It's only 4 days, 11 hours, 5 minutes and 37 seconds (at the time of writing) until Alberto Contador returns to competition at the Eneco Tour held in the Netherlands and Belgium, starting on the 6th of August. I know this, because popular Alberto Contador fansite http://www.albertocontadornotebook.info/ told me so, via their 'Contador Countdown Clock' ticker. Yes that's right, a ticker counting down the seconds until an ex-doper returns to competition - I don't remember Vino having one? Or Valverde? Or indeed Ricco. So what has made Contador remain so firmly a fan favourite amongst cycling supporters across Europe and beyond, when most ex-dopers are barely given the time of day?
I'm not denying that the likes of Vinokourov and Valverde do not have fans, because they certainly do - they are still hero's amongst their own Countrymen, and then there are always the 'die hards' who will support a rider through thick and thin and for some can even do no wrong. (See Lance Armstrong and a huge majority of American Cycling fans). In a sense I am one of these die hards, though I accept Contador's wrong doing and I also accept why others may have a wildly different view on the man to me. It's certainly not a case of 'he can do no wrong' for me, but even now I'm fighting a moral battle with myself - how can I openly support one 'drug cheat' but regard many others with such disdain? I was certainly one of the first to express my dissatisfaction at Vinokourov winning Gold at this years Olympics. I'm also one of the first to bring Lance Armstrong to task on his 'clean record' of cycling achievement. So why then, contradict myself with my unexplainable fandom of Contador? I'm still looking for an answer.
There is however one other ex-doper that I am willing to support. Saint David Millar. In this I am not alone, Millar has retained and even gained many fans (largely British) since his return to cycling following a suspension for doping. Even the peloton appear to like and respect Saint David. There was still division in the British public as to whether Millar should ride the Olympics or not but in the main he is a much liked rider - obviously though, the reason behind this can be attributed by his very clear regret, confession, acceptance of responsibility and repentance. Millar owned up to his mistakes and is one of, if not the most committed anti-doping rider to the modern peloton. His book, his interviews and his candidness have won him much respect from sporting journalists, riders and fans alike. We cannot attribute the same to Alberto Contador, who though apologised to his fans, has failed to admit any wrongdoing in much the same unrepentant way as Vino, Valverde et al.
So, what is it that see's the Spaniard hold on to so many fans? He obviously has his haters, certainly has his doubters like any professional road racer but he is a long way from the festering ranks of Valverdism. I posed this question on Twitter last night: Why so much love for Alberto Contador? The responses I received were well mixed, ranging from: ''No love from me.'' to ''His was a ridiculous case, and lets face it, this years TDF was dull. Contador is exactly the kind of rider people want to see.'' Inner Ring told me: "I'm less excited, more neutral, but he wasn't busted with a fridge full of blood." It's the 'neutral' that I think make up the numbers, The neutrals are those who enjoy watching an exciting race, take away the politics and get down to bare bone racing - and it's here where Alberto Contador excels. Watching Contador dominate provides the same thrill as watching Pantani and Armstrong back in their day, though this in itself leaves us in a conundrum - that was a drug fuelled era, we all know it, one that none of us would wish to go back too, though it's clear, some riders, no matter their history, can be remembered for attacking, panache and style and this, for many outweighs the 'doping' side of the coin. Contador is a man in the modern peloton, among few, that still possess that ability to tear up a race, to attack time and time again, to ride with effortless style and panache - is it here where Contador retains a certain starry eyed fan who cares less about the doping and more about the image? Riders like Valverde and Vino certainly don't have that same sort of image, especially now, though both can be remember pre-doping as attacking, aggressive riders.
Another point raised was that Contador is the kind of rider people want to see. I can't deny this, I love watching any bike rider in the high mountains dance away from others with such ease, caress the barriers of pain, become almost a machine. Other's undoubtedly feel the same, though many prefer Indurain type power riders, others prefer the excitement of a sprint finish, but universally anybody can appreciate the effort riders put in when the road heads upwards. Has a Giro and Tour where the competition has been shut down by tempo riding from Liquigas and Sky meant that spectators yearn for somebody to rip up the rule book and chuck in some attacks? Probably. Though a very efficient and successful way of racing, tempo riding doesn't make for a great spectacle. I've heard many say they are looking forward to the Vuelta a Espana, because with the likes of Contador and Froome, it can only be won with aggressive, attacking riding. I also am looking forward to the Vuelta, the Giro and Tour have both been fantastic to watch, the Giro more so in my opinion but the Tour especially has lacked sustained attacks, thanks to a more dumbed down route and lack of climbing specialists contesting the general classification. The Vuelta is sure to provide an altogether different spectacle, and yes, thanks largely to Contador.
"but he wasn't busted with a fridge full of blood" Sums up a great deal of opinion also. In the minds of many, there are still lingering doubts as to Contador's actual guilty, mainly thanks to the way the case was conducted and concluded. Even the final wording in Contadors judgement portrayed a certain element of naivety and accidental circumstance on Alberto's behalf. Much of the evidence was circumstantial, in fact the case was more about Contador proving his innocence, which ultimately he couldn't without sufficient evidence. That air of uncertainty means some people have reserved judgment, which probably leads to more interest for his return to see how he will ride 'post-suspension' before drawing a final conclusion. Valverde in contrast was link to doping through documental and DNA evidence, much less then left up in the air as regards to his guilty, similarly the evidence in Vinokourovs case was far stronger on a scientific level, less a case of mistakenly taking a substance, more a case of blood values being completely in line with having a transfusion.
Whatever the reason for Contador's continued popularity, it's clear that opinion is strictly divided. A whole plethora of the above goes some way to explaining why he hasn't received such harsh criticism, not only from fans but also riders, in the way that other convicted dopers have. Innately we are designed to enjoy the aggressive, attacking side of cycling. Its how we would all like to imagine ourselves as pro-riders, we like winners, we like people prepared to go through pain and endurance barriers. It's this that I like about Contador, though I still find myself in conflict, a tinge of guilt at my ability to grant a certain rider privileges where others I haven't, because I've allowed my personal enjoyment to get in the way of the facts. It's an uncomfortable place for me to be. Is Contador a hero or a villain? That's not for me to say and all of you will have a differing opinion. Can a man be both? Probably, is my answer.