Friday, 6 December 2013

Daily Cycling Facts 06.12.2013

Contador, 29 today
(image credit: VirtKitty CC BY-SA 2.0
Alberto Contador
"El Pistolero," Alberto Contador, who won three Tours de France, two Giri d'Italia (but was stripped of one Tour and one Giro following a very controversial and long-running doping investigation), two editions of the 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 among the best climbers in the world during a period extending from 2007 to 2011 (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. In common with several other climbing specialists, 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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In 2009, the media learned that Lance Armstrong was to return from retirement solely in order to compete in another Tour and printed stories ranging from the feasible to the lurid claiming that a row had broken out between the riders over who would lead the team. Contador has since explained that he simply wanted an assurance that he would lead, denying that the row was anything like the feud described by some journalists. In the event, manager Johan Bruyneel was clever enough to see through the Armstrong legend and understand that the Texan's best years were in the past, leaving Contador in the top position. His faith paid off: Contador won with an advantage of more than four minutes over second place Andy Schleck (after some superb duels in the mountains) and almost five and half over Armstrong in third place. Unfortunately, a genuine feud broke out after the race when Contador said of Armstrong, "I have never admired him and never will" - an opinion in which he is not alone, numerous riders having expressed their belief that Armstrong affected the Tour and professional cycling negatively despite the armies of new fans he brought. Armstrong replied by saying that "a champion is also measured on how much he respects his teammates and opponents," which even his most ardent supporters will accept is a bit rich coming from a man who has completely ostracised others when he's suspected them of not having his best interests at heart or, in his terminology, being a troll.

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)
In January 2011, the Spanish Cycling Federation announced it intended to ban him from racing for a year; but later accepted his explanation and upheld his appeal, clearing him of all charges and freeing him to return to competition in time for the Volta a Algarve. He also took part in the Tour de France, earning himself new fans and the respect of many riders by retaining his dignity at the Tour Presentation when crowd hurled abuse at him and again during the race with a superb mountain attack on the Col du Télégraphe and Galibier in Stage 19; later saying that he had attacked for his own amusement. Yet despite good physical form and some excellent days, Contador rode differently in that Tour. It looked as though part of him was broken, a spark had been suffocated by the sheer weight of the  doping allegations and investigation. It wasn't a pleasant thing to watch. His case was due to be heard by the Court for Arbitration in Sport in June 2011, but was delayed until August after the Tour. It was then delayed again until November, then put back again and he began the 2012 season with the case still hanging over him. Finally, in February that year, a decision was made; to fans worldwide, who had expected a short ban at worst, it came as a shock - although the Court had heard there was no evidence that Contador had intentionally doped, it decided that the drug had probably got into his body via a contaminated food supplement rather than via contaminated beef (the latter being his explanation) and handed him a two-year backdated ban and stripped him of all results since July 2010. The ban would expire in August, leaving him unable to compete in the Tour de France, and his contract with SaxoBank was terminated, sparking off rumours about the future of the team and where he might go in the future; however, it surprised few in July when it was announced he would return to SaxoBank.

From the day that his ban was announced, many believed that he would dominate the Vuelta a Espana from the first stage to the last when he returned. In fact, it turned out to be a far more interesting race than that - for the first seventeen stages, Contador played cat-and-mouse games with Joaquim Rodríguez, who continually came out on top. Some wondered if he was no longer the rider he'd once been, others suspected he was being subtle, leaving it until a time when he could prove to the world that he could win at any time he chose to do so. If that was his plan, the moment came in Stage 17 when he finished 6" ahead of a leading group and took two minutes from Rodriguez, becoming race leader and remaining so until Madrid where he won with an overall advantage of 1'16".

Whatever one thinks of Contador, and there are many who dislike him intensely, 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). He is now 31, and if he regains the form he once had for 2014 he might still do that.

Charly Gaul
Charly Gaul, 1932-2005
Contador may be among the greatest climbers of his generation, but Charly Gaul, who died on this day in 2004 at the age of 72 (two days before he would have turned 73), was in another class altogether: they called him "The Angel of the Mountains" for a reason - when conditions suited him (which meant heavy rain, icy winds and, ideally, a blizzard), he was quite simply the finest climber cycling has ever seen.

