By Carlos Arribas
This guy who describes himself as so normal faced Lance Armstrong in a painful duel. He won it. His second victory in the Tour. He’s not so normal, but rather pure dynamite on a bicycle.
Hotel Las Artes. Pinto. Wednesday, July 28. One o’clock in the afternoon. Less than 72 hours before, he contemplated the world, and the world contemplated him, from the highest step on the podium in the Champs Elysées.
As punctual as if he had been waiting on the launch ramp of a Tour time trial, Alberto Contador, alone, driving his black Audi Q7, arrives at the appointment.
Contador, 62 kilos of bone and dynamite. A heart. And eyes shaded by long lashes. A normal guy, from a normal sleeper town, in just another capital city, three days after winning, at the age of 26, his second Tour. A rider who is not so normal. His favorite music is out of the ordinary, too, namely, the Tour’s theme song, which plays on his telephone whenever he receives a call—and that is very often.
That’s the best cyclist in the world, the Pistolero that has confounded the old sheriff Lance Armstrong, Billy the Kid re-writing the final scene with Pat Garrett. Someone who, to be sure, is not altogether normal.
Do you feel that when he calls you “pistolero,” deep down, Armstrong is sending a message that he admires you?
The pistol sign is just a gesture, it’s not really important. And I don’t want controversy of any sort. I don’t see it as admiration. It’s not something that I can say I like.
Is it worth the trouble of everything that’s happened—three weeks of greatest difficulty, as you said, an impossible relationship with the best cyclist in recent years, plus an entire year of sacrifices—to win the Tour?
Yes, of course. The sacrifice to win the victory is huge, but what you give the Tour, you don’t give to any other race. And the satisfaction is always worth more when it comes with suffering. The higher the price, the better it feels.
The prize is that great?
Yes, definitely. The recognition that comes with winning the Tour is unbelievable. You don’t see anything like it with other races.
When you climb to the top step of the podium, is the only thing you feel the great emptiness that follows so many days of intense work done well? Is there any adrenalin left in your blood for getting excited?
What I feel, over all, is a great freedom, an absence of tension and pressure. There are almost four weeks of full concentration in the race and outside it, too, and when you achieve your goal—being on the top step in Paris—it’s like a liberation.
And don’t you ask, was that everything? This is how it feels?
That’s when you rationalize a bit. You know that the goal was to be there, on the highest step, and that people, as you say, demanded that you be there. And in a certain way, I’d like to be there to fulfill the demand. It seems that the victory is an obligation, even considering how difficult it is.
It’s usually said in cycling that suffering is part of the pleasure, that people are glad to suffer when it’s about riding to win. This year, did you feel that type of pleasure?
There’s that, of course. In the race, you suffer a great deal, but over all you like it, in the sense that you do it to get something you want. Your legs hurt, and you almost ask them to hurt more if that means being able to go faster.
You’ve confessed that in this Tour, you had not a minute to relax.
Yes, that was more complicated this year, but at any rate, for someone who wants to win it, the Tour is always complicated. There’s an extreme amount of pressure.
You’ve controlled yourself so well in your statements during this Tour that it’s a wonder you haven’t bitten your tongue bloody…
Not that much. I already knew that the situation was going to be complicated, and what I did was to take it in the best way I could and keep my perspective, from points of view that I knew would be good.
But what’s important is that the Tour is over, and I got the victory, and that’s it. I did very well with the team, plus there were people on the team who treated me very well, and in the end, they made everything easier.
Alone in the mountains after an attack, alone in the time trial, alone on the team…Is solitude the price that every champion must pay, or is it something welcome, something that you seek?
No, it’s not something that I like very much, still, clearly, when you’re on a summit or in a time trial, the fight is always you against yourself. There, yes, you’re alone.
When you attack, you’re looking to be alone…
I like to be alone if I’m going ahead. Everything depends on the situation, on if I’m interested in going with the group or not. If you’re the leader, sometimes what you want is to go en masse and you’re happy to be all together. And there are times when you’re alone and there’s somebody ahead of you who totally wipes you out. That happened to me at Paris-Nice. And I didn’t like it much.
