Highlights of 2017: Part II

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Time to look back at five highlights of the season with the luxury of hindsight. Here is the second from Paris-Nice and the final stage which saw the overall result uncertain until the very end.

To recap this had been a lively race from the start with two days worthy of the spring classics although “spring” in pro cycling is often a euphemism for wintry conditions. Arnaud Démare won on the opening day and Sonny Colbrelli the next. Sonny was named after TV series Miami Vice but this was no day for white suits and open necked shirts, Colbrelli won when others were frozen, some even struggling to grip the bars in the final sprint. Richie Porte was among those caught out in the crosswinds and Romain Bardet was tumbled by the commissaires for the stickiest of bidons and if the incident dammaged his saintly image his mea culpa was handled deftly.

The youth theme continued as Sam Bennett took a big win ahead of Kristoff, Degenkolb, Kittel, Matthews, Démare and Greipel. The next day Julian Alaphilippe won the time trial to the top of Mont Brouilly: finally a big win for someone often so close. Simon Yates won atop the Mur de Fayence and Sergio Henao was just behind to take what would be a valuable time bonus and don the yellow jersey. Richie Porte won atop the Col de la Couillole, a win and a demonstration to colleagues and followers that he hadn’t given up. Contador took back 11 seconds on GC that day too and was 30 seconds behind Henao on GC.

What could Contador do? Not for him a tour of the Nice arrière pays however enjoyable the roads might be. But how to beat Henao? A late attack on the Col d’Eze would be too late, there was not enough time to take 30 seconds and besides the climb is regular and the kind where following the wheels helps. It would have to be the climb to Peille, with its 10% sections and so many twists that a rider can quickly get out of sight. But with 50km to go? It’s the sort of thing Contador does when others don’t. It was obvious in both hindsight and foresight but Contador still did it and he still dropped Henao. This set up a long chase over more climbs with Contador’s lead going up over a minute. It began to fall on the run to the finish line. Contador crossed the line and the clock counted down and out came the calculators and spreadsheets as Contador had taken time bonuses in an intermediate sprint and at the finish line so when Henao came in 21 seconds later many were doing their calculations and frantically looking up the milliseconds awarded in the Brouilly time trial. Henao won, just and by two seconds which is the narrowest ever victory margin in this race.

Why the highlight?
This was edge of the sofa stuff and heightened by the length of the action and the suspense. Contador didn’t just launch a failed bid that was inevitable pulled back by Team Sky’s tractor beam, this was a duel between two riders for much of the time.

With hindsight
Richie Porte lost the race but didn’t give up and this must have rallied the team even more to his cause. Direct Energie floundered with Bryan Coquard but won the mountains jersey with Lilian Calmejame, a scenario replayed in Technicolor later in the season.

If Contador provided the action Henao won the race, one of Sky’s workers getting their chance. He’s a low profile rider though, it’s rare to read an interview or remember a quote from him.

Contador kept trying too. His retirement didn’t seem at all likely with a close second place here and another in the Tour of the Basque Country. He won over new fans but here at least the unexplained questions over his past such as the clenbuterol postivie or his time with banned coach José Marti dampen enthusiasm. Still he was racing like a pirate with a dagger between his teeth from February to the Vuelta but perhaps it’d because he could? No need to secure UCI points, nor secure a new contract, he raced 2017 as he pleased. But it probably didn’t please him, losing out again and again. Risky ventures only pay off occasionally but often he enlivened a race and ennobled the winner only to go home with nothing to show but sore legs and new fans. It finally came together on the Angliru in the Vuelta.

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Anonymous November 29, 2017 at 11:55 am

A great stage – like you say, everyone knew he was going to try it, but to then go and do it was so impressive.

You’re right that questions about his past dampen enthusiasm… but some commentators/tweeters like to let everyone know that they refuse to enjoy his racing out of principle. He is/was one of the most exciting racers, feared by much of the peloton, and I for one enjoyed seeing what he might attempt throughout the season.

gabriele November 29, 2017 at 12:16 pm

Those questions are quite petty… past history tells that doping’s got a huge effect on results when it’s structured team doping and when you’ve got political cover.
Otherwise, the shift it produces in performance is too modest to have more impact than some anecdotal victories here and there. Which isn’t Contador’s case, obviously enough. Which doesn’t mean that I’m sure “he was clean”, either: it just wouldn’t be a very significant factor to judge him as a cyclist.
OTOH, we’ve seen quite a lot of dopers being caught in past and recent years, but very few of them raced like Contador. Doping and technical factors are just two pretty much separated things.

