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After the terrorist attacks of Friday, November 13 in Paris, Alberto Contador made a promise to the French people that, in future, he would refrain from performing his trademark “Pistolero” podium routine in their country to celebrate his victories.
The shooting gesture, he explained, might come across as insensitive in the aftermath of that carnage. This was back in November 2015, and the promise has been kept, though not merely out of respect for the victims of the Bataclan shootings. The sad truth is that, with the exception of a short opening time trial at last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, the illustrious Spaniard, seen by some as a fading force at age 34, has simply not had the opportunity to raise his arms in France since.
And while success may have eluded him in the country of the Coq au Vin, Contador has certainly won over a great number of admirers with his superb panache and highly entertaining brand of cycling.
At a time when French cyclists have struggled to emulate the achievements of their Tour-triumphing forebearers, the man in the red and black of Trek-Segafredo appears to have adopted Bernard Hinault’s famous mantra: “As long as I breathe, I attack.” And nowhere has this been more in evidence than on the roads of Paris-Nice.
From Arnaud Démare, splendid victor at Bois d’Arcy, to Julian Alaphilippe, who finally shone in his home country after dazzling in the hills of the Ardennes and the mountains of California, there was no shortage of vintage performances at this year’s Race to the Sun.
And though he didn’t win — finishing two seconds behind Sky’s Sergio Henao — Contador arguably stole the show with an audacious attack over to climbs on the final stage.
“Magnificent” was the epithet chosen by the Gallic sports paper L’Équipe to describe his performance. Lyon’s Le Progrès opted for “flamboyant,” and Nice-Matin proclaimed Contador the “moral victor,” soon echoed by former Tour de France announcer Daniel Mangeas, who anointed him “the people’s champion.”
After a slow start, losing precious time in the echelons on a wet and windy, Flandrian-style Stage 1, and faring only modestly up the Mur de Huy-like puncher’s wall leading to Fayence on Stage 6, the swashbuckling Madrileño set the race on fire on the French Riviera with a series of searing attacks.
On the Col de la Couillole, on Stage 7, as the riders progressed laboriously from the startling red rocks, reminiscent of a Western, at the foot of the climb, up to meagre forests of tall pine trees and barren rocky slopes at the summit, the Spaniard repeatedly accelerated to put race leader Alaphilippe to the sword and drop maillot jaune-elect Henao.
The following day, sitting 31 seconds down on Henao, Contador used the first category Côte de Peille, over 50 kilometers from the finish in Nice, as a launching pad for a major offensive that left Henao’s jersey hanging by a thread. Contador’s gap approached one minute as Henao was isolated, but the effort caught up with him on the descent of the Col d’Èze, and Henao was aided by Bahrain-Merida, which chased looking to set up Stage 2 winner Sonny Colbrelli.
The Conquistador-on-wheels wouldn’t make it onto the highest step of the podium, having to settle for second on the stage — out-sprinted by breakaway rider David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors). The difference in bonus time between de la Cruz (10 seconds) and Contador (six seconds) would prove pivotal, and as the clock ticked down to Henao’s crossing the line, it was clear that Contador had missed the overall win by just two seconds, the smallest margin between winner and runner-up in the history of the race — only two seconds less than Contador’s runner-up spot at the 2016 Paris-Nice, behind Geraint Thomas, after a similar final-stage exploit fell short.
Yet the beauty of his effort was lost on none of the spectators gathered that day on the Bay of Angels.
Contador’s popularity in a land that has always shown affection for deserving losers, from Jalabert to Voeckler, is hardly a mystery. But the acclaim the Spaniard has received goes well beyond traditional Catholic commiseration for a heartbroken hero. The French — and the cycling world more generally — admire the dark-featured champion because of his philosophy. Adored he is not, a chequered past has seen to that.
Yet, despite this, Contador has emerged as the much-applauded ambassador for an eye-catching, thrilling, never-say-die approach to racing that many believe is at risk of extinction. He’s won enough in his career that he can no longer be satisfied with anything but victory. In fact, though he’s won nine Grand Tours (two have since been stripped), he’s never finished second or third.
Since his return from suspension in 2012, when he discovered that he could no longer blast the competition away in one fell swoop — as he did at Verbier in the 2009 Tour de France or on the roads of Mount Etna at the 2011 Giro d’Italia — El Pistolero has adopted a relentlessly belligerent attitude in the saddle that makes for spectacular stages.
This was, perhaps, epitomized by his famous duel in multiple installments against Joaquim Rodríguez at the 2012 Vuelta a España, when Contador attacked the cigar-smoking Catalan an incalculable number of times before finally piercing his scarlet armor with an extraordinarily bold and wholly unexpected move on the road to Fuente Dé on Stage 17.
“The spectacle on offer when he rides is the kind that inspires children to get a cycling licence,” L’Équipe’s Jean-Luc Gatellier remarked.
Even when needing to defend a lead, the man from Madrid has shown considerable brio, whether in the red jersey, twice shooting Chris Froome in the heart at the 2014 Vuelta after surreally recovering from a fractured tibia, or in the maglia rosa, miraculously clawing back the Astana gang of Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa on the slopes of the Mortirolo during the 2015 Giro while nursing a dislocated shoulder.
And in defeat, he has not lacked brilliance, initiating the fabulous flight to Formigal that put paid to Froome’s aspirations in Spain last September.
Crucially, this crowd-pleasing evolution in Contador’s tactics has coincided with the rise to power of a global cycling force reliant on radically different principles.
Team Sky, through its doctrine of marginal gains, has, since 2009, endeavoured to introduce to the sport an efficiency-maximizing rationalism potentially at odds with more romantic visions of cycling. Originally designed to increase Great Britain’s haul of medals at the Olympic Games, this philosophy emphasizes absolute attention to detail and perfect preparation, to the point, certain critics argue, of sucking the element of unpredictability — and fun — out of races. While Froome is known for starting at his stem (the head unit of his power meter), Contador has been outspoken that he’d prefer to see them banned from racing.
“I believe the power meters block the show in the races,” Contador said last year. “Now, it’s very much controlled. If you have a powerful team and a rider attacks, you can control him. You can do that over 20 minutes. That’s how it is today.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that in the last two editions of La Course au Soleil, Contador’s panache has been thwarted by the British formation in the retro black and blue. A perpetual Poulidor to its alternating Anquetils, the solitary Spaniard has sounded the revolt against the well-oiled Sky machine, throwing caution to the wind and going for broke in a display of flair and inspiration that, according to some, contrasts with the cold calculations and scientific race management of his Anglo-Saxon adversaries. Sir Dave Brailsford’s men may continue to fill their already overflowing trophy cabinet, but the people’s vote is in and Contador is their choice.
As the Belgian journalist Bertrand Boulenger put it, “Contador is an antidote to the boredom threatening the spectator of cycling in the 21st century.”
True, the Spaniard may not be the most casual and laid-back of men outside competitions. His former boss, the Russian maverick Oleg Tinkoff, bitterly lamented Contador’s obsession with strict diets and his stiff refusal to sip champagne at parties. Yet during Paris-Nice the Trek leader proved every bit the showman both on the bike and off it, riding like a true géant de la route and concluding every stage by walking through the crowd to reach his bus, followed by a peloton of admirers.
“In the end,” Contador declared after falling short in Nice, “it was a good day, a beautiful day of cycling, and this is also important.”
Contador is now racing at Volta a Catalunya; after two of seven stages, including a team time trial, he had ceded 1:15 to Alejandro Valverde, and 29 seconds to Froome. Once again, he was on the back foot. And once again, it was likely he would not go down without a fight.