In this sense, you seem to have grown up, or at least, changed. Before, you liked more spectacle for the sake of spectacle, giving joy to people, and now it seems like you’ve introduced a calculating element. People would’ve liked it more if you’d won more stages...
It’s what happens at the end that counts. My style of riding is what’s called spectacle. I need to gain time in the mountains and I have to take advantage of whatever opportunities exist. This year in the Tour I took advantage of what I could, and clearly, was filling my head with numbers, times and options that would come up in the following stages. In that sense, if you fight for the general, the spectacle will come.
That was in the Tour, because in other races, like Paris-Nice, where you suffered exhaustion to the point of passing out, you rode with the freedom and gusto of someone who could take risks because he could afford not to win.
In Paris-Nice it was many accumulated circumstances. The day before, I had to attack alone eight kilometers from the summit of Montane de Lure in order to take the leadership, and it left me totally wiped out. It was extremely windy and it took a big toll on my strength. And everything that had happened in the previous days had put me in a terrible state. And what happened was…
What happened was that you bonked, which gave Armstrong grounds to preach to you, saying that you still had a lot to learn…When besides, your life didn’t depend on winning that race—you already had it in your palmarés—and you were free to take risks…
That’s it, that says it perfectly. I wanted to win, but I was happy with the performance that I gave. The level that I had was very high, very high, and it felt better to me than a victory.
Do you get the greatest pleasure on a bicycle when you attack, or are there other times?
More than when I attack, when things are going well, when I’m enjoying it. This year on Mont Ventoux, during the Tour, I enjoyed it very much.
They say that the head—the mental process behind each of your decisions—more than the legs, is what marks the difference between a champion and a very talented cyclist. Do you notice that you think differently from others?
I don’t know if it’s different, but I am a person who believes in himself, who believes in his potential, and when I set a goal, I’m usually quite realistic. I only think about things that I know I can achieve.
Considering that, at least in cycling, you can achieve anything you want, the possibilities you have to achieve goals in general are unlimited…
Maybe my ability to be realistic goes along with what my legs tell me. If my legs have a certain feeling, the way they’ve felt when I’ve won in the past, then you know that, if they feel like that or even better, you’re going to be close to winning. That gives me a lot of confidence, and in the end it’s all a circle: the more confidence, the greater the yield; the better everything goes, the more motivation to train, and in the end, it’s what makes my head stronger.
But doesn’t that very special head sometimes cause communication problems with other teammates, with your directors? What if, when it comes time for analysis, you appreciate things that they didn’t have the ability to see?
Not necessarily. Maybe where I can see more is my ability at any given moment, or my margin for manipulating a situation that they can’t know about because they don’t have my sensations.
And it’s not about data. In the measurement of power that we took on the bike, in the SRM, it was possible to see whether there was this much, or that much, or that much, but that wasn’t what was important. What you’re interested in is knowing how much you’re capable of moving on D-Day. And the one that knows that is the rider, with the sensations that he’s having in the race.
Has D-Day, this Tour, been the race in which you felt strongest in your career?
Ufff…The level that I had this year in the Tour has been very high, very high, maybe the highest that I’ve achieved during my whole career. The performance that I gave in some stages, the way I felt at Ordino, at Verbier, the time trial at Annecy, were very high-level performances, when I was in the best form of my whole career.
The pride that is characteristic of all the champions in their own achievements—what now they call ego—is it the quality that can create the most problems in relationships? It usually goes hand in hand with a personality that has an exaggerated susceptibility…
Each person has his own reasons for pride, and I’m very happy at how things are going for me. When I sacrifice for something and see results, then I feel proud. But I never for a moment feel arrogant about it.
They say that you’re a stubborn person…
If people come to me and say something, and I analyze it and believe that it’s on target, of course I accept it. And if my analysis is different, often I give in, because you’ve got to give in, because it’s a more appropriate thing to do when it affects people other than yourself. But if it only affects me, maybe it takes more to change my mind.
