently wondering if the biggest name in cycling was going to stand us up. Just then, Contador and his brother Fran walked in and greeted each of us with a firm handshake and an apology. The two had flown in from Spain in time for dinner, just a few hours earlier, but Alberto was required to hang around the hotel till 7 p.m. to fulfill the schedule he'd logged with the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA). Pro cyclists must submit a timetable of every day's agenda to WADA in advance, and if Contador isn't where he said he would be and an out-of-competition tester shows up, he could be sanctioned.
Minus his Saxo team kit and blaze yellow Terminator shades, it would be tough to peg Contador as a cyclist, much less one of the world's best. In trendy Euro jeans, a knit button-up with plaid collar, and gleaming white trainers, he looked like just another handsome kid from the Continent whom you wouldn't want to leave your girlfriend around alone for too long. He's thin but not withering like he sometimes appears in race footage. He didn't protest when someone poured him a glass of red wine; in fact, he seemed to savor it as he patiently entertained every cycling-related curiosity our table full of admirers could summon.
Yes, the descent off the Crostis in Stage 14 of the Giro was as harrowing as it sounded; Contador said he wanted a mountain bike the first time he reconnoitered it. No, his team wasn't too weak for the Tour; they'd done a great job and he'd lost simply because not everything lined up this time around. Yes, he was aware that he constantly moved forward in the saddle when time trialing but tests showed it didn't compromise his power. Yes, he shares a room with a teammate during stage races; while he could easily have his own room as team leader, he prefers the camaraderie of bunking up.
It struck me later that Contador has probably answered every one of those questions a million times, and yet he was engaged and gracious and never scripted with his answers. The lasting impression was of an easy-going, slightly over-serious young man who realizes the depth of his own talent but doesn't take it for granted or assume that anyone else knows or cares. At a bar later, I asked him if he ever tired of fielding the same questions about cycling over and over again. "It's my passion and my job," he said magnanimously.
Contador was equally generous on the bike the next day when he rolled out with a dozen other journalists and me for an hour-long spin up the coastal State Highway 1. It was all smiles and joking to begin, with everyone taking their turns alongside the champ for photos ops and questions. But when the road tilted upward, Alberto came alive, slowly turning the screws on the pace. I've taken many a ride with pro cyclists, and they're always just easy spins to let the riders talk and do public relations. This was different. You could tell that Alberto wanted to ride his bike fast, to make a demonstration, and it was fun and exciting to see a master in his element. As he cranked up the speed, glimpsing back at us to check the damage just as I've seen him do a hundred times at the Tour, riders fell away quickly. Soon it was just four of us, Contador bobbing comfortably out of the saddle, and the rest of us hanging on. Then suddenly I couldn't close a small gap, and I was riding at 10 feet, then 15, watching the six-time Grand Tour champion pull away with an ease that was depressing and awe-inspiring at once.
I rolled into the parking lot at the top of the climb a few seconds after Contador, and he was barely breathing as he slapped me on the back. "Nice!" he said, flashing me a big smile as he rolled back down to collect the others. A few minutes later, as a couple journalists and I watched the rest of the riders trickle up the climb, one of my colleagues said suddenly, "Who's that moto-pacing...erm, passing the Penske truck?" One guess: the only rider among us who can go uphill at 23 miles per hour. Even at 500 meters, I'd swear I could see Alberto smiling as he bounded up the hill toward us.