• All eyes will be on Alberto Contador at the upcoming Vuelta a España, which begins Saturday 19 August. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Before one of the best Grand Tour riders of his generation embarks on his final event before retiring, Anthony Tan considers the contradictory sentiments from the one and only Alberto Contador Velasco.
Cycling Central
15 Aug 2017 - 11:46 AM  UPDATED 15 Aug 2017 - 6:52 PM

Most times, most posts on Facebook are rather inane. It generally involves musing on the every day, which, for 99 per cent of us, is like every other day.

"I have a bold suggestion for Self-Centred Conversationalists everywhere," demographer Bernard Salt, in his most recent column in the Weekend Australian Magazine, wrote. "If you are leading a conversation in which the topic is your life, your children, your holidays, your dreams, your renovations, you might like to consider asking someone else a question about their lives."

You see, that's the beauty of Facebook: you don't have to ask questions about anybody else. It is all about Planet Me, Me, Me. (Case in point, my last FB post: 100-odd photos from my holiday in Morocco - and that was just the northern part!)

I guess that's why my Facebook friend David Culbert's post last Wednesday piqued the interest of a few including yours truly. Rather unconventionally for the social media platform, he wrote about someone other than himself...

Mr Culbert, in case you're wondering, is a former professional track and field athlete. A long jumper, he won silver medals at the 1990 and 1994 Commonwealth Games and finished 11th in the long jump at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, won by Carl Lewis. He's now an athletics commentator and runs a sports media, marketing and promotion business called Jump Media. One of the events he does the press coverage for is the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, which is how we became acquainted.

It's not the first time Culbert has been so outspoken about sporting stars that have transgressed and it won't be the last. I admire Dave not so much for his opinions but for the fact he's willing to put them out there, perhaps sometimes to the detriment of potential employment opportunities in his field. (And yes, I asked him for permission to use his post on Cycling Central, to which he kindly agreed. "Sure. Go for it," he responded.)

So, do I agree with what he wrote about Alberto Contador and Essendon AFL player Jobe Watson, who, like AC, will ceremoniously retire at the end of the 2017 season?

That Contador, Valverde and others who have returned and gone on to enjoy great success and great rewards, so long as they have not broken the rules, should we begrudge them for that?

I have next to no interest in AFL (I'm just not a mainstream sports guy; perhaps it's got something to do with my penchant for the unorthodox) though a quick Google search told me Watson was one of 34 players suspended for their use of performance-enhancing substances in the 2012 AFL season, in what became known as the 'Essendon Football Club supplements saga'. Ironically, he was awarded the Brownlow Medal during that season as the league's best and fairest player; four years later, after receiving all the glory and the bonuses that came with his sport's highest accolade, the title was stripped from him.

Contador's career we all know the story to, and in many ways has followed a similar trajectory to Watson's: after putting the second coming of Lance in his place at the 2009 Tour de France, the Spaniard reached his career apotheosis in July 2010. So dominant was he at the time, when he signed for Saxo Bank later that year, he decided to go for the Giro-Tour double in 2011 and won the first at a canter, at the time his sixth consecutive Grand Tour victory. Nonetheless he underestimated both his rivals and abilities and would only finish fifth at the Tour, won of course by Cadel Evans.

On 6 February 2012, when he lost his doping case for testing positive to clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour and was retrospectively stripped of all results from July 2010 to that date, upon his comeback, Contador, rather curiously, became more popular.

He would win another three Grand Tours (two Vueltas a España, one Giro d'Italia) and a bunch of other races but was now viewed as more human; more fallible. He went from top dog to underdog. At the end of each season he declared he would try for another Grande Boucle, but would never again see the podium in Paris, let alone be in contention to win overall. It only fuelled his popularity. Against the might of Team Sky, it was as if some sections of the cycling community wanted to see Bertie V1.0, for they felt if anyone could derail the Sky Express, it was he. Bertie V2.0 was also more attacking, more audacious - and in this era of pro cycling dominated by watts and sports scientists and riding within one's limits, Contador's style was a breath of fresh air.

That he never showed an ounce of remorse, instead portraying himself as a victim of contaminated meat, did not matter. His countryman Alejandro Valverde, suspended for two years as part of the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal and returning to competition a few months earlier in 2012, was not so fortunate; despite never returning a doping positive in - or out - of competition, the public, it appeared, saw his case as more cut-and-dried. For me, it only added to the ambiguity and hypocrisy of it all.

That Contador, Valverde and others who have returned and gone on to enjoy great success and great rewards, so long as they have not broken the rules, should we begrudge them for that?

The regulatory system in professional cycling allows those who have committed doping infractions a second chance - ipso facto we should not blame the athletes but the system. If zero tolerance is what most seek, and it's something I wouldn't argue against, then the UCI should grow some balls and introduce it, or at least double the current period for a similar doping violation. It would certainly make my job much easier, explaining to friends over dinner why Contador was only away from racing for six months, and didn't have to repay the proceeds from all the races he won during his backdated suspension.

So, then, hero or villain?

I'm not sure it's as clear-cut as that. I don't like what he's done; I don't like the lack of contrition; I don't like the excuses. I very much like the swashbuckling style; I like that he was caught but at the same time don't like the ambiguity, for we still don't know how the clenbuterol got there or what purpose it served, if at all; I don't know him well enough but can't say I mind him, as he seems like an affable, reasonable chap. Perhaps therein lies part of the problem: he is not evil in the sense of a rapist or murderer or terrorist; he is, like you and I, a fairly ordinary human, albeit with an extraordinary talent.

A product of his time? A pariah? A champion? A hero?

Or, as Culbert said, "Just cheats"?

I'm still not sure. Ask me again once this Vuelta's over, or maybe a few years' time. For now, I wish him well in his final Grand Tour, though also hoping that, unlike the false promise he gave last year, it really is his last season.