Like the leader of a troupe of tragedians looking for an audience, Alberto Contador started Stage 17 of the Tour ready to put on a show.
Playing the famous version of himself – a bit like John Wayne in a western, rather than one of those police films he did – El Pistolero attacked on the Col de la Croix de Fer, out of the saddle and dancing past his opposition on a long range Quixotic bid to snare some Tour glory, even if his GC hopes had burned out days ago.
Nairo Quintana went with him, but quickly faded, possibly owing to his legs, but most likely because he couldn’t match Contador for enthusiasm. His Trek team meanwhile was ready to offer support. Not least his mechanic, who having changed his bike pushed Contador with Herculean effort up a ten per cent gradient for what must have felt like half a mile.
Before that though Michael Gogl had paced his leader for as long as he could. Days before he’d crashed With Contador, only to watch his leader ride off with apparent ambivalence as he writhed around in agony on the floor (until told to stop lollygagging by a team boss). This time though he got a chivalrous nod of thanks as Contador came out of his slipstream to ride on without him. You like to think that single nod turned Gogl’s now exquisite torture into something a little easier to endure.
All of which made it a day for non-Contador fans to submit late applications to join his fan club before he left the Tour for good. But then most of us remaining skeptics had had our minds changed days before, when he’d turned to his countryman Mikel Landa on an earlier attack to suggest they both “pull till they were dead”.
Was this Contador as El Pistolero, or Contador as The Shootist – like Wayne played in his final film – a lap of honour and some hard-earned limelight before the shadow cast by the younger generation became too great to outrun?
Only time would tell.
Or maybe the Trek DS, who it turned out did tell, midway through Contador’s break, announced on the commentary feed, which made things a little awkward. This would be Contador’s last Tour came the news – which would have made things even more heroic had Contador actually been in on the announcement.
The attack came to nothing and Contador resumed his place in the peloton, alongside ordinary-looking riders who had not lived like Contador had just done. After the race he said he knew nothing of his Tour swansong, but with the credit pouring in for his performance probably sensed it would be improper to cause a scene.
But if this was his last Tour we’d at least had one last look. Just about enough to want more Contador next year.