Almost all the great champions normally have a director associated with them who is at the same time a technician, spiritual padre, philosophical guru…And you, in the three years during which you’ve attained the highest level, still haven’t enjoyed a peaceful team, without tension, without problems. Do you believe that it’s unfair, or does it motivate you more? Do you miss a director that you can have 100% confidence in?
Of course I would like to have some calmer years. No doubt. When the important thing is being able to focus only on competition,… with somebody weird that bothers you and that robs you of time makes everything more difficult. And as for the director always has had confidence in them. If that’s not there, things go badly for us.
22 Then if in unstable situations you’ve won four grand tours and you’ve been undefeated since 2007, what will you do when you’re calm? Or is it that, in that situation, you find extra motivation due to the rage that makes you feel that way?
I don’t believe that I lack motivation. At the moment, I’m clear about it. But, on the other hand, I believe that what has happened to me during these years has been very good. I became familiar with an enormous amount of situations and I’ve learned something from all of them. You’ve got to try to take the good and to know what’s not so good. And at 26 years old, I’m still at an age for learning. I’ve gone through a lot of tricky situations, and there are more to come.
Surprising, anyway, your ability to adapt quickly, to control the keys, in all kinds of strange situations.
The reason is the responsibility that you get in competition, and my own desire to improve all round. You have to adapt quickly to overcome the obstacles.
Motivation is the word. From this Tour until next season, eight months will pass during which you’ll only ride as much as a couple of days wearing a bib number. What do you think about getting to next season hungry? It’s a new situation. Last year at this time you were preparing for the Olympics and the Vuelta…
The training will be different from when I have a clear goal. The motivation is not the same. Now I’ll be able to go out for a stress-free ride. If I get the urge to go out on the bicycle with my friends, I’ll do it. I’ll train in order to maintain physical condition, but without doing five- or six-hour training sessions. I’m a rider that only needs a little while to get into form, and that’s something my body appreciates.
And so little…Last December you went to team training camp after a recent operation on your nose and you were at the same level as everybody else the whole time.
Well, except on the climb of de Masca. There I was a little less, because some people on the team changed their gearing, since that climb is so hard on the lower slopes of Teide in Tenerife. Armstrong and some of the others used special gears in order to climb it, and I didn’t know. They told me that we would do two hours and when we left, I realized that….Thank heavens for eating energy bars, because if I hadn’t, I would’ve died. It turned out to be a training session like the one before the Tour, 3,300 meters of altitude. We climbed like barbarians. I don’t like Tenerife for cycling.
Are you able to disconnect from the bike when you go on vacation?
Yes, the second fortnight of August I’ll go on vacation. But they won’t be quiet days. I’m facing a situation in which I’ve got to decide about my future, if I change teams, if I create a new one, and I’ll have plenty to do. Although it will be my brother who does most of the work, I’ll be able to to disconnect fairly well. I’m clear about it. I know how to disconnect from the bike, although after the Tour it takes more effort, since there are invitations, tributes, events that I have to attend, and it’s more difficult to get away than when I was a neo pro. But I make sure that I disconnect, because it’s essential to do it deliberately, with full commitment, in order to pursue a new goal.
Is all your life as a champion compatible with being a normal guy from Pinto?
No doubt, no doubt, no doubt. I consider myself a very normal person, although I’ve got less time than before to be with my friends. It’s clear that I miss having time for myself, but it is possible to live a normal life. And it’s what I want. I enjoy the bike and my work, I don’t aspire to more.
Do you do the same things for fun that you used to do?
There are athletes who want to be something more, to become celebrities, people who are said to be charming, who are idols…Is becoming a celebrity a fascination to you, becoming something more than a guy from Pinto who won the Tour?
No, no. I don’t want to give up being a regular person and make myself a celebrity. It’s natural to me to be quite modest, and that’s what I want. Although now with the victories I get a lot of attention, I want nothing to do with the glamorous life of the stars.
Many of your colleagues have become fanatics about Facebook, about Twitter, about Tuenti, all of them social networks. That’s what people of your age—twentysomethings—are like. You, on the other hand, are reluctant.
