“Alberto gets it!” That’s what Spanish cycling legend Pedro Delgado says about Alberto Contador. “He knows that the sport is not just about winning. It’s about how you win. It’s about the show you off to the fans. And when he wins, he just does it with such style. He loves to create a spectacle!”

Words: James Startt
Images: Yuzuru Sunada

Opening image: Criterium du Dauphine, 2016 Stage 05: La Ravoire – Vaujany Image: Yuzuru Sunada

Indeed, Spain’s most-decorated contemporary cyclist has always been admired for his aggressive racing style, but as the 33-year-old Contador enters the autumn of his career, his attacking style has taken on new meaning. In his prime, it was relatively easy for him to go on the attack. He was simply the strongest, seemingly capable of riding his rivals off his wheel at any time. But, really, it has only been in recent years that his physical prowess has been less incisive, that we have come to see the real Contador. And fortunately for cycling fans his style did not change.

It would have been easy for Contador to accept his relative decline, to become more calculated, to start riding for podium finishes rather than ultimate victory. Perhaps because he had an image to uphold, that of El Pistolero, he continued to fight. Little matter if he was overpowered, that he was increasingly overwhelmed by the depth of teams like Sky or Movistar. Little matter if he was clearly outnumbered by an increasingly long list of rivals. Even with his back against the wall, Contador continues to come out with his guns ablaze.

He was never more brilliant than in the 2012 Vuelta, when, clearly outclassed by countryman Joaquim Rodriguez in the high mountains, he led a surprise attack midway through stage 17, the penultimate climbing stage, to unseat Rodriguez from the top spot and eventually cement overall victory.

More recently, there was his brilliant ride on the final day of this year’s Paris-Nice. Going solo halfway through the stage in the hills behind Nice, he singlehandedly dismantled the Team Sky riders as they set off in a frantic chase. Then, after being caught just before the final climb, the Col d’Èze, he again attacked race leader Geraint Thomas, cleanly dropping the Welsh rider. At the finish line in Nice, Contador came up just one second shy of overall victory, but for those watching he was clearly the sentimental winner. Win, lose or draw, Contador is committed to attacking, and attacking relentlessly.

“I love that kind of cycling,” Contador says of his penchant for aggressive racing. “I think we need to offer spectacle to our fans. This is cycling. You have to attack to win. If you don’t look for opportunities to win, they don’t arrive.”

“I’ve worked with him on and off since 2007—on Discovery Channel, on Astana and now at Tinkoff,” says sports director Sean Yates. “Obviously he is older, but he’s as competitive as he ever has been, if not more so. Back in 2007 he was determined, but now he is even more so. Alberto is obviously a fantastic talent, but the one thing that has not changed is his desire to win. As long as I have known Alberto, he has raced to win. When you look at his career, there are very few races he has entered where he has not finished in the top five, or even the top three for that matter. It doesn’t matter if it is the Tour de France or the Tour of the Algarve, he just always races to win. He likes to perform. He exists to perform. He’s a phenomenon!”

But while Contador continues to take the initiative, his ability to sustain such efforts against the world’s best is increasingly difficult. After losing the yellow jersey in this June’s Critérium du Dauphiné to Chris Froome on the final mountain-filled weekend, Contador immediately went on the attack. But each attack was methodically reeled in by Froome’s Team Sky armada. Getting the gap was easy. Sustaining it proved impossible.

Understanding that he is likely missing that vital 1 or 2 percent, Contador, like some of his rivals, has also embraced the pursuit of marginal gains. He admits that this more methodical approach to the sport did not come easily, but he understands that it is needed to remain competitive.

For years, skeptical of the relative merits of altitude training, Contador now is a frequent adherent, spending weeks living and training under the shadows of the Mount Teide volcano on the island of Tenerife. And his pursuit for perfection continues into every detail of his sport. The clothing supplier for his Tinkoff team, Sportful, insists that Contador is very active in the development its most competitive clothing. “In recent years, Alberto Contador has been a driving factor in the development of our wet weather/dry weather kits,” says Daniel Loots, Sportful communication manager. “He has really come to understand how clothing can enhance your performance.”

“He pays attention to detail more,” Yates confirms. “It’s always evolving, but you are always learning, and as you get older, to be as good as you possibly can be, you have to look at those smaller details. Alberto gives you the impression that he is relaxed, but he is always thinking about the marginal gains.”

Yates adds that Contador also understands that, with age, recovery is as important as the intensity of the training. “You know, it doesn’t take him as long to get to the top level now. He’s been there for so long. But there is always the juggling act of balancing recovery with workloads. As you get older you realize that you don’t just get better by training more. You realize that it might be better to do seven-hour rides for two days and then rest rather than doing, say, seven-hour rides for three days.”

Will his attention to detail suffice to return him to the top step of the Tour de France podium? In some ways, for riders in Contador’s mold, victory is secondary, the fruit of one’s labors. Of course he hopes to win, but first of all he has to put on a show!

Tour de France, 2015 Stage 17: Digne-les-Bains – Pra Loup Image: Yuzuru Sunada

From issue 56. Buy it here.