Contador was maybe protected for a certain part of his career, but he wasn’t anymore for most seasons he went on racing.

Two more things.
It strikes me how bad companies are duly recorded every time in some riders’ case, while they aren’t at all in other circumstances (numerous enough), for other riders or teams.
And I’m always surprised by the lack of coherence of those who take into account the clenbuterol sentence in order to say that, yes, Contador was found guilty, but at the same time decide that it’s not as interesting to believe to other parts of the same sentence, when, for example, the same sentence states that the most probable reason for the positive test was a contamination of some supplement, explicitly discarding the most radical hypothesis.

Larry T November 29, 2017 at 3:27 pm

No doubt Contador’s racing style was exciting to watch, but I think you’re letting him off the doping hook too easily. His explanations for the positive test were laughable and his history with various other teams can arguably be described as dodgy. I don’t think he belongs in the BigTex category of cheats, but he was found positive and sanctioned. He’s no angel in my book.

SArover November 29, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Mick Rogers was found not guilty of doping years after Contador after testing positive for clenbutoral.

His defence was that he had eaten contaminated beef. So too with the Mexican National soccer team.

So I don’t get why Contador’s reason was so crazy… the Tour was during the soccer world cup that Spain won and Contador complained of a tummy bug immediately after the ITT and before his positive was even discovered.

CM November 29, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Contador developed when cycling was certainly dirty. But he has always been the embodiment of panache.

To my mind there has always been something fundamentally right about Alberto Contador.
Sure, he rode during some of the most sophisticated drug-fuelled years. But even then, he was charismatic. When Astana paid for Armstrong’s come back to be the cuckoo in the nest, Contador resisted, and not only that, he took on virtually the whole team and rode away from them. He would not be bullied. He knew too much for them. Thereafter, in the dubious period when the Schlecks sought dominance, before Andy went from Tour Champ to Criterium Chump in less than a year, again it was Contador who was indomitable. He may have got his pharmacology better sorted but anyway he was the best rider in all that context.
When he was busted it was on the basis of some incredibly sensitive German laboratory work. Indeed, I am still not sure if his test results were ever actually marked enough to get into the required testing range; they were 40 times below the minimum. Clenbuterol the weight reducer and masking agent. The verdict: accidental ingestion but a ban anyway.
The kicker for many of the rest of us was the infinitesimal trace of plasticizer the laboratory picked up also. So, unlucky, and the most refined in a world of cheats.
But to my eye he looked so good on the bike. Stylish, classy. A beautiful rider. Professional to his finger-tips. Always with something of the old school about him which suggested he just had too much nous for the competition around him, be it cynical, calculating or callow. You could always look to Contador in a race and see him know what to do on the road whereas the rest, including DS’s, usually lacked that clarity and sharpness of tactical appreciation in anything like the same degree. His bikes were always the best turned out. Early, he found the best mechanic in Faustino Muñoz and stuck by him. That guy chased down friction and made his bikes purr. Contador even had the best wheel skewers, with more pronounced cams, that nobody else had.
Yes, Contador was knowing, but he was good. In cleaner times, he was still the one to beat and Astana couldn’t do it in Italy though they threw everything at him. He was one rider you would always switch on to watch. He always raced, never simply turned up. Paris-Nice in 2017 only added to this. He leaves some of the most memorable racing moments of the past decade and more. He showed the best understanding of every aspect of his profession. If you wanted to learn about GC racing, you looked to Contador. And he was so easy on the eye.

Goonie November 30, 2017 at 11:22 pm

I read the reasoned decision. He was very lucky to get off as lightly as he did. His excuse was not credible. The difference between Rogers and Contador was that Rogers had been in China just before his positive test, and clenbuterol contamination in meat is a known problem there. (Rogers of course has an “interesting” history himself, but that’s not the issue here).

