With a bulky bandage on his right leg Alberto Contador hobbles down the long corridor of an anonymous holiday apartment building on the outskirts of Besançon; the rather inappropriately named Zenitude. Half a dozen journalists await him and, as he reaches the tiny lobby at the end of the corridor, he stops, breaking down in tears at his withdrawal from the Tour due to a broken leg.
He announces that he’ll make a full recovery, and that it would take a lot more than that to keep him from rebuilding his life, while behind him a rather unfriendly scowl seems to be saying to gathered journalists: ‘To hell with all of you, you’re the ones who are to blame. Why couldn’t it have been you lot that fell?’
Faustino Muñoz, or simply Faustino, as he’s known in cycling, is Contador’s long-standing mechanic and a constant, pervasive presence. He waits for Contador in front of the apartment building as does the open door of a team BMW in which his friend and press officer, Jacinto Vidarte, is waiting to transport him to a nearby airport, where team owner Oleg Tinkov’s private jet will then take him on to Madrid for treatment.
After Contador clambers painfully into the car and Faustino himself has closed the door, he goes over to the Tinkoff truck-workshop where it’s rest day on the Tour; his fellow mechanics are enjoying a well-earned break and a chat while waiting for team bosses and owners, Bjarne Riis and Oleg Tinkov, to return from their ride so they can clean and store their bicycles.
The car, with Vidarte behind the wheel, pulls away but hasn’t gone more than five metres when Faustino comes running out of the truck in the direction of the car holding out his hand and shouting: “Stop!” Vidarte brakes and Faustino swoops down toward the rear window that Contador has diligently opened, puts his great head into the hollow and cries out for everyone to hear: “Go champ! Come on, champ!”
Riis and a still sweating Tinkov arrive after the scene is over to find riders’ agent Giovanni Lombardi, who with two words and a handshake closed the signing of Peter Sagan for the team. The conversation turns to Roman Kreuziger, the Czech cyclist also represented by Lombardi, whose biological passport represents a pain in the arse for the team.
Tinkov, a rebel and a businessman who, just like a golfer, dispenses with a moment of misfortune and immediately moves on to the next hole without so much as a trace of negativity, expresses his outrage against the UCI: Now what do I do with Kreuziger? What do I do with the million Euros that I pay him every year? Why didn’t the UCI warn me that his passport was dubious before I hired him?
Riis, still a sportsman himself, can’t help but think about Contador, his fallen leader, and the regret of losing the Tour which would have been his third as director (after Sastre in 2008 and Andy Schleck in 2010); a race that he’d already won even before the mountains. “On the climb from Planche des Belles Filles, Alberto would have gained over a minute on Nibali. And that would have been just for starters…”
In Riis, Contador finally seemed to have found a director with whom everything clicked. The Dane signed him in August 2010, shortly after the UCI announced Contador had tested positive for clenbuterol, in spite of which he kept him on the team and welcomed him back after the sanction.
“Contador gave everything he had in preparing for this Tour,” says Riis, who in some ways had achieved more with the cyclist than any of his previous directors – Manolo Saiz, Johan Bruyneel or Beppe Martinelli – had succeeded in doing. After jointly analysing the errors committed in 2013, the first full season since his sanction, and in exchange for accepting that within the team Contador could surround himself with the people he trusted and set his own standards, Riis managed to get the Spanish cyclist to accept a few lifestyle changes.
He advised him to go and live in Switzerland, where, in addition to tax benefits, he could enjoy a tranquillity which was impossible in his hometown of Pinto, just south of Madrid. “Your wife Macarena will come and live with you, and your cycling friends too, so that you don’t get lonely; stay in Lugano and don’t travel as much as before,” he told him. “Don’t waste your energy travelling all over the place.”
Riis also entrusted him to the almost exclusive care of Steven de Jongh, the directeur sportif who knew Sky’s work ethic and modus operandi, and began to work directly with Contador as his trainer, inevitably turning the rider’s usual routine on its head. Almost without realising it, Contador found himself contemplating the Mount Teide volcano on the island of Tenerife where he had never done more than minimal training, and sharing lodgings at the Parador with Nibali and Froome, who come July, would be his rivals.
At the age of 31, it was a new experience for Contador; his willingness to change was what most reaffirmed in Riis the conviction that if Contador could overcome testing positive for clenbuterol, he could survive the fall on the Tour.
“How can you not be optimistic about his future?” remarks the Danish director, who has also changed. For seven or eight years, the first thing he did with the riders he signed was take them to Tuscany so that his friend Luigi Cecchini, the famous medical trainer, could examine and study them. “Alberto has overcome weightier problems, higher mountains, and harder knocks in life.”
That is echoed by Contador, who could recount the story of his life as a succession of harsher blows than the fall that cost him the 2014 Tour: the bleeding to the brain he suffered during a stage of the Tour of Asturias in 2004 when he was 21 years old and well on his way to competing in his first Tour; those same circumstances being what practically saved his life, because if he’d suffered the aneurysm while he had been sleeping, no doctor would have arrived in time to save him; the recurring epileptic seizures that he suffers as a result of the scar in his brain left by the surgeon who operated on what is medically called a cavernous angioma; the first yellow jersey on the Tour, which came in a flash one night in Pau in 2007 when Rabobank threw Rasmussen, the leader and almost certain winner, out of his hotel and off the team; the embittered relationship with almost all of his directors and some of his team-mates, with Manolo Saiz, his first team boss, going to pieces on Operation Puerto; Johan Bruyneel, with whom he never felt confident; Lance Armstrong, the team-mate against whom he fought and won in the 2009 Tour; testing positive for clenbuterol in 2010 and on the brink of losing his credibility and his career once and for all, convincing him, as if he hadn’t had sufficient grounds before, that he was a permanent victim of undeserved injustices.
