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Alberto Contador is coming to terms with the rapidly-approaching end to his career, saying that the realization that he will soon no longer be a pro bike rider is settling in.
He has been racing his bike for more than half his life, and such a change could be intimidating. However he said that the reaction from fans has been very encouraging, and rewarding. This appears to be helping in the transition as his career winds down.
“I’m very proud to hear a lot of ‘gracias, Alberto,’” he said during the Vuelta’s second rest day on Monday. “I hear it over and over again, and it can only mean that people have enjoyed watching your performances, and they recognize your work.
“I couldn’t have chosen a better time or place to retire. For me it is a hard Vuelta but I’m really enjoying it. On a climb, when your legs are really hurting, you see a sign and hear shouts of encouragement, and it is like a present for me.”
Contador has also been celebrated each morning and evening, with huge crowds going to the Trek-Segafredo team bus to pay tribute to him. That has made an impression on him, and he said that those memories will remain.
“For me it is satisfying to enjoy the Vuelta a España the way I am doing, independent of the final result,” he explained. “I think people will remember my final result of this Vuelta less than other results in my career. Personally, I’m going to remember the sensation more than the result.”
Contador came into the race hoping to challenge for the overall classification. At times he has matched race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky), while on other days he has weakened and lost time. As a result he tried a long-range attack on Sunday, but was caught before the finish and conceded further ground. He finished 13th on the stage, 40 seconds behind Froome.
As the race restarts on Tuesday, he is ninth overall, three minutes 59 seconds off the red jersey and one minute 51 seconds behind the rider in third, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin).
He admits overtaking the Russian will be hard, but he isn’t ruling it out.
“It is going to be difficult to finish on the podium, but there are still major stages to come and it is still possible to see what I can do,” he said. “It’s obviously a long way off. After Andorra, everyone thought my podium chances had gone. But I told my team-mates I’d had a bad day with stomach problems and, if all went well, the podium was still probable.
“After yesterday [Sunday], it’s more difficult. I have rivals who are going very strong, especially Miguel Ángel López. But, nothing is impossible.”
Contador’s race will restart on Tuesday with what is the final time trial of his career. When he won the Tour de France in 2009 he was best in the last TT there, beating the Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara by three seconds.
Times have changed and while he can still pull out a solid TT – as evidenced by his sixth place in the final time trial of the Tour de France – he is less likely to be in a position to go for the win. He gave what he felt was the reason for that.
“I’ve always worked on the discipline and fought for victories in Grand Tour TT’s,” he said on Monday. “Before, when I was a neo pro, you used to think how you could be more competitive in certain types of TT. You looked at the equipment, the route, every tiny detail.
“Now, with team budgets much bigger, more wind tunnel testing than ever, better bikes, it’s difficult to compete with the pure specialists. If they don’t put a mountain in the middle of the route, it’s hard for me. Tomorrow we’ll see how it goes for me. There are going to be big gaps, and it should favour me.”
Once that race against the clock is over, Contador will have just five days left of competition. He’ll likely keep racing hard right up until the end, trying to reach the podium or grab a stage win, and also to express his natural instinct for aggressive racing.
Once the race roars into the streets of Madrid and crosses the finish line, it’s all over.
He’s given what comes next some thought, and seems to appreciate the freedom he will have.
“The first days after retiring, there won’t be much peace. I certainly won’t get on the bike,” he said. “I’ll go and have breakfast where I usually go. At the weekend I’ll be at the Giro presentation in Israel, but it will be more relaxed. Every morning without looking at the scales, neither at night nor in the morning. I’ll be able to eat ‘jamón con tocino’ in the morning. My life will be normal, without crossing the demands and slavery of top level cycling.”
With that approach, he knows that his life – and his body – will change. He’s been an athlete for a long time and says that he accepts that things will be different. That may take some getting used to, but he says he is fine with it.
“I like slim fit clothes, so I may have to change my wardrobe,” he smiled. “The people around me are already working on it. I’ll be doing a lot of sport, not just cycling.
“I’ll gain weight, you’ll make jokes about it when you see me…but I’ll try to keep it under control.”