Riding With Alberto Contador

I don’t ride with PROs too often. And when I do they are usually of the genus domesticus; they are rarely of the genus vincere. So when I got the invitation from Specialized asking if I wanted to go for a ride with Alberto Contador, the answer was an immediate yes.

I’ve not been Contador’s biggest fan. Truth be told, there have been plenty of occasions where his demeanor in the press has turned me off. But I saw something in this year’s Tour de France that opened my eyes to another side of him, reserves that gave me new respect for the six-time Grand Tour winner. Put plain, I liked that even when he realized he couldn’t win this year’s Tour, he took the race to the others, making himself one of the factors of selection. It was a courageous ride and one that—to me—spoke volumes about self-respect.

Off the bike, Alberto Contador was calm, quiet, polite and patient. Not a rock star. But he wasn’t a withering lily either; he carried himself with low-key confidence. Even though his spoke in low volume, when he spoke he never felt a need to raise his voice to be heard; he trusted others would lean in to hear, and we did.

The first of the three rides I did with him was meant to be a press-only event. The idea was to give Michael Robertson of VeloDramatic a chance to get images of him riding with the likes of Brian Holcomb of Velo, Laura Weislo of Cyclingnews, Jen See of Bicycling, Neil Shirley of Road Bike Action and Dillon Clapp of RoadEt moi, aussi. But because if you tell someone’s fans that a big star will arrive at noon, they will begin arriving at 10:30, when we rolled out, despite a couple of requests from Specialized for folks to stay behind, a dozen or so riders rolled out with us.

As we pedaled through Sausalito, riders coming over from San Francisco frequently saw us and simply made a U-turn to join the group. I spent some time near the front getting shots of Alberto and then knowing others wanted the chance to say hi, I slid back. Once we began the climb up the Marin Headlands Neil Shirley (an actual PRO until very recently) put in an acceleration that dispatched most of us, including me. Ah, to climb well.

The descent went well; riders stayed single file and picked reasonable lines on our way back down. Good thing; it was ever-so-slightly damp. As we rolled back through Sausalito, I found myself next to Alberto’s brother and agent, Fran. He told me it was his first time visiting California and he was very excited to see San Francisco. All of his favorite movies featured either New York or San Francisco as their setting. I was about to ask if that meant he was a fan of Hitchcock, but we rolled up to Mike’s Bikes just then. Mike’s is a huge Specialized dealer, with nine locations in the Bay Area. They are a first-rate retailer, and I’ve given them some of my business when I’ve been in the area.


We pulled up to an enormous throng of people. Estimates from a few people present were that we had 200 to 250 riders. Counting heads isn’t my strong suit, so I don’t have an estimate of my own, but what I can tell you is that I’ve started races with 120 guys, and this group was way larger. Way. Riders filled the parking lot and encircled the entire building. Some were already waiting on the bike path on which we’d roll out.

The bike path was eight or ten feet wide with fine, hard-pack gravel on either side. Almost immediately we had riders sprinting up the gravel and bunny hopping back onto the bike path so they could take photos of Alberto. As we headed into Tiburon, I’d like to say we had a great time with riders rotating through to give everyone a chance to ride alongside one of cycling’s biggest stars.

The reality is that things got sketchy. Riders were taking crazy risks just to get close to Alberto for a picture. I saw riders going into oncoming traffic to move up and more iPhones in hands than you’d see at an Apple store. Compounding the problem was that once close to Alberto, several Spanish-speaking riders simply stayed put. One rider commented to me about the perceived sense of entitlement of the native Spanish speakers. I cared less about that than just keeping everyone upright.

To his credit, Alberto stayed calm and didn’t allow himself to slip out of the front dozen riders. Once we rolled around to Paradise Cove and the road got twisty, several riders put in a huge acceleration to break the group up. Once into Corte Madera we took in the climb up Camino Alto, a tree-shrouded, serpentine climb with some surprisingly steep  ramps. It was only once we were back on the bike path into Sausalito that I had the sense we were truly safe.

