Portrait: Alberto Contador
"If I hadn't had this problem 11 years ago, I wouldn't have had the same victories. It changes the vision of your life." El Pistolero on strokes, recovery and the work of the Fundación Alberto Contador
“I’m sure that if I hadn’t had this problem 11 years ago, I wouldn’t have had the same victories. It changes the vision of your life.” - Alberto Contador
Adversity makes the strong stronger.
Alberto Contador is the most dominant GC rider of his generation, but multiple victories in all three Grand Tours would have seemed a fantasy to a 21-year-old told that he would need brain surgery if he were to race again.
It is the reason that raising awareness of strokes is one of three principal goals of the Fundación Alberto Contador, alongside a “Bikes for Life” project, run jointly with the Disabled Association of Pinto, and his backing for two development teams.
Contador the champion has been a fixture of professional cycling for more than a decade; Contador the man is less well known. At a meeting of the entire Tinkoff-Saxo team at the Valamar Diamante hotel in Croatia, the rider sits down with Rouleur in a quiet spot by an outdoor pool to discuss the motivation behind the foundation and a period in his career when racing a bike again seemed a remote possibility.
It is 2004 and the young Spaniard tipped for greatness is suffering blinding headaches. He cannot understand why. He is young and fit, and neither drinks, nor smokes. All he knows is that the pain inside his head is intense.
At the two-day, three-stage Clásica de Alcobendas, a warm up for the Vuelta Asturias, a key part of his preparation for the Tour de France, Contador is forced to drop back from the climbers’ group to the team car. “I’m sick,” he tells his directeur, who advises him to climb in. History shines a light on the significance of his action: Contador will ride for 10km with a broken leg at the 2014 Tour, before conceding defeat ("Hard as nails," the assessment of current directeur, Sean Yates).
The pain is so intense that he is unable to train in the following days, but the young man is determined: missing the Asturian race is inconceivable. He receives head massages, but events will prove such limited intervention to be woefully inadequate. Waiting for the stage to begin, he becomes colder and colder. Before 50km have been completed, he has collapsed.
“I think it was very lucky that it happened in a competition,” he reflects from a distance of 11 years. “If it happened outside of a competition, I don’t think I would be speaking now.” The speed of the medical response may have saved his life, but the road ahead is rocky.
The hospital medics insert a titanium plate in his skull and drain blood from the cerebral cavernoma identified by their scans. The young man returns to his parents’ home in the Madrid suburb of Pinto to recover, but suffers another attack.
There is a growing sense of desperation. Contador is no longer even thinking of the bike. More mundane tasks are threatened. Will he be able to drive, for example? He pays tribute to the support from family and friends that carried him through such a difficult period, but confesses that the attention was sometimes suffocating.
Finally, he is offered an operation: warned that it could be complicated, he accepts the risk. He bears the scar to this day, but his recovery is complete.
In November, he begins to train again. There are doubters to win over; observers questioning whether the young man will be the same rider as before the stroke. The Tour Down Under offers the first opportunity to answer the critics. It is enough for Contador that he is racing again; he describes pinning on a race number again as “incredible”. Victory on the queen stage assumes a greater significance than even his closest observers might imagine.
“For many people, it’s hard to understand that the most special race for me is not the Tour de France, the Giro or La Vuelta,” he reveals. “It’s the victory at the Tour Down Under.”
The rest is history, literally. Contador has achievements beyond the wildest dreams of a 21-year-old, even if there have been difficulties along the way, notably the disputed Clenbuterol positive at the 2010 Tour, and subsequent ban. Contador returns and triumphs again, winning the Vuelta in 2012 and 2014, and the 2015 Giro. The boy has become a man. It is time to give back. We return to the Fundación Contador.
Bicis para la Vida (Bikes for Life) has a workshop facility in Pinto, where those faced with social exclusion can learn the bike mechanic’s trade, and where the donated bicycles they restore are given to those most in need of affordable transport.
It is the two development teams, however – the Flex junior team and RH+/Polartec espoir squad, known collectively as the Fundación Contador Team – that offer a more direct application of the founder's experience. Spanish cycling may be in rude health at the professional level, but it is a different story lower down the ladder.
“I remember when I was racing as an under-23, I went to a race and there were 300 cyclists. Now when you go and there are 80 or 90, it’s a very good race.”
The development teams are not exclusively for Spanish riders: there are French and Italian too, and the Belgian, Kenny Molly, has recently graduated to the Continental ranks via AWT-Greenway.
“We have something that is very good: this is not a business,” Contador adds. “If we [the Fundación Contador Team] become professional, it will be to continue the work of the Foundation. We want to stress that this is not to take a salary.”
Cycling will be part of Contador’s future, even if for a harrowing period, it was the least of his concerns. For now, there is the small matter of a final season and a last crack at the Tour.
The Foundation will remain part of his focus. Saxo Bank, his team’s sponsor for the last five seasons, has been raising funds through its Trade Like A Pro programme, and public donations can be made via a page on JustGiving.com.
"You never believe that this could happen to you," Contador says of the stroke that sent him tumbling - literally - out of the Vuelta a Asturias, 11 years ago. The central focus of his foundation is to prevent it from happening to others.
To support the Alberto Contador Foundation, visit JustGiving.com.