It’s been a while since I read it, of course, but the decision came down to the view that there were three possible sources of the contamination – dodgy food, a dodgy supplement, or a transfusion. From memory, they came to the conclusion that dodgy food was “very unlikely”, and that the transfusion was “very unlikely” – and therefore they made the stunning leap of statistical inference that both scenarios were equally likely. They then concluded the contaminated supplement was merely “unlikely”, and therefore the most likely source of the contamination. Ergo, ban, but not the full one because athletes are not as culpable for a contaminated supplement than knowing ingestion.

Aside from excluding evidence of the byproducts of a transfusion for legal reasons I’m not competent to offer an opinion on, the probabilistic reasoning in the decision is frankly appalling, and worked in Contador’s favour. He should have copped the full ban IMO.

STS December 1, 2017 at 1:49 am

@CM +1
Thanks for that post.

J Evans November 29, 2017 at 5:49 pm

Contador was the best GT rider to watch for many, many years and I (amongst many others) will hugely miss him.
But I’m not blind to his doping.
Read:
Behind the Scenes of the Contador CAS hearing with Michael Ashenden
APRIL 2, 2012 BY ANDY SHEN

J Evans November 29, 2017 at 5:56 pm

And +1 to much of what CM says above: I don’t for a moment believe that Contador’s competitors at the time he was caught were not doing similar things.

gabriele November 30, 2017 at 12:29 pm

Also to Larry T. above: few angels in my book, if any at all. And I don’t consider the sanction “unfair” even if it was looked for way more than in most usual cases of antidoping campaigns.

That said, my point isn’t that Contador wasn’t doping.
My point is that doping is sometimes way less relevant in cycling than we have been brought to believe. It’s got a relevant effect on the physical level – which isn’t the only one in cycling. But that physical effect is a marginal share of a component, the physical one, which is in itself a share of the global racing result.
Every marginal share may become essential, but its relevance for *what makes a rider who he is* can vary quite much from rider to rider…

What Ashenden says is very interesting, although open to debate on several points. Anyway, it looks like that, from what he infers, Contador *might* have used different forms of doping (or – not having been doping for some time) throughout his career, always in order to avoid being caught. If it was so, well, for me that’s frankly a serious limitation when compared to other situation where institutional cover-up was granted.
As Ashenden himself explains, it’s quite different when you do *whatever* in order to maximise your performance because you know you’ll be allowed to do so by protections among those who should watch over… and when, as it’s most cyclists’ case, you try do *something* with the priority of not being caught, just because you’re convinced you need that to keep the technological pace of the rest.

Larry T November 30, 2017 at 11:35 pm

“My point is that doping is sometimes way less relevant in cycling than we have been brought to believe. ” I would simply insert “playing by the rules” where you wrote doping and say if the rules don’t matter (or to be precise, are somehow less relevant, which makes me wonder relevant to what?) then we don’t have much of a sport.
I enjoyed watching Il Pistolero and loved his never-say-die attacking style. I can say the same about The Green Bullet. But once they were caught using banned substances or having blood removed and reinfused their feet of clay were exposed, causing me to take any success they had with a rather large grain of salt.

gabriele December 1, 2017 at 10:59 am

@Larry T.
The “rules” perspective is pretty weak.
Do you mean that when a motorbike rider gets a penalty for whatever, you take with a grain of salt what he does in the rest of his career?
Cycling “rules” also say that your results are fine unless you’re caught, and that you’re ok to race if your sanction is over, hence why should you disregard the rules in that case?
To me, rules are about sanctioning (and that’s fine and good), not much about the overall judgement on a rider. The latter can be heavily influenced by how you broke the rules, in what context and so on, but it’s not the decisive factor, because my personal judgement about a rider takes into account how relevant is the breaking of rules, that is how much it defines the racing.
In that sense, for example, we saw the rules about sidepaths being broken in recent cobbled classics without that having any *defining* effect on the final result. I don’t place any asterisk beside those victories even I think – please note that! – racing would be better if that specific rule was properly enforced.
There are also riders who apparently didn’t break any rule, or who haven’t been caught, but whom I personally long regarded as *asterisked*… well before the true asterisks or bars were put in place by changing winds. Same is true today, for me. Clenbuterol is just a flat tyre in a very long race.

