After Tom Boonen’s retirement earlier this year, yet another of my favourite riders has hung up his cleats. I am, of course, talking about Alberto Contador whose career I have followed with interest since 2006. On that year’s final stage of Paris-Nice, I was waiting behind the barriers at the start line in Nice when the rider nearest to me took off his helmet, removed his cycling cap and handed it to me. The elderly woman standing next to me tried to snatch it. However, I fended her off and gestured for the rider give the cap to the small boy standing next to me, and he did. The young lad, who looked to be aged about eight, was thrilled. The rider was none other than Alberto Contador and I wonder if that cap is still a treasured item. Sadly, Bertie didn’t get to strut his stuff at the Tour de France that year as he and five of his Astana-Würth teammates were barred from competing after their names were linked to the Operacion Puerto blood doping inquiry, though Bertie was later cleared of charges.
In 2007, Bertie won Paris-Nice. I was standing on one of the slopes on stage 6 when he applied the after burners and just dropped everyone. It was as if he had another gear to everyone else. I marveled at the amount of time he could ride with ease out of the saddle. That was the year he won his first Grand Tour, the Tour de France. Ostensibly riding in support of team-mate Levi Leipheimer, he quickly outpaced his leader. Though for much of the race he seemed destined for second overall, until Michael Rasmussen was thrown off the Tour after lying about his pre-Tour whereabouts. Baby Blackbird assumed the maillot jaune and carried it all the way to Paris.
He didn’t take part in Paris-Nice in 2008 where I staged what ended up as a one-woman protest about the exclusion of Astana from that year’s Tour de France. The protest had been organised by Alexandr Vinokurov, who provided us with the t-shirts. The plan had been to cycle up Col d’Eze and stand on the top of the mountain classification line thereby attracting the attention of ASO’s Christian Prudhomme and the television cameras. I was the only one from the club to make it up the climb in time, the others got stuck at the junction so it was a rather muted protest. I appeared only briefly on camera and while M. Prudhomme probably noticed me, he didn’t change his mind. Unable to compete at the Tour, Bertie won a Giro-Vuelta double becoming the youngest rider ever to complete a full set of Grand Tour victories. A glittering future surely awaited him.
Bertie returned to Paris-Nice in 2009. But he didn’t win after spectacularly bonking on stage 6 into Fayence. If only he’d said? I was in the village and had energy bars to spare. His effort to gain back time on the final stage won him a lot of French fans who loved his attacking style. The French adore riders with “Panache.” On the Sunday evening, after the conclusion of the race, we attended a small, intimate dinner organised by Vino in his restaurant in Nice, where the guest of honour was none other than Bertie. After dinner, my club-mates were queuing up to have their photos taken with him, but not me. As I reminded Vino, there’s no way I wanted my photo taken with a guy who weighed less than me! I did have a brief chat with him in my poor Spanish and was left with the impression of someone who was both very humble and shy, and had a sweet tooth.
In a move he probably now deeply regrets, Lance Armstrong emerged from retirement to join Astana in 2009, but Bertie had the mental fortitude to see off that internal challenge and add a second Tour de France title to his palmares. We stayed in the same hotel as Astana on the eve of stage 4’s team time-trail in Montpellier and you really could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
Bertie won Paris-Nice again in 2010, a year which left an indelible stain on his mighty career. At that year’s Tour de France, Bertie emerged victorious over Andy Schleck only for a positive test for Clenbuterol on the second rest day to scrub it from the record books. News of the positive test broke in September 2010. I was at the World Championships in Melbourne at the hotel where the Spanish team were staying and I well remember their collective shock and disappointment.
It took more than 16 months of investigations, hearings and appeals for Bertie to finally be sanctioned with a retroactive two-year ban. He’d continued to race and win while the debate raged and his 2011 Giro d’Italia triumph was perhaps the most dominant of his entire career, even if the title would eventually pass to the late Michele Scarponi.
The 2011 Tour de France was, in light of Bertie’s resurrection as attacking shaman, perhaps his defining race. He arrived for the Grand Depart as the overwhelming favourite, still uncertain whether he would be sanctioned for his 2010 positive test. I clearly remember he was roundly booed by spectators at the team presentation at Le Puy de Fou. Three weeks later, it was a different matter and he received a notably warmer welcome when he rode into Paris in fifth place overall. A crash on the opening stage, not to mention the exertions of his (revoked) Giro d’Italia win the previous month, meant he was a much reduced presence on that Tour. But his startling, all-or-nothing attack on the short stage to l’Alpe d’Huez almost turned the race on its head. In many ways, the rehabilitation of his reputation began there, even before the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided to hand him a retroactive two-year ban the following February.
Following his return to racing in 2012, it seemed as if Bertie would never again scale such giddy heights, even despite his surprising victory in the 2012 Vuelta a Espana with a trademark attack on the road to Fuente Dé. It was perhaps the greatest heist of his career and set a pattern for performances in future grand tours. Bertie’s racing continued in a similar vein in 2013 where he struggled to finish fourth overall at the Tour de France.
2014 saw a marked improvement as Bertie was undeniably the outstanding rider of the opening half of the season. He won Tirreno-Adriatico in spectacular fashion followed by an emphatic victory in Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Disappointingly, he was forced to abandon the Tour when he suffered a fracture of the tibia in a crash on the road to La Planche des Belles Filles. Amazingly, he returned in time to ride to victory in the Vuelta.
Bertie then set himself, or had set for him, the lofty goal of winning the Giro-Tour double in 2015. I met up with him in the garden of his hotel, just before the press conference, to secure his autograph on the illustrated page of Book de Tour which showed him leaving the previous year’s Tour de France. He was happy to sign the page and showed a keen interest in the book. Bertie achieved the first part of his goal but paid for his exertions with a fifth-place finish in Paris.
In the final two years of his career, Bertie has raged against the dying of the light by seeking to replicate his Fuente Dé display across the entire calendar.
In both 2016 and 2017, he animated Paris-Nice with final stage attacks that brought him to within seconds of overall victory. His aggression at the 2016 Vuelta helped tip the balance in Nairo Quintana’s favour. His attacking on the road to Foix at this year’s Tour de France brought Mikel Landa into play as a contender for overall victory. Contador, however, had to settle for ninth overall in Paris and the realisation that he would never again win the Tour. He had the option of a second season at Trek-Segafredo, but decided to bow out with one final tilt at the Vuelta rather than continue as a reduced version of himself.
Bertie managed to go out with a final flourish in the Vuelta with victory atop the Alto de l’Angliru and well-deserved a hero’s welcome into Madrid the following day.
Baby Blackbird left professional cycling with seven Grand Tour titles to his name even though he (and I) likes to count nine victories. It’s a succinct epitaph for a career that is both controversial and complicated. For some, he’ll be remembered as the greatest stage race rider of his generation and arguably the most exciting talent to grace the professional peloton in the 21st century. For others, he will forever be tainted.
I no longer have to go out on the bike every day but you can put that energy into other things. I have lots of great opportunities for the coming years. Pretty much everything will be cycling-related – apart from the work I’m doing with stroke charities. I’m motivated; I have lots of projects and lots of different motivations. You have to have something to motivate you when you get out of the bed in the morning, and I have many.
He no longer has to watch his weight, so can indulge his sweet tooth.
Enjoy your retirement Bertie, it’s merited! However, you’ll be sorely missed…………….