There is something indefinably mysterious about Alberto Contador: an almost intangible air of beauty muddled with suspicion – ensuring, in my mind at least – his status as the most polarising figure in sport today. It may be the eerily sinister vestige of threat apparent in his dark, hooded features and vaguely menacing surname; or it may just be the sold-his-soul-to-the-devil ease with which he glides up blackly forbidding alpine ascents. Polarising, why? I hate him for his contribution to the lingering sickness afflicting cycling, yet I adore him for how perfectly he rides that bike.
Contador’s positive test at the 2010 Tour De France and his unconfirmed, yet unfortunately plausible dalliance with the notorious Eufemiano Fuentes ensure that his career – past, present and future – will forever be subject to cynicism.
However, the most dangerous thing about Contador is that his utter panache makes these sins seem almost forgivable. Contador is so smooth, so elegant and so uniquely graceful on his bike that you almost will him; beg him even, to be clean. Say it ain’t so, Alberto.
Watch Contador at Verbier in 2009. See him explode at Etna in 2011. And simply bask in his glory on L’Angliru in 2008. Whether these performances were legitimate is certainly in question; that they were joyous manifestations of the most outrageous cycling talent, is not.
There is an obvious comparison from the natural world; Contador is curiously reminiscent of a hummingbird, with legs for wings and pedalling at a cadence too fast for the human eye. As the bird delicately hovers in the greenery so Contador effortlessly flutters out of the peloton’s reach in the peaks of Europe.
And like the hummingbird, there is something altogether beautiful about watching Contador. He is a physical specimen created for the single purpose of riding a bike very fast, uphill. Contador is surely the most natural climber of our generation and a natural heir to the throne of mountaintop geniuses like Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes. To watch the Spaniard on a steep ascent is to witness man and machine in perfect harmony, and while seeing Contador float up a brutal ascent might not be the most glorious sight in sport; it’s certainly in the top one.
Contador has ridden this flair to 5 Grand Tour victories (with another 2 vacated due to a positive drug test) but as with the truly transcendent, the numbers are insignificant. Don’t watch the statistics, watch the man. And he is, the, man.
David Millar’s repeated assertion that Contador was “one heck of a bike rider” at the conclusion of his decisive solo breakaway to virtually clinch the 2012 Vuelta a Espana, was greeted with metaphorical raised eyebrows and thinly veiled disdain on social media. But, in context, Millar’s point was correct; Contador’s chequered past assuredly had no bearing on the tactical appreciation he showed in sensing and seizing the opportunity to win the general classification. It was just great bike racing, and as Millar concluded: “old school, the good old school.”
So, in light of the greatness, should Contador’s undoubted dark side be overlooked? Why, for example, is Diego Maradona still acclaimed for his brilliance rather than vilified for his cheating in 1986? Did the Hand of God goal cast a shadow over all his subsequent achievements? Nope. Did Shane Warne’s transgressions with a subcontinental bookmaker render his marvellous career void? Of course not. Shouldn’t these same standards of forgiveness be mercifully bestowed upon Contador, or is he destined for eternal rest in the Ben Johnson Hall of Shame?
It is often said of cycling that ‘when it looks too good to be true, it usually is’. However, might this reincarnation of Alberto Contador finally give us reason to trust in a two-wheeled saviour? Can we now believe in Contador the way we believe in Roger Federer, Lionel Messi and Rory McIlroy? For cycling’s sake, I hope so.