CA December 1, 2017 at 7:13 am

I am a fan of contador but let’s stop kidding ourselves… When he was battling Rasmussen and winning flat GC TT stages he was likely on high octane doping products. In later years he prepared the way other non-mpcc teams did. Clenbuterol positive was not at all explained satisfactorily.

gabriele December 1, 2017 at 10:43 am

I suspect that those who’re kidding themselves are the ones who feel that doping practices are a differential factor for him as a rider, with all the implications that such an assumption would bring along… about the rest of cycling.

Even the argument about doping practices altering radically any technical benchmark because different bodies react differently to them (true, indeed, but a difference which is a share of a share of a share of a marginal gain) makes little sense if we theoretically accept, as Ashenden suggests, that the guy has gone through a whole set of very different practices year after year. He must have been extremely lucky, always on the most gaining side!

OTOH, I’m always surprised by the double standard about rules and so on. If “rules” are what matters, you’re positive only when you’re caught, which means that any other result is regular. Full stop.
Whereas, if we decide that we *prefer to infer*, which is perfectly fine for me (as long as we know exactly *what* we are doing), then there are a lot of interesting inferences about the whole system which make the single fact of testing positive for clenbuterol pretty much secundary. If anything, it would prove pretty much the contrary of what people tend to defend: Contador’s protections were quite limited, albeit existing, which means that – at several points in time – his doping wasn’t at the same level of those who enjoyed a very different level of institutional cover-up. Wild guessing, for sure. But it’s the same level of wild guessing which brings people to, say, make extrapolations about Valverde based on the blood bags his former team had him store when he was a neopro or so. Or fantasize about plasticizers which could well prove a transfusion (yes, indeed) but which can also be found in the blood of general population having nothing to do with doping. And so on.

gabriele November 29, 2017 at 11:56 am

“No need to secure UCI points, nor secure a new contract, he raced 2017 as he pleased”.

Several top riders (including Contador himself) really are in a similar position through a handful of years of their careers, but very few race like Contador – whose racing style goes further back in time, which means the factors inrng names here are not the decisive ones.

Hammarling November 29, 2017 at 5:57 pm

I don’t think UCI Points or a new contract have ever guided Contador’s riding. He’s always been known as a good rider and built a hugely impressive palmares.
UCI Points are for teams and minor riders to worry about. Contracts are for struggling riders to worry about. Contador is not those.
He’s a guy who genuinely seems to enjoy racing his bike. Always entertaining to watch and he very much did it his way throughout his career.

Esteban November 29, 2017 at 2:19 pm

Bravo Gabriele !!!!!!. You are right 100%. The greatest rider of this decade deserves much more appreciation

RonDe November 29, 2017 at 7:43 pm

I’ll let others debate Contador’s reputation because for me the facts of his UCI sanction are enough. For me the stand out thing about this race was that the great champion could not beat one of Sky’s supporting cast. And this was for the second year in a row since the year before it was Geraint Thomas he could not beat. INRNG says there was no hint of retirement at this stage but I must disagree. It was exactly because Contador now found himself behind riders like Sergio Henao that there was not much real prospect of him being in front of riders like Quintana, Nibali and Froome. Its an interesting statistic of Contador’s that if he has ever podiumed at a grand tour it has always only ever been in 1st place. He has no 2nds or 3rds. He wins or, in relative terms, he bombs. And in the last two years of his career he was bombing in grand tours much too often. It was a sad fact of life for him that he had to keep the flame burning by relying on an attacking reputation whilst Froome, who had overtaken him as the best grand tour rider in the peloton and has a 5-2 head to head against him in grand tours since Contador came back at the Vuelta in 2012 (crashes not counted), went about the business of actually winning them. I don’t begrudge the Spaniard his Angliru send off on stage 20 of the Vuelta this year but if Froome hadn’t given him the gap at the bottom he wouldn’t have won it. Froome and Poels both climbed it faster than he did. So for me the writing was on the wall in Nice were Contador was reduced to being plucky fan favourite instead of a victor. His winning days were over. And he knew it.

