Thursday, October 4, 2007

Contador, the Don Quixote of Cycling

By Adolfo Cortes V.

He does not ride on Rosinante's back, but on Jaca de Acero, a mare made of steel. Nor does he live in a village of La Mancha, but travels the world competing as a professional cyclist. His figure, though, is similar to the ingenious Hidalgo's, for he weighs 62 kilos and is 1.76 meters tall. He is not attended upon by a squire like Sancho Panza, but he does have a loyal friend in his fellow countryman Benjamin Noval, his roommate during the last Tour de France and faithful teammate.

Nevertheless, the human history of Alberto Contador, the current king of the Tour de France, is as fascinating as that of Don Quixote de La Mancha. Alberto did not have to fight against windmills, but against a cerebral hematoma that struck him on May 12, 2004, while he was competing in the opening stage of the Vuelta a Asturias. He not only ended up in a hospital bed but was plunged into a coma, hovering between life and death.

Cut off from cycling for eight months, he never abandoned his dreams, and, to the utter amazement of doctors, magically recovered and started to train on the bike again. Nobody at the time thought he had the slightest chance of doing something noteworthy on the bike, except Discovery Channel, who offered him a contract, after Liberty Seguros.

"There are circumstances in life when you learn a lot, and above all to value and appreciate your environment in a different way. The support of my manager, Manolo Saiz, and the help of Lance Armstrong's book were a key motivation in my comeback to cycling and my victory in the Tour de France two years later. It's a dream come true. My life has changed drastically. And the celebration in Spain has not ended yet," says the barely 24-year-old cyclist who has been the main attraction in the Tour of Missouri's first edition, where he granted an exclusive interview to Hispanic News.

Friendly with fans and cordial with the media, Contador admits that the pressure in Spain after his Tour de France victory is intense and so are expectations. Alberto is the youngest Tour de France winner since German Jan Ullrich's victory in 1997. "Can you imagine? They expect me to win the Tour eight times!" explains the rider from Madrid.

How is it possible to face such a high level of pressure? "The main thing is that, on one hand, I manage to cope with it, but on the other hand, the pressure I put on myself is the most intense because I know that I'm my own rival. My first priority for the 2008 season is to be on a team whose principal objective is the Tour de France, because it's motivating to try for a second victory. It seems complicated for me to work for a Spanish team because they already have their planning scheduled for the next season, and I want a team composed of riders who believe in me. My wish is to keep Johan Bruyneel as sports director, but we'll see what happens," adds Contador.

To all those who see in him the new master of the Tour de France, Alberto says, "It's hard to predict because every season is different. I want to face one thing at a time, and my mind is now focused on 2008. What I want is to work the best I can, have a strategic training program like I had this season, and in the end we'll see how many Tours I can win."

The Tour of Missouri had a very special meaning because it was the farewell of Discovery Channel, the world's dominant team, with eight Tour de France victories in the last nine seasons. The fans' enthusiasm displayed along every stage simply outstripped all the organizers' expectations.

"Of course, the disappearance of Discovery is a shame, but hopefully a sponsor will come along and keep a nucleus of excellent riders like Levi Leipheimer or George Hincapie, who are natural potential candidates for a Tour de France victory," says Contador.

A subject that always causes controversy is doping. The last Tour de France was no exception, with Rabobank's expulsion of Michael Rasmussen, who had lied about his whereabouts, probably to avoid anti-doping tests. This occurrence opened the door to victory for Contador, whose name had appeared in the police investigation carried out in Spain known as "Operacion Puerto."

"I'm clean," stresses Contador. During the Operacion Puerto case I was in the wrong team (Liberty Seguros) at the wrong time. By definition my name was linked to this case, but later on the UCI corrected the error. I have nothing to do with it," emphasizes Contador.

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