Passing the fire: Contador, Basso come together at Polartec development team

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A heavy crowd gathered round, with iPhones at the ready to catch the moment.

El Pistolero, dressed in a cowboy hat with a gun holstered to his hip, was about to challenge his brother Francisco (Fran) to a quick draw duel. Hands hovered above their guns, the brothers engaged in an intense stare down. As the ready light went off, the Contador brothers drew their guns, snapped back the safety, aimed and shot. It was over in under a second.

We were in Arizona as invited guests of Polartec to participate in the Fundación Alberto Contador team training camp. Riders from both the new-for-2018 Continental and U23 teams, along with the technical staff, joined Contador and Ivan Basso for four days of riding under Tucson’s sunny, warm skies of Tucson. The motto for the week of training was “pasar el fuego,” or “pass the fire.” A series of four routes were planned, totalling 435 kilometers with an elevation gain of 5,000 meters, in which the new 2018 team kits, made completely from Polartec fabrics, could be tested.

As it is still months away from the first race of the season, the training camp was more about bonding time for the team than about any real fitness gains. Morning rides were punctuated with leisure time in the afternoon, where the teenagers took advantage of the local mall, coming home with Vans and Abercrombie, with evenings set to show off the best of Western Americana, including a full blown Arizona Luau, complete with barbecue, s’mores, mechanical bull, lasso station, corn hole, and the aforementioned quick draw duel.

“These training camps offer a chance to see things you might not in other situations,” Basso explained. “You see who does not act in the best way, who comes late, with dirty shoes, or inadequate clothing. This may sound stupid, but the rules must be followed in respect of the others.”

Contador, 34, and Basso, 40, were briefly teammates at Discovery Channel in 2007, and again at Tinkoff-Saxo in 2015. Both won multiple Grand Tours, both are stars in their respective countries despite serving controversial doping suspensions, and more recently, given Basso’s testicular cancer scare in 2015, both survived life-threatening conditions. (Contador suffered a stroke in 2004, at the young age of 21.) Former GC rivals, they came together again at Trek-Segafredo in 2017, with Basso joining the team in a technical coordinator role during Contador’s final season.

After 15 years of professional racing with seven Grand Tour wins under his belt, one might think Contador would be ready to sit on the beach and sip calimocho, but that’s not the case. “I don’t know what to do. I never stop,” Contador said. “After finishing the Vuelta, I thought now my life will change. But now I travel more than before.”

Run by a team of family and friends, including Francisco and Basso, the goal of the foundation is twofold: one is to promote cycling through educational programs, the three Polartec race teams (Junior, U23, and Continental), and working with other bike-related non-profits; the other is to support stroke research and awareness.

Contador (left) and Basso were briefly teammates at Discovery Channel in 2007, and worked together again at Trek-Segafredo in 2017, with Basso joining the team in a technical coordinator role. In 2018 he will manage the Polartec-Kometa Continental team, one of three run under Contador’s foundation.

As president of the foundation, Contador will split his time between supporting the teams in races and training camps, spending time with the sponsors, and helping to raise money for stroke research.

“Cycling is my passion, but it’s not my life,” he said. “We need to enjoy all the small things, and all the moments. For me this is more important. The cycling part of the foundation is a big motivation because it’s my passion but you need to have more motivation to get out of bed each morning. It’s a big motivation to speak about my illness as you can help a lot of people. Always people think it can’t happen when you are 15, 16 years old. Now I have more time to give to this foundation.”

The Polartec-Kometa Continental team, managed by Basso, is ultimately a feeder program for the Trek-Segafredo World Tour team, although athletic success is only one component. “The objective of the team is not to win 30 races per year, it’s to have a good professional rider in the future. We teach them respect and a good system of work, so when they pass to the professional category, they are ready from the first moment in this difficult category,” Contador said. “We want to create good people.“

Hernández, who rode with Contador at Trek-Segafredo in 2017, will serve as the Continental team’s sport director.

Riding laps of the eight-mile one-way loop through Saguaro National Park on the third day of camp, both Basso and Contador coached the riders on everything from pedal stroke to more efficient climbing technique, while making plenty of time for cactus selfies and team photo shoots.

