Cycling: Almighty Contador ushers in new era

Ending the unprecedented period of Lance Armstrong's dominance could prove to be the Spaniard's greatest achievement, writes Alasdair Fotheringham
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The Independent Online

Perhaps the most telling comment made by Alberto Contador about how he won this year's Tour came when he was asked what it meant to finish ahead of Lance Armstrong.

"The photo in Paris will be a historic one," the Spaniard said simply, and he is right.

For the first time since Armstrong started his unbroken run of Tour victories in 1999, the Texan has been defeated by another rider in cycling's blue riband event.

Even longer, 14 years have come and gone since Armstrong last pedalled into Paris not wearing the yellow jersey of Tour race leader, in 1995 when he finished 35th.

All this is testament to Armstrong's domination of a sport for a longer continuous period than any other rider in its history.

But at the same time it is also to Contador's immense credit – and this, even if he stops racing tomorrow, will be his legacy – that Armstrong has never before admitted that another rider was superior to him.

When the Texan left cycling in July 2005 he was at the pinnacle of his sport, having won the Tour seven times.

That July, Armstrong stood on the podium in Paris lambasting the "cynics and sceptics" that did not believe in the sport before sweeping off to retirement under a vast dark cloud of suspicion and resentment – suspicion from one side about how he had racked up one victory after another, and resentment, on the other, at the public and media that had dared to doubt him.

Three and a half years later, when Armstrong returned, it was inspired, he said, by seeing last July's Tour de France, privately mocking some leading riders' performances – for which he later apologised – and figuring that he was still ahead of the field. Even at 37.

Except, of course, that Armstrong had not counted on Alberto Contador. The Spaniard was not present in the 2008 race, but already the second youngest man ever to be winner of cycling's top three multi-day events: the Tours of Italy and Spain and, in 2007, the Tour de France.

Raised in Pinto, a grim one-horse dormitory town on the never-ending meseta that lies south of Madrid, Contador was just 16 when Armstrong won the Tour for the first time.

The American's victory was seen as a triumph for the cancer community worldwide. But Contador's own tenacity in the face of illnesses became clear five years later, in 2004, after he collapsed on the side of the road during the Tour of Asturias.

A blood vessel broke in his brain, caused by a rare condition known as a cavernome, and only a rapid intervention by the race doctor saved his life.

Contador then needed several operations – which have left him with the marks of 70 stitches in a perfect permanent semi-circle round his face – and six months off the bike, before he could race again.

"The happiest day of my life is not winning the Tour in 2007 or taking the yellow jersey again in 2009," Contador said.

"It's the day when I started racing again, in January 2005, in the Tour Down Under in Australia."

Coincidentally, Armstrong made his return to the professional scene in the same event in January 2009 – in the same team, Astana, as Contador.

The Texan's choice was dictated by the fact that his old manager and ally, Johan Bruyneel, was now directing the Spaniard.

Contador was not impressed when he heard he would be joined by Armstrong, but as he said on Saturday, given that he had signed an unbreakable contract with the team, he had no choice but to grin and bear it.

Contador's worst fears were realised when Armstrong came within a whisker, just 22 thousandths of a second, of taking yellow after the team time trial in the Tour's first week.

The American immediately began behaving as if he was team leader, making no secret of his ambition to win the race.

It was only when the Spaniard dropped him on the seventh stage, to Arcalis in Andorra, and moved back ahead overall, that the realisation began to sink in for Armstrong: in fact there was another rider better than him, and racing for his own team.

"His attack was surprising," Armstrong snarled after Andorra, "though it didn't surprise me," – perhaps because he would have done the same had he been in Contador's place. We shall never know.

Nine days later, Contador surprised nobody – except perhaps the Texan – by doing the same again, but better, at the race's next summit finish of Verbier.

The Spaniard powered away, dropping Armstrong and establishing an all but definitive lead on the field.

Armstrong was forced to admit, for the first time ever, that another rider was better than him in the Tour.

"He's stronger than me," Armstrong conceded, "if I had to sign now for second, I would."

Finally, Armstrong had to settle for third overall, an amazing achievement which makes him, at 37, the second oldest rider ever to finish on a Tour podium.

But Contador's fourth consecutive major victory – particularly given he was racing in a team which was riven with internal divisions, and in which he was never allowed the unqualified leader status – is surely no less remarkable.

Beating Armstrong, though, whether he was his team-mate or not, is the ingredient of the 2009 Tour win which will earn Contador his place in the history books. And though Armstrong will come back next year – in a different team – this July marks the end of an era in the sport.

Alberto Contador: Story of a champion

*Born 6 December 1982 in Madrid.

*Won time trial in the 2003 Tour of Poland in first year as professional.

*Victorious in the 2007 Tour de France, taking the overall lead and the yellow jersey after the 17th stage.

*In 2008, he won both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of Spain. After winning in Spain, Contador became the first Spaniard and only the fifth man ever to win all three Grand Tours. By winning all three in 15 months, he did it in the quickest time.