El Pistolero turns Shootist on the Croix de la Fer

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.

Contador (left) turns to thank Gogl (right) before pressing on.

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.

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Paris-Nice: Contador wins… no wait

Stage 8: Nice to Nice

You had to pay attention, but I think I counted something like eight moments that said Sergio Henao was beaten today, which is all the more incredible given that he’s now this year’s winner of Paris-Nice.

The first moment was when Alberto Contador attacked with 52km to race, setting up the day’s drama.

The second came when Contador pushed ahead, building a lead of about 45 seconds over the Colombian.

Sergio Henao, alone, and forced to ride in front

The third when the two Team Sky riders dropped off in the middle of a commercial break with 21km to go, forcing Henao to the front as he rode up the Col D’Eze. Henao, and the situation, looked pretty miserable at this point.

The fourth when Contador, along with David De La Cruz of QuickStep and Marc Soler of Movistar pulled away, increasing the gap to one minute.

Then fifth when Porte went, which convinced everyone Henao was beaten, or worse, collapsing. He certainly had me fooled. But somehow Henao followed Porte, who then made way to leave Henao to do his own work on the front.

The sixth when Porte went again at 18.4km left. Again Henao followed, getting his punishing place back at the front as reward. No chicken wing would get anyone to ease his burden at the front and take over.

Then there was this period when Ilnur Zakarin, and Ion Izagirre decided to make his life even harder for Henao, attacking and forcing Henao to follow, which he did, then forcing him back to the front. Same again when Dan Martin attacked, looking to secure his podium spot, and again when Julian Alaphilippe made a similar move. If Henao wasn’t already feeling ruined, not to mention victimized, surely he was now. That was seven.

De La Cruz heads for the line, followed by Contador

But it turned out Henao knew how to descend, doing so in such a way that defied the story being told further up the road. For Contador had broken free of De La Cruz, chasing for the full ten-second bonus, to add to the two seconds he’d picked up at the intermediate sprint. Having just climbed an actual mountain, Henao now had a proverbial one left to climb.

And so, while the Contador story was unfolding at the front, the Henao story was about to finish within two seconds of being an after thought.

De La Cruz, nudging past Contador, took the win, and four seconds that Contador was counting on. Henao, somehow, had done it, defying Contador, and everyone who thought he was done.

Including me. Eight. I lost count after eight moments he was supposed to be beaten.

Go to ProCyclingStats.com for all the results from Paris-Nice.

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The Suicide Mission

Tour of Andalusia – Stage 1

Stage 1 of the Tour of Andalusia seemed deliberate in its bid to make us all feel like if only we could get out on our bike we could ride up a mountain for 9km and then spend 20 km free wheeling down the other side to the finish line.

This is what viewers saw, switching on Eurosport to watch the last 30 kilometers of the opening stage of Alberto Contador’s first race of the season. Not for him the outback in Austrlia or the desert dreariness of the middle east. This was a debut on home turf, up hill, and the kind of race that would get his 2017 off to the start he wanted.

The task at hand seemed simple. A glorious ride up the side of a big profiled pyramid, followed by a 20km descent at 50mph to the finish line in Granada. That’s the race we all dream of in our heads, on the fantasy basis that we can go up mountains breathing through our nose rather than our eyes, and go down the other side on the top tube, and not with our hands on the break saying “whoa, bloody hell” when we misjudge a hair pin.

Of course that theory crumbles into asthmatic make-believe when compared to what the best in cycling put in on opening day.

There was Alberto Contador, out of the saddle, dancing on his peddles to get a lead, only to be chased down by Alejandro Valverde and Mikal Landa. Each of them attacked repeatedly, defying science and the power meter, fooling those watching into thinking that such moves were within the realm of human capability.

This, along with beautiful weather, an even tempo, and on bikes more expensive than most family cars, gliding effortlessly uphill, were enough to persuade any cyclist that it’s possible to do such a thing without commitment to a mental health establishment.

Instead what we saw was a masterclass of a breakaway, first ascending then descending like the champions they are, albeit the kind of champions who now must have a line through some of their results. It hardly mattered that Valverde knew how to sprint better than the others, particularly Sebastien Reichenbach of FDJ who decided, appropriately, heroically, and futilely, that with 1.2km to race his only chance was to go for a lone break at such a difference.

But that’s what we would have done too. In our heads at least.

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