Team Saxo Bank rider and leader of the race Alberto Contador of Spain cycles during the 21st stage of the Tour of Spain “La Vuelta” cycling race between Cercedilla and Madrid, September 9, 2012. (REUTERS/Miguel Vidal)
By Alasdair Fotheringham
MADRID, Sept 9 (Reuters) – Spain’s Alberto Contador reinforced his status as the world’s leading stage-race specialist when he captured the Vuelta a Espana on Sunday, his fifth Grand Tour title.
For the 29-year-old from a small town near Madrid, victory in his country’s biggest home race represents a comeback at the highest level after completing a doping ban on Aug. 5.
Contador tested positive for a minute quantity of the banned substance clenbuterol on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour de France.
The Spaniard continues to protest his innocence but, after a prolonged legal battle, he was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia victories in February.
Contador has nonetheless now racked up five Grand Tour wins – the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, the Vuelta in 2008 and 2012 and the Giro d’Italia in 2008.
Born and educated in Pinto, Contador started racing at the age of 15 when his brother and now agent Fran lent him a bike. Soon his climbing skills earned him the nickname ‘Pantani’ after the Italian 1998 Tour de France winner Marco Pantani.
After turning professional and taking his first stage win in the 2003 Tour of Poland, Contador’s career had a major setback when he suffered a cerebral cavernoma – a vascular malformation of the brain – which needed six months to recover from.
Back on the bike in January 2005, he rode his first Tour de France that year, finishing 31st. His team were barred from the 2006 race because of the anti-doping probe Operacion Puerto, in which Contador was not implicated.
Contador claimed his first Tour de France victory in 2007, after inheriting the yellow jersey when Dane Michael Rasmussen was kicked out of the race.
He then defended his lead in the final time trial against Australia’s Cadel Evans, who won the Tour in 2011.
Contador racked up victories in the 2008 Giro and Vuelta before claiming his second Tour de France victory in 2009, despite a strong bid for victory by his American team mate Lance Armstrong.
Following his ban, Contador returned to racing in the Eneco Tour in the Netherlands last month, finishing fourth, in his only race prior to participating in the 2012 Vuelta.
Already the first Spaniard to win all three major Tours, Contador is one of only five riders in cycling history to pull off the so-called Grand Slam.
He is preceded by Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault of France, Eddy Merckx of Belgium and Felice Gimondi of Italy. Only 10 riders, including Contador, have won five Grand Tours or more.