Sunday, June 01, 2008

Congratulations to a Great Champion

Alberto Contador's overall victory in the Giro d'Italia, sealed with a good performance in today's final time trial, harks back to the cycling champions of the past.

In the modern peloton, particularly since Lance Armstrong began his seven-year Tour de France winning streak in 1999, cyclists follow complex training schedules designed to peak for certain races. In fact, Armstrong's training was so carefully tailored that he didn't just peak for the Tour de France; his peak coincided specifically with the toughest few days of that three-week tour. On top of that, Armstrong and several teammates rode the hardest mountain stages months in advance so they would know exactly what to expect. Many fans criticized Armstrong for this focused approach, saying that his specialized preparation made him a one-trick pony, especially since he tended to take August and September off while others continued racing. In fact, once he started winning the Tour, Armstrong never rode the Giro or the Vuelta a Espana, the sport's other grand tours.

In contrast, Contador's Astana team wasn't even invited to the Giro d'Italia until a week before the race began.* The grateful team sent its three best stage racers, but none had planned or trained for the race. Contador and American Levi Leipheimer were on vacation when they learned they would be racing three hard weeks in Italy. Andreas Klöden was designated as the team leader on the strength of his victory in the week-long Tour de Romandie, which ended on the same day Astana was invited to the Giro. While his form was good, he was no more prepared for the Giro than the rest of his team.

In the end, Leipheimer finished 18th, about as well as one might expect under his circumstances, and Klöden dropped out after getting sick during the race. But Contador had shockingly good form and became the team's sole leader. Although he didn't brutally crush his opponents like Armstrong did in the Tour de France, he defeated men who trained for the Giro, talented riders (particularly Italians) for whom this was the race of the year. To do it without specific training to peak for the race is an awesome achievement. As far as I'm concerned, this proves without a doubt that Contador is not only the best stage racer in the world, but head and shoulders above the rest. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he fractured his elbow in a crash before the Giro's halfway point and still outclassed the rest of the field. What a champion!

* Despite being the team of Tour de France winner Contador and third-place Leipheimer, Astana was excluded from the Giro and the Tour as part of a political struggle between race organizers and pro cycling's governing body. The Giro organizer decided to drop another team, which opened up a slot for Astana, but Contador most likely won't get to defend his title in France this July.

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