Alberto Contador gets out of the saddle

There was a period, not so long ago, when every time Alberto Contador raced the Tour de France, he won it. He won in 2007, he won in 2009 and he won in 2010.

The last of those was later stripped from him after what with hindsight feels like the first of the modern doping cases. It wasn’t a blood transfusion. It wasn’t a load of EPO. It was 50 picograms, or 0.00005mcg, of Clenbuterol.

When prescribed, a person might be given 20-60mcg of Clenbuterol. It’s also a substance that is said to have a long half life. Contador really didn’t have much in him and you might very well have expected him to have tested positive on other days during the same Tour – but he didn’t.

I mention this not to defend Contador. Not in any way. What I’m trying to highlight is that doping cases – particularly the more recent ones – are never as simple as ‘positive test = guilty’.

Grey-tinted spectacles

If you weren’t getting all frothy-mouthed about amoral cheaters during that last section, you may have noted that Contador didn’t win the Tour in 2008. That was because he didn’t race it. Instead he rode the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana – and he won both of them.

After finishing first in the Tour in 2010, the Spaniard tried for the rarely-achieved Giro-Tour double in 2011. He won the first but could only manage fifth in the latter because he was knackered. Both those results have been wiped because of the Clenbuterol.

This may all seem rather irrelevant, but it’s important to place Contador within his sport. He has had a doping positive and if that’s enough for you to ignore everything he’s ever done, that’s fine. You hear the facts and you take your position. For others, it might not seem so cut and dried. Some might think he’s done nothing wrong. Others might just view him and his achievements through grey-tinted spectacles.

Contador and the Tour

Peering through or around the faintly murky lens, Contador is a man to be reckoned with – yet he has not actually won the Tour since he returned from his ban.

He won the Vuelta in 2012 and 2014 and clung on to win the Giro in 2015, but the Tour has eluded him. For some this is proof that he always needed a pharmaceutical leg-up and while I can admit to having harboured similar thoughts, it’s also worth assessing his trio of post-ban attempts.

In 2013, he still had the air of a man returning to the sport; in 2014, he crashed out; and in 2015, he had again gone for the Giro-Tour double (managing first and fifth again).

So mitigating circumstances. Even so, I haven’t at any point in the last few years thought Contador would win the Tour again before today.

Why today?

Because he won the cronoscalata-style prologue at the Criterium du Dauphiné.

This, in itself, shouldn’t be striking. Contador is one of the great climbers of our time – a man who can get out of the saddle to power up an incline and not sit down again for a good 20 minutes.

What was more striking was who he beat and at what point in the race.

An uphill time trial is a pretty straightforward test and if you beat Chris Froome by 13 seconds, you have gone some. Richie Porte may well have been sandwiched between them, just six seconds adrift, but he still lost. And this was day one.

Alberto Contador is a stage-racer. You analyse his palmares and one thing you’ll conclude is that this guy endures. He never wins one-day races, he rarely wins week-long races, but give him a Grand Tour and he’ll outlast everyone.

We’re still a month or more out from the Tour de France, but put it this way: if Alberto Contador is beating you uphill on day one of a race, you have plenty to be worried about.