PARIS (Reuters) - Booed by fans at the start of the Tour de France, Spain’s Alberto Contador won back their affection by the end despite losing his invincibility on grand Tours.
The 28-year-old surrendered his title as his stormy season drew to an end Sunday but his fighting performances over the past three caught the imagination of the crowds.
“The affection the fans gave me is a great personal satisfaction. It means even more than a Tour title,” the Pinto-born rider who salvaged fifth place overall, said.
“All in all I had a great season. People focus on the Tour de France but we have to take into account the rest of the season,” he said. “I’m delighted with my season.”
Contador ignited a race he was not exactly welcomed to with open arms in the light of the forthcoming appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) by cycling authorities over a failed dope test in last year’s race.
The jeers that rang out for the defending champion at the teams’ presentation before the start were a shock for the Spaniard and his race began badly.
One of only five men with titles in the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta, he lost ground in the first stage after being held up behind a massive pile-up.
He then struggled to turn the situation around as he was looking to become the first rider to achieve a Giro/Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998.
Three crashes in the first week resulted in a knee injury that hampered his challenge in the first mountain stages in the Pyrenees but he hung on produced some vintage attacks.
He caught the Schleck brothers off guard in the ascent to the Col de Manse and outpaced them in descent to La Rochette in the 16th stage, making up over a minute on Andy Schleck.
The following day, Contador was on the move again in a tricky descent into Pinerolo, although he was reeled in less than a kilometre from the line.
In the first of two gruelling Alpine stages Thursday, Contador struggled in the Col Agnel before cracking in the last two kilometres of the Col du Galibier, losing almost four minutes to Andy Schleck.
Despite conceding defeat, he would not surrender his title meekly and Contador showed his mettle one more time, attacking the pack after only 15 kilometres in the first corner of the Col du Telegraphe in the stage to l’Alpe d’Huez.
“It was a very tough Tour with all the crashes at the beginning,” he told Reuters. “I suffered from them as I lost time and got hurt.
“As a consequence, I have tried things I would not have done before. Instead of looking at every seconds I could win or lose in the standings, I rode without pressure and I was able to attack from afar because I had nothing to lose.”
His Saxo Bank-Sungard team manager Bjarne Riis said Contador had paid for his exertions on the Giro.
This hasn’t been our Tour. We didn’t get out of it what we came for. The Giro was very hard,” he said. “He’s paying a price for that, but we fought to the end and we’re proud of that.”
Contador’s immediate future is under a cloud though with the looming doping hearing.
He failed a test for the banned anabolic agent clenbuterol last July but he was cleared by the Spanish federation, only for the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to appeal before CAS.
The hearing is set for August 1-3, with a final decision expected before the end of next month.
“As far as my future is concerned, all I want is a good rest,” he said.
Writing by Julien Pretot; editing by Martyn Herman