The next day Alberto and Fran joined the Specialized lunch ride, which is the fastest group ride I’ve ever encountered other than the old Boulder Bus Stop ride. Before rolling out, Specialized founder Mike Sinyard said with a wink, “Anyone who crashes Alberto is fired.”

This ride was both faster and better behaved than the other rides we did. Out on the rolling country roads west of Morgan Hill there was very little traffic and Alberto took some time to slide back through the group and say hi to people. Shortly before we reached one of the longer hills, Mike told Alberto we were approaching a climb he’d want to be on the front for. Next thing I knew, Sinyard was sprinting up the left side of the pack with a Saxo Bank jersey on his wheel.

I can’t report on what happened at the top nor in the final sprint; my legs were just too tired from the previous efforts going back to last weekend’s gran fondo. After rolling back to the Specialized HQ, we caught showers and lunch before a final interview.

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  1. Michael

    I’ll just add to Patrick’s account of the Sausolito loop that between the serpentine road and locals driving the pace, the photo car actually couldn’t catch them and four photographers/videographers were completely shut out. We drove 20 miles and only caught the back markers. Several riders were overhead in Mike’s parking lot saying that was the fastest Paradise loop they’d ever been on. Still fun though.

  2. sophrosune

    Well done, Padraig. I am not so sure I would have been as gentlemanly as you were, especially with those who were less than polite. I guess it’s hard to say but do you get any sense of his pedal stroke? Did you recognize some greatness in it? 😉

    1. Author

      The part that bothered me was how so many riders not only disregarded their own safety, but the safety of others in trying to get photos. Cranking up the pace (and I’ve done that loop in group rides and can concur with Michael that we were flying) wasn’t a bad idea just to keep riders from going over the yellow lines (too much).

      Were I to be involved in something like this again, I think I’d ask that everyone leave their cameras at home, and assign a few body guards to the PRO in question. Then I’d tell everyone ahead of time that the resident photographer would get their photo with our hero, and use the body guards to start rotating the riders through. Once we circulated everyone once we could start cranking up the pace. Michael could make some nice extra cash off of selling the digital files to the riders. But taking those chances in the presence of someone with so much to lose, all for a little PR, was just inconsiderate.

      Concerning Contador himself, I’ve got to say, he looked as he looks on TV: destined to ride a bike. He was smooth. He was unflappable. And he had an aerobic engine of such phenomenal capacity that nothing I saw him do appeared to be an effort. He looked as we’d all like to look.

  3. Souleur

    what a memory! Like him or not, so few will ever have that kind of chance, Chapeau Padraig.

    And for those who just couldn’t contain themselves, I suppose the real class was how Contador handled it tactfully.

    1. Author

      RandomActs: I should mention, on a personal note, that part of the weirdness of the event, at least for me, was that it’s a truly coveted opportunity, but not one that I particularly dream of. I was both in the event and outside of it at the same time. That may be why I was so conscious of the chances other riders were taking. All that aside, it’s a rare opportunity and one I’m going to enjoy telling stories of to my son when he’s a bit older. That’s the real gem in this for me.

  4. ken

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone know what the plastic box on AC’s stem is? Pictures #1 & #3 show it, looks like a camera?

  5. Chris

    I’m with you, Padraig, on this year’s tour, and indeed 2011 as a whole, changing my opinion of AC. It’s always fun (at least for me) to cheer for the underdog so Contador had received little support from me. But instead of mounting a Floyd Landis or Lance-esque PR compaign to clear his name, he just went out and smashed every race going, culminating in the Giro.

    The message to me was clear. “I’m under investigation, probably being tested more than ever, and I’m still the best stage racer in the world.” Things unraveled a bit in France, but the even going into the last couple stages, you could not yet write him off.

    It was a great year of racing for a true champion.

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