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The double: Behind Contador’s audacious ambition

UTRECHT, Netherlands (VN) — In the days and weeks after crashing out of the 2014 Tour de France, a battered and bruised Alberto Contador had a vision.

With his dreams of winning another Tour shredded more than his bloody knee, it was a bitter moment, more so because the Spanish superstar said he was on the form of his life. Rather than throw in the towel, Contador picked himself up, and won the Vuelta a España in a dramatic showdown with arch-rival Chris Froome (Sky). It was during those dark moments that an audacious idea started to ferment.

“That was the first moment I started to think about the double,” Contador said. “I thought, ‘If I could win this Vuelta, far from my best preparation, maybe I could try to do something like the double.’”

The double: Those are powerful words in cycling lore. It’s what the Spanish call “mayúsculas” — capital letters — something bigger than life, something beyond ordinary.

As the Tinkoff-Saxo captain contemplated his 2015 season, he reflected on his career, on what he had achieved, on what had been taken away from him, and what he still wanted to do. At 32, Contador’s time in the peloton is winding down. By his own admission, he wants to leave at the top of his game, perhaps as soon as next year. That means walking away a winner.

As the most prolific, and perhaps divisive, grand tour champion of his generation, Contador wants to secure his place in history on his terms. And he wanted to do it with a big gesture, something that would stand the test of time.

“If I won just another Tour, or another Giro, that wouldn’t change my career very much, but if I could win both in one year, that is something that stands apart,” Contador said. “That is something that people will remember forever.”

Tan, rested, and ready

Just two days before the second leg of his double, Contador strode into a packed press conference Thursday looking very fit, fresh, and motivated.

“If I had choose the condition I had before last year’s Tour, and the sensations I have coming into this Tour, of course, I would choose last year,” Contador said. “This is something unknown for me. I don’t know how my body will react until we’re well into the race. Right now, I feel good, and most important, psychologically, I am ready.”

The Giro-Tour double is something akin to cycling’s Holy Grail, a feat only equaled by seven men in the sport’s history. That fits Contador’s vision of grandeur.

If he could pull it off, it would not only assure him a place among the sport’s greats, but it would help erase the blot of his clenbuterol ban. If anything, Contador, the rider who beat back Lance Armstrong during the contentious 2009 Tour, feeds off what other people say he shouldn’t or cannot do.

“It’s only impossible until someone comes along and does it,” Contador said of the Giro-Tour double. “I wanted a new challenge, something to keep me motivated to keep working, to raise the bar.”

Elite company

Just days before the start, the enormity of Contador’s challenge is starting to settle in. Here are the names who have pulled off the double: Coppi, Anquetil, Hinault, Merckx, Roche, Indurain, and Pantani. Contador wants to be part of that list.

“When Alberto first mentioned it, I thought it was a good idea from the first moment,” said Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Steven De Jongh. “We changed his racing schedule, and came into this season lighter than last year. The idea is to try to be fresh enough and strong enough to win the Tour. I think he can do it.”

The elusive double is indeed one of cycling’s milestones. The first was Fausto Coppi, in 1949 and again in 1952. Jacques Anquetil followed in 1964, with the insatiable Eddy Merckx becoming the only rider to “double” three times in history, in 1970, 1972, and 1974. Bernard Hinault pulled it off in 1982 and 1985, the latter in the year of his last Tour win. In 1987, Stephen Roche followed, the year he equaled Merckx’s mark of winning the Giro, Tour and world title in the same season. Miguel Indurain is the only rider to double back-to-back, in 1992 and 1993. Marco Pantani was the last, in the scandal-plagued 1998 season.

Since then, no major GC contender has touched it with a 10-foot pole. The now-banned Armstrong had a singular obsession on the Tour, and never raced the Giro until his comeback in 2009. Since his retirement, and subsequent disqualification of his seven Tour titles, the sport’s seen a string of one-off Tour winners. The Giro seemed a goal apart. Contador is thinking differently in 2015.

Unprecedented in the bio-passport era

Perhaps it’s coincidence, but no one has seriously taken on the Giro-Tour double since the biological passport was introduced in 2008. And it’s worth noting that no one’s repeated as Tour winner during that period, either. There have been riders who have raced both the Giro and Tour in the same season, or those who raced the Tour after winning the Giro, such as Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) in 2012, but it was never a determined, planned approach like Contador’s double-pronged assault this year.

There is some skepticism that winning both the Giro and Tour is even possible in the biological passport era. Since the passport was introduced in 2008, there’s been a clear shift inside the peloton. Speeds have lowered, riders have bad days, and attacks are shorter. It’s not to say the peloton is pristine— Davide Apollonio’s EPO positive this week reconfirms that cheats are still tempted — but the peloton today is a radically different place than it was in the go-go 1990s and 2000s.

Others are happy to leave Contador to talk of the Giro-Tour double. No other member of the “Fab Four” seriously considered racing the Giro. Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) resisted tremendous pressure to race the Giro this year as Italy’s first Tour winner since Pantani. Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, who hasn’t completed a grand tour since winning the 2014 Giro, remained in the heights of the Colombian Andes in May. Even Team Sky, which seemingly can break down any cycling challenge into a mathematical formula, remains skeptical.

“If you’re realistically looking to win the Tour, [doing the Giro-Tour double], that’s a big ask. It’s a lot more realistic to race the Giro and then the Vuelta a España,” Chris Froome (Sky) said earlier this season. “Winning the Tour a second time is my top priority.”

