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An Interview with Alberto Contador, July 29, 2007
The Condor swoops
Earlier this year Alberto Contador confirmed his talent when he won two stages plus the overall classification in Paris-Nice. The Spaniard then went on to take the fourth stage of the Vuelta Ciclista a la Communidad Valenciana and a stage plus the overall win in the Vuelta Castilla y Leon. Having defended his lead in Saturday’s penultimate day time trial, he now looks set to take his biggest career result and triumph in the 2007 Tour de France reports Cyclingnews’ Shane Stokes and Gregor Brown.
He started the day nervous, unsure, excited, but ended it as the likely winner of the 2007 Tour de France. Sunday on the Champs Elysées Alberto Contador is set to become the youngest winner of the race since Jan Ullrich 10 years ago; if he steers his career in the right way and avoids the mistakes of the German, he could win several more.
Contador was up against two Time Trial specialists on yesterday’s 55.5 kilometre race against the clock and while he lost time to both of them, he didn’t panic. The maillot jaune began the day 1.50 minutes ahead of Cadel Evans (Predictor Lotto) and 2.49 minutes up on his own Discovery Channel teammate Levi Leipheimer. He conceded 36 seconds to the latter and 22 seconds to Evans in the first 17.5 kilometres but, urged on by directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel and team co-owner Lance Armstrong, he kept his composure and rode fast enough to hold on.
The 24 year-old hit the line fifth, finishing 2.18 minutes behind his teammate and 1.27 minutes off Evans’ pace. It means he will start today’s final stage 23 seconds ahead of the Australian and 31 up on Leipheimer. Although there are time bonuses up for grabs, the fact that most of the other riders in the race will also be racing hard means that it will be a difficult task for Evans to get back the required time.
"Now I feel a little more relaxed," Contador said after the stage. "It was a very difficult day but it is the result of a lot of years of work. Things are now sinking in and it is a good feeling for me."
He admitted that he was nervous during the Time Trial, but said that he was able to remain focussed. "For a moment, at 30 kilometres to go, I was a little concerned when they gave me a time check of 38 seconds [as regards Evans’ overall GC deficit on the road – ed.] It was a moment when my legs were hurting, but then this gap stayed constant. In the last kilometres I knew I had to ride to the death to save the jersey. Now I have the jersey at 23 seconds over Evans and it is very beautiful for me."
Contador had the boost that seven-time Tour winner Armstrong was at the stage, giving him advice before the start and then watching him from the team car, giving him extra motivation. "They told me on the Aubisque stage that he would come," said Contador. "Today he did not tell me anything from the car but when I was hearing Johan, I was also hearing behind him the voice of Lance Armstrong."
Apart from what looks like being a common parallel as Tour de France winners, both have faced the possibility of death and come back from those moments. In 1996 Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer, had a brain operation to clear a tumour but survived; on May 12th 2004 Contador collapsed on the opening stage of the Vuelta a Asturias, crashing from his bike during the race due to bleeding in his brain.
He was operated on and the surgeon was able to repair the problem, enabling him to return to cycling. Now, just over three years later, he is on the verge of the biggest success of his career.
"Three years ago I was in the hospital and I was very afraid of not having a normal life," he confessed. "Fortunately after the surgery, I was able to get back to competition and race. As a result of that, I have this scar from ear to ear. [he points to his head – ed.] I could not imagine when I was there that today I would be here, with all these people watching me and with these results."
He was asked about the similarities between his experience and that of Armstrong, and what the American’s recovery has meant for him. "It is true that he was very important for me," he said. "I read his book while I was in the hospital. Today, it was a big motivation to have him in the car to motivate me. There is a similarly in that we have both had health problems, but he has won seven Tours and I have only won one. So there is a big difference."
Contador was told that he is an inspiration for Spain, due in part to his recovery and also to his current success. He was asked if he had a message for those back home. "Yes," he answered. "A part of this win is for them because they have encouraged and supported me. They were always with me in the last few years. Cycling is not like football there, but it is important. I want to go back soon and celebrate with them."