Kjetil Haaland November 29, 2017 at 9:02 pm

But damn it was great to watch.

Kit November 30, 2017 at 9:29 am

Amazing. Even in a tribute to Contador vs Henao you find a way to make it about Froome being superior.
For me regardless of the result, the race was superb because of this raid. I’d take a rider who loses on a long raid in Paris Nice over any number of ground-out TdFs, because – call me shallow – it’s electrifying to watch.

Anonymous November 30, 2017 at 6:57 pm

Amazing or tiresomely inevitable?
Also, Froome didn’t give Contador the gap, Contador took it by taking risks going downhill.
But some people’s blinkers are glued on.

gabriele November 30, 2017 at 12:16 pm

Froome and Poels tried as hard as they could, against any tactical good sense, to rail Contador back in to grab the stage. That’s was how interested they were in leaving him a gap. And they failed. Froome pretty much never (perhaps once) could produce an uphill full effort as prolonged as Contador did on the Angliru, so it was just prudent, on Froomey’s part, not to follow Contador: but we know how good he is, along with his team, in pacing over the climbs. No doubt he did the best possible. But on that kind of race script, it wasn’t possible for him to avoid Contador’s stage win.
Anyway, I believe that it was a commendable attitude, going that hard, quite respectful of Contador’s potential – and Froome himself probably also knew that if Contador won, the Spaniard would even overshadow the (frankly much more relevant, in pure sporting terms!) Vuelta’s victory, double GT included. Which is quite much what happened, given that so much in cycling is about how you win (or how you lose) rather than about “how much you win”.

That said, however *idiosyncratic* might your perspective about Froomey usually be, I quite much share your POV about Contador. Not so much because he was “bombing” GTs (after all, in the last Vuelta he wasn’t far off at all, a matter of seconds, from a high level podium – and he rode in a very “expensive” way), but because he was too often suffering from “accidents” of various nature which ultimately hindered his performance: health, crashes… it’s not by chance. And even his consistency in terms of pure performance had gone down. It’s called aging. Contador’s last top year was 2014, when he still was superior to Froome, then 2015 was a transition year, hard to interpret because of the double but marked by several impressive performances.
However, in 2016 and 2017 he wasn’t on his previous level anymore, even if that was enough to remain exceptional enough.

Richard S November 30, 2017 at 1:20 pm

I’m probably in a minority but I found the fact that Froome and Poels even chased him down a bit crass. Here’s Contador, an all time great in his last race in front of his own fans with one last role of the dice to go out on a high. It was a great moment. Yet Sky who already had the race in the bag and who had crushed all comers over the course of the 6 weeks of the Tour and the Vuelta still tried to add one more stage win and a few more needless seconds on top of what they already had. It summed up Sky’s lack of popularity and reminded me of the Austrian Grand Prix of the mid 00’s (probably around 2004 or something) when Schumacher had won race upon race and would undoubtedly win the title again but Ferrari had Barrichello move over and allow Schumacher to win and collect a few extra points, and were promptly boo’d on the podium. If they had caught him it would have been needless domination for dominations sake, and they probably would have got boo’d and wondered why. Just like they probably wonder why we all aren’t in awe of another crushingly dominant Grand Tour. By comparison in Cancellara’s last Ronde Vanmarke let him take 2nd (or 3rd?!) and didn’t contest the sprint with him. I’m sure his team would have preferred it if Vanmarke had got the extra WT points, and no doubt one place higher would have looked better on his palmares and ensured more prize money. But Sep showed style and class and understood that some things are worth more than that.

Anonymous November 30, 2017 at 2:30 pm

Sure …. but they didn’t catch him. Let’s say as INRNG often does, that their chase ‘enobled’ his win.

gabriele November 30, 2017 at 2:35 pm

Well put. I’d even say that Contador’s eventual victory ‘enobled’ Sky’s chase ^__^

Goonie November 30, 2017 at 11:29 pm

Personally, if you want fairytale endings, read fairytales.

It’s a sport. You should race to win (within the rules). If the rules make for boring racing, change the rules.

To deal with of Sky’s domination of the tour, the thing that needs to change is that there should be a more even financial playing field between the teams.

