|Contador, 29 today|
(image credit: VirtKitty CC BY-SA 2.0)
Happy birthday to "El Pistolero," Alberto Contador, who has won three Tours de France, two Giros d'Italia, one Vuelta a Espana, a host of Grand Tour jerseys other than the overall winner jersey, Vuelta a Castilla y León, Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and most of the other races you can think of. He was born in Pinto, Spain in 1982.
Contador, widely considered the best climber in the world today (as a junior, he was nicknamed Pantani - not a name that cyclists bandy about without really meaning it) and is only the fifth man to have won all three Grand Tours. He married his long-term girlfriend Macarena in November 2011 and we wish him all the best in the investigation into his alleged positive test for doping. Many fans don't like Contador, but as far as we're concerned if you love cycling, you should love him too - to see him climb is one of the most beautiful sights in the sport. Unusually for a climbing specialist, he is also devastatingly fast in the time trials - a combination that makes him such a hard opponent to beat in a stage race.
Yet, Contador's career almost never happened: in 2004, his second professional year, the Spanish rider had been ill with headaches for several days prior to the Vuelta a Asturias. Then, just 40km into Stage 1, he suffered convulsions and collapsed. Medical investigation revealed cavernous angioma, a disorder in which blood vessels (usually within the brain, but other organs can be affected) become filled with stagnant blood. He required a dangerous operation which left a scar that can sometimes be seen when he takes off his helmet after a sweaty stage, running from one ear right over his head to the other. He resumed training as soon as he was able to do so, and eight months later won Stage 5 at the 2005 Tour Down Under. The following year, he crashed while riding to the team bus after a stage at the Vuelta a Burgos and was rendered unconscious - due to his medical history, he was rushed to hospital and given a CAT scan but no link was found.
Like many other cyclists at his level, Contador's career has been affected by doping allegations. The first came in 2006 when his ONCE-Liberty Seguros team was prevented from starting the Tour de France after several riders - himself included - were implicated in Operación Puerto. He was cleared, and returned in in time for the Vuelta a Burgos at which he crashed as outlined above. He was briefly without a team after that season came to a close until being signed up by Discovery in January 2007; returning the favour with a superb win at Paris-Nice, a textbook example of team tactics in which his domestiques continually worked on their leader's rivals and ground away at them until nobody had the energy to prevent him taking the race. During the same year at the Tour de France, race leader Michael Rasmussen was disqualified after it was shown that he had misled the team during a three-week period prior to the race, making himself unavailable to anti-doping officials. That left Contador in the lead - for once, anti-doping efforts worked in his favour.
In 2008, he was unable to take part in the Tour for a second time, again due to his team: Astana were not permitted to ride due to widespread doping in the past, despite the fact that most of the management and riders had been recruited in the time since the incidents in question. However, the team received an invitation to participate in the Giro d'Italia one week before the race was due to start and, despite a serious lack of training (he was sunbathing on a beach at home in Spain when he was informed) Contador won, the first foreign rider to have done so for twelve years - but earned a place in the hearts of Italian fans when he told them that winning their beloved Grand Tour "was a really big achievement, bigger than if I'd had a second victory in the Tour de France." Later in the year, he also raced in the Vuelta a Espana which that year included an ascent of the legendary Alto de l'Angliru, the steepest mountain in any Grand Tour. All the teams had sent strong climbers to be in with a chance of surviving the stage, which meant that while Contador was first up the mountain - and won the leader's jersey - he didn't win the sort of advantage he would have done over lesser men. However, few other riders in history have been capable of keeping the pace high through the subsequent flat stages and time trial like Contador could. He won, becoming the fifth rider to have won all three Grand Tours during their career (the others are Anquetil, Gimondi, Merckx and Hinault).
