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In the end, it was almost as if it was scripted.
In his final Grand Tour, on the final summit finish, at the end of a season that had seen eight second-place finishes but no victories, Spaniard Alberto Contador crossed the finish line victorious, and alone, atop the notorious Alto de l’Angliru at the Vuelta a España.
It was the final opportunity for the most popular rider in Spain to put his arms in the air at the most important race in front of his compatriots and most passionate, dedicated fans.
“There couldn’t be a better finale than this, winning in the Angliru to put an end to my career as a professional rider,” Contador said. “This morning, I had it clear that it would be my day and that I had to say farewell in this fashion.”
A multiple-time winner of all three Grand Tours, Contador (Trek-Segafredo) had come to this Vuelta to fight for the overall, but was struck down by a stomach bug on Stage 3 into Andorra, losing 2:33 to his GC rivals. That same day, Chris Froome (Team Sky) took the red leader’s jersey, which he has defended for 17 stages and will wear into Madrid on Sunday.
With a GC victory unlikely, Contador balanced his efforts between fighting for a stage win and clawing his way back up the general classification. In the end, he succeeded on both fronts.
Contador spent the final week attacking in the mountains, finishing a close second atop Los Machucos on Stage 17, and launching a surprise move in the final 15km on Stage 19 into Gijon, only to be caught with 2km to go. Many questioned that effort, just one day before the brutally steep slopes of l’Angliru. But on Saturday Contador showed that he had enough left in the tank to go out on top.
On the descent of the Alto del Cordal, Contador attacked from the GC group with 13km remaining, rode through riders from the day’s breakaway — and took some help from teammate Jarlinson Pantano, as well as young Spanish riders Marc Soler (Movistar) and Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) — and with 5.5km to go, soloed to the finish to the delight of enthusiastic roadside spectators cheering him along the way.
In the closing kilometers, Froome and teammate Wout Poels launched a bid at the stage win, and though they were closing, they could not finish the job, finishing 17 seconds behind.
“Angliru definitely doesn’t disappoint,” Froome said. “It’s such a brutal climb. We did everything to catch Contador in the final but he was just too strong for us. It’s an amazing way for him to finish his career with such a big victory like that, so congratulations to him.”
Contador won’t stand on the podium in Madrid; he moved up to fourth overall, 20 seconds behind Russian Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha). And that’s only fitting — in his 18 Grand Tours, he won nine, had two stripped away for a doping offense, and finished in the top 10 on five occasions.
Most impressively, between July 2007 and May 2011 he won six consecutive Grand Tours that he started, though that figure would be redrawn to four consecutive Grand Tour wins after his positive test for Clenbuterol and subsequent suspension. (Though his results from July 2010 through February 2012 were voided, Contador has consistently denied any wrongdoing, and insists he has never cheated.)
Still, the 34-year-old from Pinto, a suburb of Madrid, has never stood on the podium of a Grand Tour that was not the top step, and it will remain that way on Sunday as the race wraps up in front of his hometown friends and family.
It’s perhaps the statistic that best defines Contador’s career — he always fought for victory.
In an era where Grand Tours have become increasingly calculated, as time gaps between the top riders have gotten tighter and riders often ride to defend their position, Contador always backed up his intentions with actions.
A rider known to race on impulse and instinct rather than by what his power meter dictated, Contador’s tactical decisions sometimes puzzled critics, but seemingly always delighted fans. With Contador, win or lose, there was never a question that he’d given his all.
“I’m not interested in second or third place,” the Spaniard often told journalists in the latter part of his career, as his Grand Tour domination had waned. “I’m only interested in victory.”
Throughout his career, “El Pistolero” was always seen as a fighter: He overcame a brain aneurysm early in his career. He overcame a struggle with Lance Armstrong for Astana team leadership at the 2009 Tour de France. He overcame a doping suspension he insisted was unjust. More recently, he overcame a personal conflict with former boss Oleg Tinkov.
Contador’s last Grand Tour win came at the 2015 Giro d’Italia. Since then, crashes, illness, injury, and the effects of aging have taken their toll. In the latter part of his career, he had transformed in the public eye, from dominator to underdog, still fighting, hanging on for one last shot at glory.
During the 2017 season he had finished second on eight occasions, including an agonizing second overall at three stage races in the spring — Paris-Nice, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, and Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
On Saturday, atop an interminable Spanish climb, in the final opportunity of his career, Contador went out on top.
“I cannot think of a better way to say goodbye, to win on the Angliru on the last climb of my career,” he said. “I gave everything.”