Vitus November 30, 2017 at 9:36 pm

Gonna write me a extension who blanks out these ridiculous Froomefanboy shit posts.

STS December 1, 2017 at 1:49 am

I have already proposed INRNG two times to use the sophisticated Disqus platform for this forum, but it seems to mean a major change to this website. But to me and I guess also to a lot of others it would really further improve the value and fun which the usually great content INRNG and most commenters here provide if we could just filter some guys’ posts.

Anonymous December 1, 2017 at 10:25 am

Amazes me that people bother to engage with RonDe.

Larry T November 30, 2017 at 11:43 pm

I look forward to a similar warm-hearted send-off from RonDe when Froome’s sell-by date has come and gone in a few years.

Graeme Hitt December 1, 2017 at 11:21 am

Another season of Ronde overwhelming this website whenever Froome is mentioned (and even when he’s not) with endless and very lengthy monologues that all say one thing.

This coming year he’ll be dominating each and every Giro and Tour stage with multiple and repetitive comments.

Even more galling is his obvious belief (he has said this), that his contributions add something to this website.

Don’t let him ruin it – don’t respond.

I love the comments here when they aren’t reduced to a ‘Froome is great, everyone else sucks’ slanging match.

George Vest December 1, 2017 at 2:41 pm

I disagree. While I’m not particularly a Froome fanboy, I certainly respect his cycling abilities and the way he conducts himself off the bike. I find RonDe’s comments, even when I don’t agree with them, generally reasonable and well argued. If his analysis is wrong, then take him up on them; play the ball, not the man.

(What I find more tedious personally are those posts which essentially just say ‘I don’t like X’, when X could be a rider, style of rider, period of cycling etc. But I’m not going to get into a slanging match about it.)

Anand November 30, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Contador knew already in 16 that he had lesser chance, it wasn’t nice to say that about Paris-Nice this year, that he would be totally a loser. Since he is now the leader of the feeder team of Trek, my uneducated guess is that he wanted to get WT points for the WT team no matter his own future as a rider, to explain some of his efforts this year. Last 4-5 seasons, the biggest problem in my view, was that he seemed unconfident on the bike. Especially after 14, he seemed to have lost a lot of bike skills, because of that crash probably.

Anyho, drop the doping talk, he was banned, lost two GTs by it, it’s official and we are all(mostly) bored of having the same discussion over and over again.

Great rider. Entertaining rider. Seems like a genuinely nice guy.
Some might say artist, and rightly so.

Will be sorely missed.

Zappa on a bike.

Ecky Thump November 30, 2017 at 1:55 pm

I tend to agree with this.
As a romantic, or even sentimentalist, at heart I may have chosen Contador’s Vuelta farewell as his highlight but it’s still interesting, nevertheless, that Inner Ring has chosen one of his ‘failed’ enobled efforts instead.
Either way, it’s not a bad way to bring down the curtain on a career.
Father Time catches up with all sportsmen and women, and Contador never failed to fight it like a champion.
Fantastic racer.

Steve November 30, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Zappa on a bike? Are you trying to insult the great entertainer by comparing him to the least spontaneous musician in pop history?

Chris SK November 30, 2017 at 8:57 pm

Sometimes the hardest attack to make is the one everyone is expecting. Just like how Aru is going to smash Froome on Zoncolan in May next year!

esteban December 1, 2017 at 3:37 pm

Hasta Siempre Contador. El mas grande !!!!!!!

Pires December 2, 2017 at 8:58 pm

Paris Nice will never be as interseting as it was for the last two years with the Contador vs Team Sky battle. Alberto was one of the few riders who could capture the imagination of the public and give them a fascinating day of racing. He was by a country mile my favourite rider and inspired me to take up cycling. You will be truly missed and I am very thankful for your exploits over the years. Vamos Alberto!

Irungo txuletak December 1, 2017 at 9:41 am

This post summarizes quite well my opinion towards Kontador.
I also appreciate the fact that he was no robot. In turns he often looked vulnerable, and even in his greatest gt wins he had some bad days.

besides the Irun’s steak story, i must admit he was one of the greatest riders to watch. I will definitevely miss him. Hasta siempre Pistolero!

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