Taken in that context, Contador’s double attempt is even more audacious.

A Giro harder than it looked

Contador is already halfway there, winning the Giro in May in what became a much harder and demanding race than he expected. When the Giro started on the Italian Riviera, only Richie Porte (Sky), Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick Step), and Fabio Aru (Astana) seemed like legitimate threats. Despite dislocating his shoulder in a finish-line pileup in the first week, Contador ripped the legs off everyone in the decisive time trial stage. Porte flamed out, Urán started the Giro sick and never recovered, and the remainder of the Giro looked to be a race-speed training camp for Contador. Aru and Astana, however, gave Contador a real battle, especially in the final week. There were some whispers that Astana refused to lay down to Contador to make the Giro so hard that he would have nothing left for the Tour against Nibali.

Either way, there is no doubting that Aru and Mikel Landa made it hard on Contador, pushing him to the limits on the Mortirolo stage. Contador even cracked over the Finestre on the Giro’s penultimate stage, but he had enough of a margin that he could still put on the maglia rosa for the third time in his career.

“Even more than the stress or fatigue of racing the Giro was his injury to his shoulder,” De Jongh said, referring to Contador’s first-week dislocation of his shoulder. “That took a lot of energy out of Alberto, more than people realize.”

After a few weeks’ recovery, Contador returned to competition in late June, bettering Quintana to win the Route du Sud across the Pyrénées, in what was a good sign that the engine was still in working order.

“Racing there was a bit like a training camp, and to win proves that Alberto was able to recover,” De Jongh said. “The key to winning grand tours is recovery, and no one recovers better than Alberto.”

Fear factor?

Some of have suggested Contador has taken on the double to perhaps give himself an out, or at least have a very good excuse if — or when — he cannot stay with the likes of Froome or Quintana on the mountains of the Tour’s third week. Some argue that by winning the Giro, Contador has taken all the pressure off himself. Unlike his top rivals, he’s already won a grand tour this season, and, the thinking goes, if the wheels spin off the cart during the Tour, he can just blame it on the efforts from the Giro, and say, ‘Well, at least I tried.’ Contador says no way.

“I don’t view the Giro and Tour as separate races,” Contador said. “If I can win both, I would see them as one victory. That’s how we’ve planned the season, around the idea of one block.”

Contador admitted that his larger fear in his Giro-Tour double attempt is whether or not he will be too fatigued deep into the Tour. When the decisive moves are going down in the final week, will he run out of gas?

Team boss Oleg Tinkov gets peeved when people suggest Contador cooked up the double plan as some sort of smokescreen to cover any cracks that inevitably come with age.

“They are afraid of Alberto, they hide from him. The only way to beat him is to hide and come fresh to the Tour,” Tinkov told VeloNews during the Giro. “I would be so happy for Contador if he could win the double. It would be historical. It would be a testament to Contador. … If he comes to the Tour and crushes them, then there is no question who is the best cyclist in the world. If he finishes second or third, and wins the Giro, is he not the best cyclist in the world? That’s what I hate about this cycling business right now. He is the greatest and best and number one, but the others will come fresh to the Tour.”

Going out through the ‘puerta grande’

Contador already raced the Giro and Tour in one season, in 2011, when he won (and later lost) the Giro, but was clearly off top form during the Tour. Some suggest that Contador will follow a similar trajectory this season, but there are several key differences to what happened in 2011.

That season unfolded under the weight of his pending clenbuterol case. Initially cleared by the Spanish cycling federation, WADA and the UCI later appealed the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but it dragged on for months. Hearings were delayed, opening the door for Contador to race the Giro. Another delay allowed him to race the Tour, when he hastily took the start. A pair of crashes in the first week, and one bad day in the Alps, spoiled his chances for the podium, but Contador admitted that he was far from top shape for that Tour.

The narrative couldn’t be in sharper contrast in 2015. Contador has been planning and training for the double as a singular goal since last fall. He’s built his entire calendar around the double, starting his season later than usual, and racing with less intensity during his early season goals.

More than anything, Contador’s motivation comes from the determination to do something extraordinary and to finish off his career on his terms. While he will never admit it publicly, the 2010 clenbuterol ban is something that continues to grate on him. Achieving the double during the biological passport era, in his mind, would erase any doubt about the credibility of his palmares.

In the mid-2000s, Contador emerged as the next major GC force in the peloton. He won two Tours, in 2007 and 2009, and won the Giro and Vuelta in 2008 when his then-Astana team was kept out of the Tour. Even with his clenbuterol case, Contador’s grand tour record is impressive by any measure.

When asked about his 2011 Giro, Contador simply said, “Those who watched the race know who won.” And to erase any doubt about how many times he thinks he won the Giro, Contador held up three fingers in Milano.

Indeed, Contador has won more grand tours than any active pro in the peloton by a long shot. Officially, he counts seven, two more depending on how you keep score. Nibali is closest, with three. Froome and Quintana, one apiece. No one else starting this year’s Tour has nearly the experience, maturity, and depth as Contador.

When asked if he thought Contador could do it, De Jongh didn’t blink.

“I think so. If we can get through the first week in good shape, I think Alberto can win,” De Jongh told VeloNews. “If anyone can do it, Alberto can. We’re halfway there.”