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Friday, July 27, 2007
Contador latest Tour leader to feel the heat

By Bonnie DeSimone
Special to ESPN.com

ANGOULEME, France -- Alberto Contador's short professional cycling career has been marked by several accidents.

Three years ago, he crashed in a race in Spain and had surgery to remove a life-threatening blood clot in his brain. Last July, he was yanked from the start line on the eve of the Tour de France along with the other members of the now-defunct Liberty Seguros team when several riders were linked to the Operacion Puerto doping investigation that was then still in its confused infancy.

Contador's name originally appeared among the suspect riders, but the UCI, cycling's international governing body, reversed itself shortly afterward and said that had been a mistake. Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, whose Madrid clinic was the focal point of the wide-ranging probe into a blood doping ring, publicly stated Contador was not a client.

Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador took over the Tour's yellow jersey after Michael Rasmussen was pulled from the race.

Saturday, the 24-year-old Discovery Channel team rider could become arguably the most accidental Tour de France winner in history, and what is usually an immensely satisfying, career-defining accomplishment may forever be accompanied by a whiff of ambivalence.

Contador, who announced his arrival as a top stage race threat by winning the prestigious weeklong Paris-Nice event last March, rode his way into second place in the Tour largely by winning an important mountain stage in the Pyrenees. But he couldn't shake then-race leader Michael Rasmussen in subsequent climbs or narrow the margin Rasmussen established earlier in the Alps.

Circumstances delivered what the road did not. Rasmussen was fired by his team for lying about his whereabouts during pre-Tour training, an omission that hindered Danish anti-doping authorities from finding him for unannounced tests. Rasmussen had a three-minute advantage over Contador at the time and was nearly assured of the title had he stayed in the saddle in Saturday's time trial between Cognac and Angouleme.

Now only 2 minutes, 49 seconds separate the top three men: Contador, Australia's Cadel Evans of the Belgian Predictor-Lotto team, and Contador's American teammate, Levi Leipheimer. Evans, a 30-year-old former mountain biking standout who is trying to become the first rider from his country to finish in the Tour's top three, is generally regarded as the best time-trial rider of the trio, but the relatively flat course doesn't necessarily play to his strength.

The morning after Rasmussen's unprecedented ejection, the Tour began without a rider in the yellow jersey. Contador donned it that evening and promptly walked into a roiling tar pit of questions from journalists. Are you clean? Who is your trainer? Your doctor? Have you missed any drug tests?

Welcome to the big time. Contador looked unblinkingly at his questioners and said he was above reproach, but nothing he could offer at this point would completely clear the air in this Tour, which has been shrouded with the haze of disbelief after a bevy of positive tests and a pair of teams ousted.

Anyone who has attempted to sift through the Puerto debris -- 6,000 pages of investigative documents are still wafting around as if they'd been thrown off the top floor of a skyscraper -- knows that there frequently has been a lot of elapsed time between rumor and confirmation.

Whether it's fair or not, no rider whose name surfaced in the probe will probably ever be "bleached," as the French like to put it, of all suspicion. Discovery was criticized by some major pro teams for signing Contador and other riders originally implicated in the scandal. So far, Ivan Basso, who confessed he was using Fuentes' services, is the only deal that has come back to haunt the team.

Because of a loophole in Spanish law, no charges have or probably will ever come out of the case in that country, though authorities in other countries are investigating or have already sanctioned some of the riders involved.

So Contador has the pressure of that scrutiny. He has a 34.5-mile time trial to ride Saturday on baking-sheet-hot roads in south-central France, and he will roll down the start ramp at 4:20 p.m. local time after 140 other riders have gone before him. He is suddenly the flag bearer for a team that still has not firmed up its financial backing for next year, though presumably he would be quite marketable on his own at this point.

As if that wasn't enough, Discovery team director Johan Bruyneel hasn't hesitated to compare Contador to Lance Armstrong.

"Alberto doesn't need a lot of direction, and he has a drive for perfection," Bruyneel said on the second rest day of the race, before the Rasmussen situation blew up. "He's capable of executing a strategy, a plan. … There are times with him where I feel I'm directing the race by remote control."

Contador calmly answered some tough questions at that news conference, too. He admitted he has had some limited contact with former Liberty Seguros team director Manolo Saiz -- a few messages in the last year, fewer and fewer as time has gone on, Contador said.

In an intergenerational link, Saiz, who was sullied by the Puerto case but never formally charged, was also Bruyneel's team director when the Belgian rode for the powerhouse ONCE team in the 1990s.

Before Contador knew he would be catapulted into the role of race favorite, he insisted that the current crisis of faith in cycling isn't affecting the way he feels about what he does for a living. "I'm doing my job and racing with as much joy as ever," he said last Tuesday.

Contador has weathered some true misfortune in his life -- things that make a Tour de France stage win look rather small. He has a younger brother with cerebral palsy, which can make one appreciate one's blessings. Talented as Contador obviously is, he may very well have a future Tour win in him even if things don't work out on the road between Cognac and Angouleme.

You could argue that in cycling's current era of skepticism, Contador's biggest challenge might not be winning this Tour de France, but surviving the heat under the giant magnifying glass that will be lowered over the victor.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.