He won the Tour, the Giro, and the Vuelta, and if luck holds, more triumphs will be his. But he never forgets that his greatest victory is just being alive, and whole at every level.
“He could use two or three more kilos, he’s very lean,” observes Luis Luengo, a mechanic for the Spanish world championship team who has observed the best riders in the world for the last 30 years. He’s referring to the super-slim Alberto Contador.
The burden of the season, questions about the future, and the character traits Contador has acquired through experience have turned him into a “battery” on a personal level. The wiry-legged cyclist tells about his past, his life, his beginnings,everthing except cycling. Behind the champion, there’s a lad of 25.
What’s behind the cyclist Alberto Contador?
A normal person, who likes to do what anybody my age likes to do. To be with my people, my family, my friends. I have a sister and two brothers, and the whole family is very close. I intend to take every possible advantage of the winter days to see my friends.
During your free time in the winter, what do you do?
I’m very informal. I like to stay home, even now that I’ve moved out from my parents' house and live with my fiancée Macarena. I visit my parents often. I try to enjoy my friends as much as possible.
And what do you like to do with your friends?
We have dinner, or go to the movies, but these days I’d usually rather stay home with friends than go out.
When you’re taking a break from the bike, what do you do to relax?
If I feel like it, I go karting. Sometimes on weekends I go hunting. I enjoy it, and walking in the mountains helps me stay in shape.
What do you hunt?
Whatever’s out there. I don’t get too worked up about it.
Do you like music, reading, television, movies?
I don’t read much. Yes, I like music. I play it in the car but not much outside, except for when I’m warming up on the rollers for a time trial. I’m nothing special. I like El Canto del Loco, Fito & Fittipaldis, Spanish pop. I like going to the movies. I always go with friends.
They say you eat everything, that you don’t have any food problems.
Yes, that’s true. I like everything. The only thing I can’t stand is rice pudding. I know that’s weird, but I don’t like it.
Are you the kind of guy that like to stretch out on the sofa and watch TV after training?
I’m okay with that. Sometimes it makes for a better day. I’m not into a particular show, I watch a little of everything.
What are your plans for the next few months?
Last winter I never stopped to catch my breath, and it went by very fast. In the next three months I only have two or three weekends. I mean, all my time is scheduled, so I only have three weekends without plans. It’s not like before, when I could say no to many things. I need time for myself, I guess, just like anybody else. As I said, I like to enjoy my family. Normally people understand that I can’t possibly go everywhere. Some don’t understand it, but I still can’t do it.
Does winning all three grand tours mean that you’ve got more commitments?
I can’t handle any more! I don’t have time. I’m a person who likes to take care of the fans. I do it wherever I can. I suppose I can’t take care of them all equally well. I’m sorry.
Who organizes your agenda?
My brother Fran, my fiancée and I. We all do it. Don’t think it’s easy, either. Before committing to anything, I have to check the dates.
Who are your friends?
The same ones as always, people from my neighborhood, people from high school. There are some that I ride with, some that I see on the weekends. I’m really proud to have life-long friends.
You’re 25 years old, you’re raking in money, you’re famous. Are you scared that you’ll lose your way? Will success go to your head?
No, no! Why? My fiancée, my family keep me in my place. Whether I get more or fewer victories, I’m still the same person. There are people who analyze you to the millimeter and who might think, “Victory has gone to this guy’s head, he won’t give me his autograph!” Honestly, I do the best I can. If it weren’t for the fans, the ones who enjoy it all, victories wouldn’t be worth much. When I win, my financée doesn’t get jealous or suspicious. In fact, I’m not going to have more opportunities because of winning. At least that’s how I see it.
Are you vain about your appearance? Do you like to dress well?
Yes, I like to dress well. When you have to go so many places you have to be presentable. You can’t go in just any old way. I don’t go hog wild either. You can’t go to all these places the same way, in the same clothes. Going to a prize ceremony isn’t the same as going to a dinner. I’m not obsessive about the subject, either, but I like to be dressed appropriately.
I’ve never met a cyclist who didn’t like speed, cars. Do you like speed, too?
Yes, I do, too. I have an all-terrain vehicle and after the Worlds I bought a sports car. I’m not madly in love with cars, but I don’t deprive myself of something I like. Nor do I buy on a whim.
