Alberto Contador, the most winning grand tour cyclist of his generation and one of the greatest cyclists in history, announced this week that he will retire at the finish of the 2017 Vuelta a España.
The 34-year-old’s departure will conclude a 14-year professional career during which he stood on the top podium three times each at the Giro d’Italia (2008, 2011, 2015), Tour de France (2007, 2009, 2010), and Vuelta (2008, 2013, 2015). And while it’s true that the Spaniard’s legacy was sullied by controversies over drugs—his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro titles were rescinded for his use of the performance enhancer clenbuterol—it’s also true that pro cycling will lose one of its most charismatic and entertaining stars when Contador retires. He will go down as just one of six racers in history to have won editions of all three grand tours. Even with those two titles annulled, only Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil have more grand tour wins than Contador.
Contador’s was a turbulent career from the start. He won an individual time trial stage in the 2004 Tour of Poland in the very first year of his career but was forced out of the sport a year later after a fit of convulsions at the Tour of Asturias led to a diagnosis of cerebral cavernoma, a congenital disorder. After undergoing a risky surgery to remove a benign tumor in his brain, Contador returned to racing in 2005, just eight months later, and, almost as if he hadn’t ever left, picked up a stage win at the Tour Down Under.
The young racer looked poised for a long and successful career, with multiple stage wins at weeklong races in the coming two seasons. Yet controversy was never far away. In 2006, he and four of his Astana-Würth teammates were implicated in the Operacíon Puerto doping scandal, and the team was excluded from the Tour de France on the eve of the race. (Contador was eventually cleared.) Even his first grand tour victory, at the 2007 Tour de France, was tinged, as he inherited the race lead after Danish climber Michael Rasmussen was ejected following Stage 16 because of another dispute over drugs.
Nonetheless, Contador just kept winning. Besides his grand tour titles, Contador claimed, among others, five editions of Tour of the Basque Country, two podiums each at Paris-Nice, the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, and the Vuelta ao Algarve, and overall victories at the Vuelta a Burgos, Tirreno Adriatico, and the Route du Sud. That deep palmarès sets the Spaniard apart from many of today’s top racers, who target few events and time their peaks accordingly. By contrast, Contador looked hungry to win at almost every race he entered, which earned him a reputation for combativeness and the ability to turn any race on its head.
For me, two races define the Spaniard’s illustrious and contentious career. With a Giro d’Italia and Vuelta title to his name in 2008, Contador went into the 2009 season as the rightful team leader at his Astana squad, but the role was thrown into tumult when Lance Armstrong announced his return from retirement and joined the same team. The two would race side by side as teammates at the 2009 edition of the Tour de France, a fraught arrangement that saw the two attacking one another from the start. Contador’s eventual victory over the American, who placed third, proved his tactical acumen and his psychological mettle.
In the 2012 Vuelta a España, Contador cemented his reputation for highly tactical riding. The Madrileño entered Stage 17 of the race, which features a mountaintop finish at Fuente Dé, in second place overall behind fellow Spaniard Joaquím Rodriguez, who had nullified Contador’s every attack through the first two weeks of the mountainous event and looked to be on track for overall victory. But 30 miles from the finish, Contador made a daring escape, bridged to teammates up the road, and overtook his fellow countryman on the general classification by nearly three minutes. He went on to secure overall victory, but it was the way in which he did it—with a bold, powerful long-distance attack—that made the win so special. Comparisons were inevitably drawn to the raw, unabashed styles of Bernard Hinault, Pedro Delgado, and Eddy Merckx, and indeed, the Spaniard seemed prone to the sorts of wild and exciting victories that made Contador seem like an old-school racer from a different era. As Spanish champion Pedro Delgado put it, Contador’s departure feels like the end of an age.
Many fans never forgave Contador for his doping offenses, and some consider his career a tainted one. There’s no doubt that he came from an era rife with drugs and that he was always riding that sharp edge of controversy. But more than the scandals, I’ll remember his audacity and willingness to take risks to win. These days, the Tour de France is so calculated, with racers staring at their power meters and rarely willing to attack, that racing has become tedious. Contador has always torn up that script, attacking when he feels the moment is right and constantly trying to put his rivals under pressure. Sometimes it worked, as in the 2012 Vuelta, and others times it did not, like in Stage 18 of this year’s Tour, when the Spaniard went up the road but was eventually swept up by the chase. It is the act of trying, the seeming belief that there’s always a chance to win, that has made Contador so exciting to follow.
Despite having won the Vuelta a España three times, Contador will enter this year’s edition as an underdog. Given his lackluster ninth place at last month’s Tour de France, it seems unlikely the Spaniard will factor for the overall victory. But that’s the thing about Contador: You just never know. The only guarantee is that the Spaniard will be up there attacking, doing his best to unseat the competition. Whether he wins or not, Contador is likely to deliver the same the drama he has brought to cycling for so many years.