MILAN (VN) — How far can Alberto Contador go? That’s the question that many are asking after Sunday’s victory at the 2011 Giro d’Italia, when Contador claimed his sixth grand tour victory in his young, but controversial career.
Contador was giddy on the winner’s podium in front of thousands of cheering fans in Milano’s dazzling Piazza del Duomo. And he should be. The man from Pinto rolled to third in the final-day time trial to cap his best-ever performance in a grand tour that also included two stage victories, the points jersey and second in the mountains jersey.
Contador has won the past six grand tours he’s started, with three Tour victories, one Vuelta and now two Giros dating back to 2007. With a six-minute gap to Michele Scarponi (Lampre), Contador also finished with his biggest grand tour cushion.
“I never felt like the Giro was in danger,” Contador said Sunday in Milan. “The first week was probably the most nervous, because you really can’t say how strong you are or your rivals. The team protected me well and I was the most consistent over three weeks. I had some days when I felt a little better than others, but I never had a moment of doubt.”
Contador was clearly better than everyone else. He not only won two stages, he was in the top-3 in nine decisive stages during the three-week run from Torino to Milano. When he didn’t win, he was still at the hot end of the action, chasing time bonuses and even gifting stages (on two occasions, first to Jose Rujano at Grossglockner and then Paolo Tiralongo at Macugnaga). Contador was head and shoulders above everyone else, something his Italian GC rivals admitted.
“Contador was the strongest and he was unbeatable,” said Scarponi. “My second place behind Contador is worth a lot.”
“Contador is stronger than ever. This Giro has pushed me to my limits and allowed me to learn from my errors,” said third-place man Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale). “This Giro was harder than in 2010. And now I am very tired. I believe that I can still improve, but Contador was unbeatable this year.”
Winning differences in Contador’s grand tours
2007 Tour de France: Contador to Cadel Evans — 0:23 seconds
2008 Giro d’Italia: Contador to Riccardo Riccò — 1:57
2008 Vuelta a Espana: Contador to Levi Leipheimer — 0:46 seconds
2009 Tour de France: Contador to Andy Schleck — 4:11
2010 Tour de France: Contador to Schleck — 0:39 seconds*
2011 Giro d’Italia: Contador to Michele Scarponi — 6:10
* = facing possible disqualification
Contador said a big difference in this Giro when compared to his 2008 win is that he targeted the race early in his season, something he did despite not knowing if he was going to be cleared to resume racing or not in his still unresolved clenbuterol case.
It’s that ongoing case that continues to haunt Contador, who vehemently denies cheating and claims clenbuterol entered his system after he ingested tainted meat brought into France from neighboring Spain. After being cleared to race by the Spanish cycling federation in February, both the UCI and WADA appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Contador has since hired some of Europe’s leading sport attorneys to help him take his case before CAS.
By pushing through the distraction of the controversial case and rotundly winning the Giro, Contador proved yet again he boasts tremendous mental strength that helps him in the peloton as well as in cycling’s behind-the-scenes drama, such as his tense co-habitation on Astana with Lance Armstrong during the 2009 season.
Though dogged by controversy and setbacks, Contador has emerged as the most dominant grand tour rider of his generation. In a telling statistic, Contador has won 17 of 24 stage races he’s started since 2007. And he’s on track to become one of the most successful grand tour riders in history.
His first win came in 2007, when he picked up the yellow jersey after Michael Rasmussen was kicked out of the race. The following season, Contador’s Astana team was snubbed by Tour organizers in the wake of the blood doping scandal of team captain Alexander Vinokourov. Rather than go to the Tour, Contador won both the Giro and Vuelta that season, becoming just the fifth rider in history to win all three grand tours during a career. Back at the Tour in 2009, this time alongside Armstrong, Contador withstood team turmoil to beat back the Texan in his comeback season for his second Tour crown. Last year, his battle against Andy Schleck went down to the wire in a battle that was marked by the “chain-drop” controversy and then Contador’s infamous steak dinner.
Even if CAS rules against him and strips him of his 2010 Tour crown, Contador would likely keep the 2011 Giro victory, giving him five grand tours and counting.
All-time winner’s grand tour winner’s list
11 — Eddy Merckx: 5 TdF; 5 Giro; 1 Vuelta
10 — Bernard Hinault: 5 TdF, 3 Giro, 2 Vuelta
8 — Jacques Anquetil: 5 TdF, 2 Giro, 1 Vuelta
7 — Fausto Coppi: 2 TdF, 5 Giro
7 — Miguel Indurain: 5 TdF, 2 Giro
7 — Lance Armstrong: 7 TdF
6 — Alberto Contador: 3 TdF, 2 Giro, 1 Vuelta
5 – Gino Bartali: 2 TdF, 3 Giro
5 — Alfredo Binda: 5 Giro
5 — Felice Gimondi: 1 Tour, 3 Giro, 1 Vuelta
His 2011 Giro rout was his most complete. Saxo Bank-Sungard didn’t have the strongest team in the peloton, but the squad rose to the occasion to protect Contador in the flats and bring him in good position to the big climbs where Contador could take over and turn the screws on his rivals. Team boss Bjarne Riis also tactically played the stages in an intelligent way, using the interests of other teams to take pressure off his team.
“We successfully defined each rider’s abilities and managed to delegate the different tasks accurately, so no one was unaware of what to do next,” Riis said. “We have been able to work in the front and, at other times, we dared to share the responsibility with other teams.”
It’s clear Riis and Contador are already thinking about the Tour, and perhaps they have been ever since February. Riis left such workhorses as Nicki Sorensen, Chris-Anker Sorensen, Gustav Larsson and Benjamin Noval at home to keep them fresh for the Tour. Though this Giro seemed hard on everyone else, Contador never really seemed to be under pressure and should be able to recover in time to be ready to go for July. Having the hardest stages in the final week of the 2011 Tour route also gives Contador more time to recover from the Giro and be back in top shape for the Tour’s most important battles.
No one’s pulled off the Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998, but if Contador is cleared to race, he will enter the Tour as the five-star favorite to win.
Whether or not he’ll be at the Tour will be the million-dollar question in the coming weeks.
CAS officials are expected to meet with lawyers representing all the interested parties in the Contador case this week to set a new date for the appeal hearing. CAS had promised to resolve Contador’s case before the start of the Tour, but a three-day window set in early June has been scrubbed. Sources within the Spanish cycling federation told Spanish journalists that the hearing could be pushed back until August or September. With a valid racing license, and a CAS hearing still pending, there would be nothing stopping Contador from racing the Tour.
No one would like to see Contador racing the 2011 Tour when he is still facing the possibility of having his 2010 Tour crown taken away. Contador claims he’s an innocent man and hopes CAS will vindicate him, but he won’t wait on the sidelines as the legal process crawls at a snail’s pace. Contador has always raced to win and it looks likely he will start the Tour if he can.
Whether he wins in the courtroom remains to be seen, but until judgment day, Contador is preferring to let his legs do the talking. And at this year’s Giro, those legs spoke loud and clear.