Spaniards loves their sporting heroes; take them to their hearts and cherish them forever. And in July, 2007, Spaniards had a new hero to acclaim – Alberto Contador Velasco; and acclaim him they surely did because Alberto had just become the winner of perhaps the world’s toughest sporting endurance test – the Tour de France. This was a triumph to savour for a sportsman who, although only 24 at the time, had experienced many highs and lows during his life.
Born in the suburb of Pinto in Madrid on December 6th, 1982, Alberto Contador was one of four brothers, with whom he was very close. It was the oldest boy, Francisco, who introduced Alberto to cycling, taking him away from the football and athletics he had previously been enjoying. Alberto also had a particularly close relationship with his younger brother, Raul, who suffered from cerebral paralysis, and whose perseverance was to teach Alberto much that would be of use to him later in his own life.
The first time that Contador came to the forefront of the Spanish cycling public’s attention was when, in 2001, he became National Time Trial Champion at Under 23 level and it soon became apparent that, although he was generally accepted to be a specialist in the grueling climbing sections of cycle races, other aspects of the sport were also sound enough for him to have a big future. His first major victory at senior level was when he won a stage of the Tour of Poland in 2003 and he followed this with other promising showings until, during the first stage of the Vuelta a Asturias, in 2004, Alberto crashed his bike badly, which resulted in a cerebral cavernoma – a massive blood clot in the brain.
After difficult surgery, there was a real concern that Alberto would never be able to race professionally again but, incredibly, he was able to join the Liberty Seguros-Wurth team for 2005 and perform well all year, winning stages of the Tour Down Under, the Tour de Romandie and finishing a creditable 31st in the Tour de France.
2006 proved to be another difficult year, though, as Alberto became involved in what became known as the Operacion Puerto doping case, when he and five others in the Astana-Wurth team were accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs. This kept Alberto out of that year’s Tour de France. Alberto has always been fervent in his anti-drug stance and has now been publically declared to be a ‘clean’ rider by cycling authorities.
By the time the 2007 Tour de France took place, Contador was established as one of the world’s leading cyclists and he became the youngest rider to win it for a decade when, in the final stage, he raced down the Champs Elysees in the closest ever finish between the first three cyclists.
The scenes of the baby-faced Alberto lifting the trophy and wearing the coveted yellow jersey were especially heart-warming for Spaniards who, although Óscar Pereiro had officially been proclaimed winner after Floyd Landis’ disqualification the previous year, had been longing for a natural successor to Miguel Indurain, five times Tour winner at the beginning of the 1990s.
Alberto Contador has taken the new-found fame well and remains a modest, likeable young man, happy to breed his canaries and goldfinches and preparing for future cycling triumphs.