You won’t be 26 until December, but you often give the impression that you’re 30. Why?
I’ve passed a series of huge milestones in my life, and it has really made me mature. As far as sport goes, I’m ambitious. I’ve gotten results. Yes, I’m capable of the mentality of a 30-year-old person. It allows you to make quick decisions during the races when you’re pushing the limit. It’s an advantage that not everyone can take.
In competition you’re ambitious. Where is your limit?
When I had the accident I matured very quickly. Since then, when anything happens to me, I compare it with that, and laugh.
Pardon this question. You’ve looked death in the face?
I saw it close-up.
What was that like?
My first thought was that I might have some physical or mental disability that wouldn’t allow me to live a normal life.
Did you believe that you would ever race again?
I thought about just being alive! My ability to move my body was in jeopardy. I could’ve been paralyzed. Two days after the accident, I began to move my extremities. I had problems with my vision, with moods. Soon everything healed and I was fine.
What do you think of all this?
What do I think? It shows you that you’re nothing, that you’re excrement (he used a coarser term). You believe that you’re strong, you train to peak form, you think nothing can get to you, that you’re indestructible, but the only truth is that it can all come to an end at any moment.
You collapsed on the highway? Do you remember anything?
No, I don’t remember anything. If I’d been left on the highway in Asturias, I wouldn’t have been aware of anything. If I’d been left in that place on that day I wouldn’t have suffered at all. The ones that would’ve suffered would’ve been my family.
That misfortune, which could’ve cost you your life, has it left a mark?
An enormous mark, for life. Every morning when I see the scar in the mirror, I know what we are, and how precious life is.
Have you forgotten everything that happened?
No. I recovered, and that’s the important thing.
Do you look back?
Yes, in order to know where I was and where I am now. In order to appreciate everything.
I look in the storage room and see the number of Trek bicycles that I own now, all the colors and models. I remind myself that my parents couldn’t afford to give me the 350 pesetas to buy a jacket.
I look at the amount of clothes they give me and remind myself that when I was a cadet and a young rider with a jersey that cost 500 pesetas (three Euros now), I looked so good that I went to the mirror to admire myself. Now they give me so many clothes that I give some of them away so they won’t go to waste.
How can I not look back? How can I not value these things? That’s why my family is so important to me.
And what about your birds?
I still have them, but I can’t look after them like I used to. I don’t have as much time to spend with them, but I still really like that world. I’m still fascinated by animals.
Are you a winner? Have you been wronged?
Yes, I have. I try to put myself in the other guy’s shoes, in order to understand. I try to avoid being negative.
Do you bear grudges?
No, I don’t, not at all. It’s a self-defense mechanism that I have, a way to blot out the negative things that are troubling me. Often I’m much too nice, but that’s just how I am.
You acknowledge that you’re a privileged person. Are you the best cyclist in the world?
I am a privileged person, that’s the reason why I can enjoy things like this. But cycling is full of suffering and sacrifice. I know that on television everything looks easy, it seems that I pedal effortlessly, that I win with ease. Behind those triumphs are many hours of training, throughout many years, a lot of time in hotels away from home. That’s the part people never see. You have to take care of yourself, and live a well-ordered life. This is not a normal sport.
You started as a cyclist in Gipuzkoa, having travelled there from Madrid. What do you remember from those years?
During the first year with Iberdrola, I travelled with Jesús Hernandez, but he wrecked the car. I didn’t have a car or a driver’s license. I often had to to take the train, a seven-hour trip, in a coach filled with big clouds of tobacco smoke. I arrived from Madrid reeking of smoke. Back then, people could smoke anywhere. They used to pick me up at Zumarraga, I think that was the station.
Later I bought a Renault 5. We lived in a flat. They treated me very well. I had to go from Pinto to Atocha and on to Chamartín by train. All the way through the suburbs, on the metro. A car was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
How do you see your future?
In the short term, on a bicycle. In the long term I’ll look for the best situation for my personal life. I’m optimistic. I have a good family, good friends. I’ll certainly look for motivations in life.
And what about vacations?
I need forced vacations, with no cycling talk and no bicycles