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2010 brought a strong start to the season, leaving Contador as favourite for the Tour. However, there were those who had taken note of Andy Schleck's increasing strength and wondered if it might be his year instead. Then - Stage 15 and Chaingate, as the incident when Schleck's chain came off on a steep climb and Contador didn't wait for him has become known. It was not, as Contador's detractors - and there are many - claimed a mere example of bad sportsmanship, though. Schleck had himself failed to wait when Contador was caught up in a crash during Stage 3, leading many to wonder if the close friendship between the two riders had fallen by the wayside, like so many riders a victim of the pursuit for Tour de France victory. Schleck fixed his bike and rode hard, but out on his own on the mountain he was unable to catch up. Contador won the stage by 39 seconds - the exact time by which he later won the overall General Classification. The fall-out was ugly - he faced an angry crowd that booed him as he donned the yellow jersey at the end of the stage. Schleck too was upset, stating his opinion that the Spaniard had acted unsportingly, but Contador issued an apology hours later. The two riders have since patched up their differences and are once again friends.
Contador's apology to Schleck
In Sepetember 2010, after the Tour was over, Contador revealed to the world that a sample he had provided during a rest day between Stages 16 and 17, had subsequently tested positive for the banned bronchodilator Clenbuterol but claimed he had no idea how the drug had got into his system. Later, he said that he thought it might have been from eating contaminated beef - though its use in cattle feed is illegal in the European Union, it is known to be used by farmers as it promotes the growth of lean meat which fetches a higher price than fatty meat. This explanation was considered plausible by doctors and several experts said that as the drug's effects on athletic performance are negligible, they could see no reason that the rider would have deliberately used it. The miniscule amount that was found in the sample also seems to support the theory. However, use of Clenbuterol in Spain is exceedingly rare - tests carried out in 2008 and 2009 on more than 19,000 samples taken from Spanish cattle showed no evidence at all that it was being used while a Europe-wide testing programme involving more than 83,000 samples during the same period recorded just one positive result. There was also the unfortunate discovery of plastic residue in the rider's blood - an indication that he might have received a transfusion of stored blood, either his own or form someone else, as is carried out by cyclists and other athletes to boost their red blood cell levels. However, the test process that discovered the residue is not approved by the World Anti-Doping Authority and as such its findings can not be used as evidence.
As already stated, the amount of Clenbuterol discovered in Contador's positive sample was minute, some 40 times lower than the amount that would result in an automatic ban (not, as earlier reports claimed, 400 times lower) - an amount that at least one doctor has stated was 180 times lower than the rider would have needed to gain any sort of increase in performance whatsoever. Nevertheless, in these post-Festina Affair/Operación Puerto times, professional cycling is in no doubt that it cannot afford any more major scandals if it is to retain any sort of credibility and authorities have had to come down hard on offending riders to save face and leave nobody in doubt that their intention is to stamp out doping once and for all - thus, Contador was handed a provisional suspension pending further investigation; though this had little effect on him as his season had already ended.
|Contador's scar from brain surgery can|
still be seen
(image credit: GoldenBembel CC BY 2.0)
Whatever one thinks of Contador, it seems very likely that had be not have been prevented from taking part in two Tours and without the stress he had to bear in 2011, there's a very real possibility that he might have won five by now. SaxoBank-Sungard manager Bjarne Riis has continued to support the rider, stating that he believes Contador is capable of winning all three Grand Tours in a single year - something that no other rider has ever achieved and which would be seen by many as a greater accomplishment than the Triple Crown (two Grand Tours and a World Championship). Now aged 29, there's a chance that he might still do that.
|Charly Gaul, 1932-2005|
Despite enormous popularity among fans, Gaul rarely spoke and could be surly - after retirement, he became a virtual recluse and lived in a forest hut for many years (that he remembered little of his success raises the possibility that he may have suffered a serious mental illness, perhaps severe depression) until he met his third wife in 1983 and made his first public appearance since retirement at the 1989 Tour. He died two days before his 73rd birthday.
(image credit: Black Country Biker)
Paul Crake is an Australian professional cyclist who was born in Canberra on this day in 1976. He is also a five-time winner of the Empire State Building Run-up and in 2003 became the first person to make it up the 1,576 steps in less than 10 minutes.
Leandro Faggin, a gold medalist at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, died in Padua on this day in 1970, the city in which he was born, aged just 37.
Other births: Marat Ganayev (USSR, 1964); Stéphane Augé (France, 1974); Raino Koskenkorva (Finland, 1926); Félix Suárez (Spain, 1950); Luisa Seghezzi (Italy, 1965); Hugo Miranda (Chile, 1925); Guglielmo Malatesta (Italy, 1891, died 1920).