When the dust settles, Alberto Contador will be remembered as one of, if not the, greatest Grand Tour racers of all time. Heading into the twilight of his career, he's refused to slip quietly into the darkness. Instead, he's managed to find new motivation in the face of new challenges and rivals.
The Giro d’Italia has always had its own distinctive flavour when it comes to Grand Tours. In the land of beauty and passion, where good food and wine are valued almost as much as beautiful clothing and cars, the Giro is often personified by the passion of its fans. It's a race that exalts the brave and celebrates the relentless—win the Giro, and you'll never pay for a drink again. Win the Giro as an Italian, and you'll become the hero of a nation. For Alberto Contador, however, the Giro was the first part of a historic run at attempting to win two Grand Tours in one year. It started along the idyllic coastline of the Ligurian Sea, and finished in the shadows of the spired Cathedral in Milano, creating legends, crushing spirits, and crowning a champion along the way. The last time Alberto graced the top step of the Giro podium was in 2008, and seven years later, his drive was more focused than ever. As one of the greatest Grand Tour racers that cycling has ever seen, the pressure of history rested squarely upon the shoulders of the man from Pinto.
Winning a Grand Tour is an accomplishment unlike any other in sport. For 23 days, riders must operate and function with a level of focus and resolve that few possess. There's nary a moment of reprieve from the constant threat of attacks from rival teams, the onslaught of inclement weather, or the punishingly long stage profiles. Even the "rest days" aren't much of a break, with most riders choosing to head out for a three- to four-hour ride for fear of their bodies shutting down after such a consistent physical effort. Wounds are dressed and prepped for the next day of punishment, food is consumed with a utilitarian detachment, and bodies are massaged and realigned to endure another gruelling day in the saddle. Within this flurry of activity, Alberto Contador proved to both riders and fans alike, that he was undoubtedly the strongest rider in the race.
It wasn't all smooth sailing, though. Amidst the carnage of a blistering opening week, Alberto was taken down in an early-stage crash, injuring his shoulder badly in the process. Many thought his bid for a Giro-Tour double was over before it had even begun, but it turned out that he had actually dislocated his shoulder briefly before it popped back into place on its own. But as anyone who's dislocated a shoulder knows, the pain doesn't just go away once the arm is popped back into place. Add to this the ease in which it can be injured again, and most people would stay off of the bike for a week or so. Alberto Contador, however, isn't most people. You don't win all three Grand Tours by quitting when things get difficult. Many expected him to pull out of the race. For the type of rider Alberto is, especially with his signature out of the saddle climbing style, a weakened shoulder could have spelled disaster. What many didn't expect, though, was for him to not just come back the next day, but for him to stamp his authority on a race in one of the most complete Grand Tour victories in recent memories.
THE ALBERTO THAT WON THE 2015 GIRO WAS ONE WHO LOOKED TO BE FUELLED BY PURE GRIT.
Contador first laid the gauntlet down during the long, 59.4km individual time trial—putting nearly three minutes into his closest rival, Fabio Aru. What followed in the ensuing days was a high-altitude display of climbing that left little doubt as to whether or not Contador had recovered from his injury. Aboard his custom-liveried S-Works Tarmac, and facing a strong and organised Team Astana, Alberto most notably showed his class on Stage 16 when he singlehandedly chased down a charging Astana-led group heading into the foot of the Mortirolo climb. Erasing nearly a minute deficit, Alberto took third on the day and further secured his vice grip on the Pink Jersey.
At every opportunity, Alberto and his Tinkoff-Saxo squad were tested. Through treacherous mountain ascents, and even more perilous descents, Alberto responded with the type of measured calm that has won him numerous Grand Tours in the past. And as his new S-Works 6 shoes danced atop his pedals, we saw a version of Alberto that was different, yet somehow the same. Where in the past, his dominance in the mountains was unsurpassed, the Alberto that won the 2015 Giro was one who looked to be fuelled by pure grit. Grand Tour victories often come with a healthy helping of good luck. For Alberto, however, none of that seemed to be aiding his campaign. And in spite of those misfortunes, he soldiered on. In fact, his resolve seemed only to grow more focused. The Alberto that won the 2015 Giro was an Alberto with a score to settle. His power in the mountains was still something to behold, but the emotion and drive that seemed to be urging him on was new. He raced with the determination of a champion, demonstrating that his star is far from burning out.
The Giro-Tour Double eventually eluded him, but Alberto reminded many why he's still a threat in any race that he shows up to. And while a new wave of GC contenders are certainly making their presence known, seven Grand Tour victories in a career is something that should never be scoffed at. It would be easy for some riders to bask in the glow of a storied and successful career, but the Alberto Contador of today appears to be hungrier than ever. There's a centred resolve that seems to have placed him in a new place in his storyline. It's one where, perhaps, winning means more than it used to, and motivation is driven by passion alone. But regardless of why he's out there, a fit and focused Contador is always a sight to behold.
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