Gaul first showed his talent when he was just 17 years old and riding in the Österreich Rundfahrt by setting a new record on the infamaous Grossglockner, typically in weather so awful the rest of the field wished they were somewhere else. Cycling writer Charlie Woods was there to see it...
The Grossglockner is slightly higher than Mont Ventoux and just as formidable. One can imagine the youngster engaging rather sheepishly with such a monster. He knew that he could climb well on ordinary hills, but this was no man's land. At half-distance, however, despite his manager's exhortations to caution, his class told and he found himself alone in the lead. A few moments of giddy pleasure were soon dispatched by the ever-present need to keep the pedals turning; he was, after all, still in no man's land. This show of force was greeted by another, a thunderstorm and the first squalls of rain probably cooled the fever of his labours and brought with it a lighter, freer atmosphere. He had always been at ease in rainfall [and] beginning to pedal now with an edge of fierce affirmation, he perhaps completely forgot himself for a long series of ramps and bends... To such an extent that not only did he win the stage but broke the existing record for the climb." (Alchin, Richard and Bell, Adrian (eds), Golden Stages of the Tour de France, Mousehold Press, UK, ISBN 1-874739-28-5, p46)
Gaul's climbing technique was, for his time, unique, and in the early days other riders laughed at him because he didn't choose the bigger gears that their machismo demanded they chose. Some, though, knew better; Raphaël Géminiani said that Gaul was "a murderous climber, always the same sustained rhythm, a little machine with a lower gear than the rest, turning his legs at a speed that would break your heart, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock..."

Later, Gaul would become known for breaking away from the peloton to climb the steepest mountains of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia alone, he was also National Road Champion of Luxembourg six times and National Cyclo Cross Champion twice. He won the Giro twice (1956 and 1959), also winning the King of the Mountains classification on each occasion and the Tour de France in 1958, in addition to the Tour King of the Mountains in 1955 and 1956, and it was he who first invented the fine art of urinating on the move, developing it after another rider attacked during a peloton comfort break, which earned him his other nickname Monsieur Pipi - which he hated, and which was only used behind his back because despite enormous popularity among fans, Gaul could be distinctly unpleasant and even frighteningly aggressive - he once terrified Louison Bobet when he told him: ""I will get my revenge. I will kill you. Remember I was a butcher. I know how to use a knife;" hence another nickname: The Dark Angel). That was not the end of it - though Bobet backed down, realising he had made a very dangerous enemy, Gaul was not a man who forgave easily: two years later during which time the pair had not spoken to one another and Bobet probably thought it was all forgotten, he was surprised when without warning the little Luxembourger confronted him. "You are ready, Monsieur Bobet?" he snarled. "I'll give you a chance. I'll attack on the Luitel climb. I'll even tell you which hairpin. You want to win the Tour more than I do? Easy. I've told you what you need to know." Then, on the climb, Gaul drove the pace so high that Bobet was utterly destroyed. Only Bahamontes could stay with Gaul, but then he cracked too.

Like several other pure climbers, Gaul was a formidable rider in a time trial; unlike the vast majority of lightly-built climbers, including his rival (and friend; one of very few) Bahamontes, Gaul was not afraid of a steep descent. In fact, he seems not to have feared anything very much; except, perhaps, for himself - after retirement, he ran a cafe for a short while and then became a virtual recluse, living with only his dog for company in a forest hut for many years, and the fact that he remembered little of his success raises the possibility that he may have suffered a serious mental illness, perhaps severe depression. This would not have been helped by his excessive drug use; many riders recalled how he frequently foamed at the mouth, and his lack of expression on the mountains when others grimaced in pain is indication that he was quite literally "out of it," mentally disconnected from his suffering legs. Occasionally, if the Tour passed nearby, he would go and watch, knowing that nobody would recognise and bother him now that he was fat and bearded. He was saved when he met his third wife, Josée,  in 1983, and she must have been a truly remarkable woman to have wanted anything to do with such a difficult character. Six years later, he made his first official public appearance since retirement.

Gaul died two days before his 73rd birthday. His total of three General Classification and four King of the Mountain victories at the Grand Tours has been surpassed many times, but in the opinion of many, including those who won more than he did and even Bahamontes whose claim to be the greatest climber is more convincing on he opinion of some than Gaul's, the style in which he won them makes him without equal.

They may have laughed at his low gears and hamster-wheel cadence when he first appeared in the peloton, but they stopped when he beat them all. Nowadays, all the pure climbers use the same technique.

Rachel Atherton
(image credit: Black Country Biker)
Gaul was very good at riding up mountains, a rider who is very good at riding down them is Rachel Atherton who was born on this day in 1987. Atherton began riding BMX when she was eight, then moved on to mountain bikes when she was eleven. Seven years later, she was selected as The Times Sportswoman of the Year after becoming British, European and World Junior Downhill Champion. She then added numerous wins to her palmares before becoming the first British woman to win the World Downhill Championships at Elite level in 2008.

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 cyclists born on this day: 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).

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