All the means of communication are good as long as you have the ability to control them. They allow you to make contact with a lot of people, and whoever has the most is the most popular. Yes, I do have my profile on all the social networks, but I redirect them to my webpage, and when I want to send a message from there I send it. But I don’t have any active profile for talking through them. In the end it’s too time-consuming, and I don’t have so much time that I can afford to spend it like that.
You’ve noticed changes in the peloton, which seems to have been invaded by new peole, by riders who only communicate in English, when before “Itali-Franco-Spanish” was the official language…
That’s undeniable. The majority of riders nowadays speak enough English to have conversations. Yes, it’s very noticeable that the American riders are having more influence all the time, when before it seemed more European.
When you took over the leadership of the Tour at Verbier, you declared that it was not the happiest day of your career. That was the day in January of 2005, when you won a stage in the Tour Down Under just a few months after having survived a life-or-death brain surgery. The one that changed your life—you reached full maturity at the age of only 22.
Considering how negative that could have been, I got a lot of positive things from it. I learned to value everything much more, and not only in cycling, but in life. That’s what makes me different from other people. That’s the sacrifice that I’m able to make for something.
Doesn’t it make you feel different, more responsible, than other people your age?
Not at all. There must be people my age more mature, more responsible and even more serious than I am. It has served, though, to help me value everything much more. It makes everything much simpler.
What do you most enjoy doing during your free time?
The first thing I look for is peace and quiet, letting go of stress, going out with friends at night, to the movies, on vacation, going karting, going to dinner with friends…
Do you read?
No, a little. The time I could spend reading I use to look at things on the Internet.
Aren’t you attracted to what you can get out of books?
No, it doesn’t appeal to me that much. There’s a book that was extremely helpful to me, and it seemed like the most important book in my life, which was Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike, where he tells about how he overcame cancer. I got a lot out of that book.
What happens to me is that I spend so much time going various places, I never have time for anything. What appeals to me most when I’ve got a little free time is doing nothing, being peaceful, with my feet up on the couch and thinking about nothing.
I’m not much for the iPod, except for when I’m warming up before a time trial. For me, that’s extremely important.
What do you listen to?
Top secret, haha, I can’t tell you that. I usually alternate really intense songs, that start slow and increase tempo little by little in order to start to break a sweat… film soundtracks that I like, things like that. And in between, others that are less intense and others just the opposite, for climbing progressively until hitting two or three peaks while warming up. And I’ve got it all loaded on an iPod…Anything’s fine, like with digital cameras that you just turn on and go.
Do you still spend time with the canaries in your garden?
I’ve got them in the house, a really big aviary that doesn’t take a lot of my time, but it’s not like when I was little. What I do have now is a dog named Tour, a Weimaraner, a hunting dog that was a gift from a television station, and I spend a little of my free time with him. I’ve always been fascinated by animals.
At 26, you’ve won more than 99% of cyclists ever dream of winning in their lifetimes. They say that whoever starts winning very young retires earlier…
I can’t know now how it will be for me. All the time, we’re seeing more 35-year-old cyclists functioning at the highest level in the peloton. Before, it seemed an unthinkable age, and there are people like that who are competing for titles. I’ll leave when I think that it’s time, when I see that I’m not excited anymore.
Usain Bolt says that his only goal is to become the greatest in history, a legend. Are those words too grandiose for you?
It’s not something I’m worried about. They always ask me about Induráin’s number, about unseating Armstrong… It’s not a goal I’m considering. Once I finish my career, I’ll see what I’ve achieved and what I haven’t, but now I’m only fixed on keeping on doing what I’m doing, competing on the bike. That’s what I like. And if it’s accompanied by results, it will always be easy for me to fing motivation.
Cycling has always been accompanied by an aura of legend. Its champions have been until recently, popular heroes that we dream about—Ocaña, Perico…People who have the ability to go where no mortal can reach. It seems like that’s all over.
What we cyclists do in the Tour used to seem even more impossible. This has changed, in effect. In society, including me, it’s more difficult to surprise people. Doing something that surprises people is very difficult. Whoever manages to surprise people, even on commercial television, has got to be really good at it. The way people look at things has changed. And in cycling they don’t admire it like they used to.