Dealing with suspicion
For some, Alberto Contador’s win leads to questions. This is partly because he was a member of Manolo Saiz’ teams, racing with ONCE - Eroski in 2003 and Liberty Seguros/Liberty Seguros – Würth in 2004 - 2006. It’s partly because his name appeared briefly on the Operación Puerto documents when the scandal broke last year, partly because of the current climate of suspicion, and partly because he and Michael Rasmussen have performed so strongly in the climbs in the race. Indeed several articles have been written during the Tour about this latter point, with some asking questions as to how the two scaled Plateau de Beille only slightly slower than Marco Pantani did back in 1998. The implication is that the wattage required is not possible without using banned substances.
"As I said before, I have tried to live the best I can," he responded to a question regarding the current climate of suspicion. "Cycling now is a little bit crazy. I know there is suspicion on me because I am the leader of the Tour de France."
"It was a very crazy Tour, more than I wanted or expected," he said of recent events, then responding to a question about his mention in the original Puerto file. "I was in a bad team at a bad moment, with Liberty and this Astana squad. At the time my name was on this Operación Puerto list but then the UCI changed its mistake. Now I am out of this case."
An article in Saturday’s LeMonde newspaper reported that he was interviewed by the Puerto judge Antonio Serrano in December 2006 and said then that the didn’t know Eufemiano Fuentes. According to the newspaper, he refused then to undergo a DNA test that would have judged whether or not he had any link to the blood bags that were found in Fuentes’ clinic in May of that year.
He was asked at the post time trial press conference if he would now provide such a sample. "I don't believe this is correct but if I have to do it then I will do it," he answered.
A journalist later returned to that subject, pointing out that he said that he would do so if he had to provide a sample. "Why not just do it and removed the doubts?" he was asked. "Because I am innocent and I don't have to prove everything to everyone," was his reply. "What do I have to do, give you my blood and my DNA?"
Another writer wanted to know what his first day as race leader was like, the morning after Rasmussen was fired by Rabobank and ejected from the race. "It was a very difficult day because it was a very big surprise for me," he stated. "It was a strange feeling that the yellow was not in there in the race. I only had to defend it [afterwards] and it worked out. Now I am here and it is okay."
In taking over the race lead in such a controversial Tour, he was thrust into the limelight at what was arguably a less than idea time. Professional sports people are seen as role models; for that reason, he was asked if it is now his task to show what needs to be changed in cycling. "I think that cycling is crazy now," he admitted. "We see that there a lot of problems, and also problems with the UCI and ASO. We have to work in the best way. I don't know how but we have to find something. It is sure that we can't continue with all the scandals we have now.
"I want to say that this sport is great and it is very good and healthy to practice," he added. "We have to continue for the public, the supporters."
Time trial and beyond
Contador is very young but had a lot on his shoulders yesterday, knowing as he did that a good time trial performance could win him the Tour, while a bad one could lose it. "I knew that there was going to be lots of pressure but I stayed focused," he said. Part of his way of dealing with the stress is to relax with his teammate Benjamin Noval, talking and watching DVDs are two of his tactics to unwind.
"Noval was very important to me during this Tour de France," he noted. "We roomed together. When we are tense we would watch a movie on the computer and sleep like babies. I enjoyed speaking to him about home and what is going on there."
He conked out on Friday night quite early, showing either that he was relaxed, or that he was very tired from the Tour. Either way, he got a good night’s shuteye. "[Friday] night I was watching the movie; I fell asleep a few minutes after it began. Noval was here and he asked me, 'is this guy a good or bad guy [in relation to the movie – Ed]?' I did not answer, and he knew I was sleeping.
"It is true that I am coping with this pressure quite well," he said. "I used to live in a similar way in other races so I tried not to be too influenced by this."
Providing he gets through today’s final stage okay, he will then be crowned as winner of the 94th Tour de France and go on to a completely different life. As he’s just 24 years of age, he was asked how many more Tours he could win. He wouldn’t be drawn on such speculation. "First of all I want to win the Tour tomorrow," he explained, not getting ahead of himself. "I want to celebrate it and to have parties, then go on holidays. To enjoy this first win. Now is not the moment to think so far into the future."