In all, four of 11 riders from the Polartec-Kometa Continental team made the trip to Tucson: Juan Camacho, U23 Spanish national champion Isaac Cantón, Miguel Ángel Ballesteros, and Diego Pablo Sevilla. Both Ballesteros and Sevilla came through the Fundación Contador program as juniors.

“I am happy and proud to pass to the professional team within the Fundación Contador,” said Camacho, formerly of the U23 team. “I’m lucky and I want to take the opportunity. Being in the same team I think it will be easier to adapt to the category, among other things because we have with us people with a great experience like Jesús Hernández, Ivan Basso, and Alberto Contador. I want to make good use of this time.”

Polartec CEO Gary Smith (left) first got to know Contador several years ago through Contador’s relationship with apparel brand RH Plus, which used Polartec fabrics.

To find out how Polartec became involved in the Fundación Alberto Contador we need to backtrack a bit.

Before joining Polartec in 2012, CEO Gary Smith was CEO at Independent Fabrication, the bespoke frame manufacturer of which he retains majority stake. No stranger to the industry and an avid cyclist himself, Smith set out for “world domination in cycling,” upon joining Polartec. The textile company is off to a pretty good start — you can see its scientific fabrics in use everywhere from Rapha and Velocio to Kitsbow and Castelli. Polartec’s biggest customer, Smith said, is the U.S. military, where special forces are constantly seeking breathable insulation that packs down and dries quickly.

On the bike, Smith said he was often horrified by what people wore to his Saturday morning group rides.

“There are a lot of bodies out there that need better kit, for lots of reasons,” he said. Polartec’s purpose is to solve problems through textiles, Smith explained, and while cycling is a small part of the business, and a small addressable market in the big scheme of things, it’s a sport where gains are separated by seconds.

“There aren’t many things that are that precise,” noted Smith. “If you can make someone more comfortable in a moment, make that zipper lie flatter, you can make the difference between victory and not. That’s motivating if you are a problem solver. “

It was through one of his apparel customers, RH Plus, that Smith first got to know Contador. From there, the relationship grew naturally based on shared values and visions for the future of cycling.

“We didn’t set out looking for a team to sponsor, it was sort of an organic process,” Smith said. “There are lots of places as a company you can pay to have your logo displayed. I am not a big believer in that. It’s fairly superficial and not distinctive.”

Smith went on to explain that today’s marketing “requires an experience.”

“So if you are going to promote your brand, what better way than to have people experience what you do?” he said. “There are good people and a compelling mission behind what Alberto, Ivan, and Fran are trying to do.”

The various foundation teams give Polartec a platform to experiment with fabrics and design, and get immediate feedback. For example, the jersey zipper on last year’s team kit did not lie flat enough for Smith, so he set out to create a material with more stretch to it. “Our objective is to have the clothing disappear, and have the rider just thinking about riding.”

As we prepared for our climb up the 2800-meter Mt. Lemmon on the final day, I asked Basso what advice he provides a young cyclist about how to push through any moment of suffering on the bike. I thought he might offer up a mantra along the lines of “Shut up legs.” His response was far more involved. “Try to work every single day to do your best,” Basso told me. “If you give 100% every day, you go to the race confident. Even if you are suffering, you know you can always give a little more.”

What is fun to do as a young person isn’t necessarily conducive to being a competitive cyclist — that is, in part, why the foundation teams were born.

“You need to decide whether you are a bike racer or a bike rider,” Basso told the young riders. “The big difference is in the small details. Everyone has a good bike, clothing, coach, training, can eat well and sleep well. When you wake up, you are not like your friends of 22 years old. He can go to the disco, to the bar, to eat pizza, but you can’t. You can go when you are 40 years old.”

To that end, that’s where Kometa, the Continental team’s co-title sponsor, is a perfect fit — it’s a health-food sponsor from the Bormio region.

And in case you were wondering, Fran won the duel among the Contador brothers. Even a retired Pistolero, it seems, can always learn a few things.

Contador retired at the end of the 2017 season, and now spends time on the bike working with young riders coming up through his foundation.


About the author

Amy is founder and editor of The GearCaster as well as a freelance outdoor and adventure travel writer. Her byline regularly appears in award-winning publications such as Backpacker, Outside, and Adventure Travel. A Minnesota native, she now calls San Francisco home, where she can be found most often outside on two wheels, whether on the road, on the trail, or cruising around town with her dog, Lola, on an electric cargo bike.

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