It was the nights of insomnia and anxiety that led to his latest grievance, like the day he visited his parents, Francisco and Francisca, and found them crying over what they’d read in the newspapers. They looked him in the eye and asked him: Is it true what they say about you?
It’s not true; it could never be the same Alberto Contador who stepped into the limelight at the 2007 Tour, duelling with Rasmussen in the Pyrenees, on Plateau de Beille and the Col d’Aubisque.
Back then, he would finish each stage smiling yet exhausted and would go over to the journalists and happily tell them that what mattered was the performance, because for him that was what cycling was all about – entertainment – and that he had come to put on the best show he could.
He never spoke of victories, which he believed could be his because he had always been the best among his peers, though at the same time, he thought they were out of his reach. He would speak about the cycling he enjoyed and about his ideas to renew a sport that was in decline back then.
Everything came to a head one morning in September 2010, the night that the UCI published findings of a minute trace of clenbuterol in his urine (a betrayal because he and Pat McQuaid had previously agreed that the issue was so ridiculous that it would never be a problem).
At that time, after that first ‘betrayal’, Contador, with the help of his press officer, Jacinto Vidarte, set a couple of things straight in his mind. The first was in his defence: everything is due to an accidental ingestion of clenbuterol which was found in contaminated meat he ate in Pau on a rest day.
The second was loyalty: those who care about me will believe me and those who do not believe me are against me. It turned his defence into an act of faith which those who were most sceptical, or simply curious, did not accept. His relationship with the majority of the Spanish press became tense, to say the least.
Even four years later, when time should have healed the wounds that were opened that day, Vidarte still remembers. “Yes, the history between Contador and the journalists may have changed, but the ‘story’ persists, and won’t be forgotten.”
He knew it long before and could see it coming just after Operation Puerto, when he began to learn that growth inevitably leads to toughening up emotionally, and the loss of innocence. “I used to race for something more than the victory, more than just doing a good job; I raced, you could almost say, out of the sheer love of racing. It was like sharing a gift with everyone,” he would say, with added drama thrown in for good measure, as unbelievable as it seems.
“Now I realise that in life you have to be selfish. You can only be generous with your close friends, with your own. I’d never trust others like I did before.” From the others, from the outsiders, just expect misunderstandings, and be wary of the power they have. “Seeing my parents suffer was the worst part of the whole crisis.”
My people, their people: the line was drawn. After spending only a year in Iberdrola, the amateur team that served as an incubator for Manolo Saiz, Contador became an apprentice in the ONCE pro team in September 2002.
He was 19 years old, a young man with wide, prying eyes, who met and trusted some of those he still calls “his people”.
The one person who really took to him was mechanic Faustino Muñoz, already well-known for his technical skills, his ingenuity, his outspokenness, his seamless opinions, as well as his confrontations with directors, commissaires and rival cyclists; and masseur Valentin Dorronsoro, who was a little more discreet but equally vociferous.
Both of them continue to be a part of his inner circle, as well as a neighbouring cyclist from a town in Madrid close to Pinto with whom he began his adventures in professional cycling, and who remains at his side to this day: Jesus Hernandez.
Contador’s inseparable brother Fran would join the group later on, responsible for the personal sponsorships, the small businesses that were started up and the more social side of things; cyclists Dani Navarro and Sergio Paulinho, who he also met in Manolo Saiz’s team, and his press assistant, Jacinto Vidarte, a journalist who left Marca to work as head of press at Liberty Seguros in 2005, and his lifelong friends from Pinto, Paquito and his crew.
They would follow Contador wherever he competed, and are now responsible for the smooth running of the junior and under-23 teams that he oversees with the help of Specialized.
Contador was never comfortable with Manolo Saiz, who was as stubborn as Contador himself, nor with Johan Bruyneel, who was the one who rescued him from the limbo that all of the Liberty riders existed in following Operation Puerto in the summer of 2006. Contador, however, was wary of Bruyneel’s intentions; of the Belgian director with a sincerity that he just wasn’t buying.
At the 2009 Tour, the return of Armstrong and the ensuing confrontation and mutual misunderstandings were almost of epic proportions.
Every night, Armstrong, who firmly and wrongly believed that he could win his eighth Tour, received Bruyneel in his hotel room with the same question: I’m better than Alberto, right Johan? I can beat him in the mountains, can’t I?
And as always, like Snow White’s wicked stepmother in the mirror, he got the same response: No Lance, Alberto is much better than you; he’ll leave you behind just like that.
After saying this, Bruyneel sweated and schemed as to how he could not only win the Tour with Contador, of which he was convinced, but also get Armstrong on the podium.
Meanwhile, Contador would get his evening dose of technical guidance in the massage room from the hands and words of soigneur Valentin Dorronsoro. Then every night in his room, before turning in, Faustino would come by and go over what Contador would do the next day, planning his own Tour on the counter-attack while always believing that his main rival was his team-mate, Armstrong.
In the bed next to him, Sergio Paulinho, another of Contador’s men, discreet and silent like no other, would assume the figure of wisdom represented by the three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
Contador won that 2010 Tour by a hair’s breadth because of the seconds he gained from outpacing Andy Schleck on Port de Balès, combined with the mechanical problem of the young Luxembourger. He had been on the verge of losing too, after the worst time-trial of his life.
Fitness coach Pepe Martí, who he had begun to work with when he was signed by Discovery, joined Contador’s habitual group of advisors, which left Beppe Martinelli, officially director of Astana, in the simple role of chauffeur.
He worked with Martí right up to the doping incident which eventually cost him the loss of the Tour in the offices of the UCI, and Martí was definitively stigmatised because of the Armstrong case, being handed an eight-year ban.
Carlos Arribas is a reporter for El Pais. Translation by Graham Tippett