How would you race if you realized that this could be your final race for a very long time? The answer to that question could explain a lot about the proceedings from Stages Eight and Nine from the Giro d'Italia.
The world's best stage racer, currently in hot pursuit of his sixth Grand Tour title, can legitimately only look as far ahead as the Giro's finish in Milano on May 28th. After that, his future goes murky, and if history tells us anything - it will be a miracle for the CAS to strike down the UCI's appeal. It will be a miracle if Alberto Contador gets a chance to go for his fourth Tour de France in a row in July.
With that in mind, aside from all talk of guilty or not, and certainly far aside from the insufferably inane comments on Spanish beef, Alberto Contador was given a gift by an iffy Spanish federation, and with the likelihood of him racing in July hovering somewhere around zero, he's making the most of his stay of execution.
What does Alberto Contador have to lose? He says his surprise attack in Friday's finish to Tropea was instinctive. Others said those were the actions of a scared rider. It looked like a rider racing with nothing to lose to me.
On Saturday, on the vaunted slopes of Mount Etna, on a climb that seemed to offer little in the way of a launching pad, Contador did what seemed to be the impossible - he not only launched, he decimated. He destroyed his opponents on the easiest of this year's important mountaintop finishes (I won't count Macugnaga and Montevergine). The speed difference was alarming between Contador and the chasers behind.
Conventional wisdom would say that Contador will now sit back and follow his rivals over the next two weeks, as the race winds its way back up Italy, then across the mountains of the north through some of the most difficult terrain imaginable, before finally coming to rest on the streets of Milano.
It would seem like it would be the perfect recipe for what could have been a thrilling Giro d'Italia turned into mush - a forgotten, flavorless gruel. Contador gets an early lead, former contenders falter, Contador repeats time-honored tactic: follow quietly, rake in the pink jerseys, and stand triumphant on the final podium in Milano.
I don't think we'll see that though. I think this is a unique Giro with a winner who is staring at a very bleak future (again, going on the CAS’s historical pattern of rulings - when was the last time they ruled in favor of a rider in a doping investigation?). I think Contador will continue to attack - he has to. He has nothing to lose and a legend to make, whether it’s an infamous one or a heroic one or an infamously heroic one is to be decided. What if he truly embraces these three weeks as the possible end of his career? The native of Pinto said previously that if he were suspended, he’d retire. Who knows if that's true or not, but what if it is?
What to do between now and June though? Do you root for a rider that’s facing what’s likely an imminent suspension? As with everything Contador, it’s a mixed bag. If he’s suspended, he’ll have stolen the glory from countless other riders, over and over again. Today for instance - without Contador, that would have been the glorious return of the enigma himself, Jose Rujano. In pink, it would be HTC-Highroad’s Konstantsin Sivtsov, coming good on the heaps of possibilities he has promised for years. How many more stories will Contador’s Giro rampage quash? It’s a difficult situation, frankly, it’s a bad one, but the fact is: he’s at the Giro, and he’ll remain, so long as nothing untoward happens between Etna and Milano.
For a rider of Contador's unquestioned talent and ability, the possibility that he'll frolic aggressively across Italy for the next fortnight is an exciting proposition and, on the flipside, a scary one for his rivals. What if he races each mountain stage to win? What then? I know we all like a true underdog story, but there’s something, inside me at least, that gets excited watching a truly dominant force at full power, plowing over his peers.
What I mean to ask is: what would it be like to see a return to the golden years, a return to no holds barred racing? We often love to talk about the days of Coppi, the days of Merckx and Hinault… Does it take an immensely gifted rider, arguably the best rider of his generation, with a questionable history of cleanliness staring at a two year ban, perhaps self-imposed lifetime ban, for that to happen?
As the real Giro is set to begin, Contador will do all that he can to go out with a pistolero (trademark) bang. Behind, the struggle for second place will be hot, and likely completely separate, because there could very well be a Grand Tour overall title on offer come June.