Alberto Contador, one of the greatest Grand Tour riders and one of the greatest disappointments in modern cycling, is back. He returned to race the Eneco Tour and finished it yesterday in Belgium. It came on the heels of high-profile doping case that saw him stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title.

“The goal was to avoid falls,” Contador said in a press release before the Eneco Tour, “because the main goal is later.”

The Spaniard fell from grace following the 2010 Tour de France. While leading the race, he tested positive for banned drug Clenbuterol. The test result was revealed two months after he won and saw to his ban this February, nearly two years later. The retroactive ban stripped him of 12 wins, including the 2011 Giro d’Italia and 2010 Tour.

Contador put his name in the history books or winning all three Grand Tours. However, he also became the first cyclist ever stripped of a Giro title. He is only the second, after Floyd Landis, to lose the Tour title.

He still counts Grand Tour wins in the 2008 Giro, the 2007 and 2009 Tour and the 2008 Vuelta a España. His attacking style in the mountains, quite the opposite of this year’s Tour winner Brad Wiggins, gained him numerous fans. Now, following six months out of competition and with the Eneco Tour under his belt, he wants to return to those Grand Tour heights. He his eyes fixed on Vuelta a España starting this week.

A rocky start

It was just one bad steak, according to Contador. Is it that bad? Contador has courted controversial links all along. Since turning professional in 2003, every team he raced for was connected with doping.

ONCE/Liberty Seguros had many of its riders tied in with Operación Puerto in 2006. Its team manager, Manolo Saiz was in the eye of the hurricane. The team, including Contador, was unable to race that year’s Tour because a decision forced the majority of its riders out due to Puerto ties.

Contador raced for Johan Bruyneel in from 2007 to 2009 in teams Discovery Channel and Astana, the years in which he blossomed into a Grand Tour champion. Bruyneel name is again in the headlines. He is currently fighting charges of helping his riders dope, from 1999 to 2012, as part of the Lance Armstrong investigation in the USA.

Contador claimed his Tour title in 2007 in the middle of a doping storm. Team Rabobank and the Tour kicked Michael Rasmussen out of the race while leading towards Paris for missed, pre-race doping controls. Contador took advantage, having only to defend the inherited race lead for four days.

Bjarne Riis signed Contador for his 2011 Saxo Bank team. Riis admitted to doping for his 1997 Tour win and saw several of his star riders, Ivan Basso to Tyler Hamilton, involved in doping scandals. Now, it’s Contador.

Banking on Contador

Why did Riis keep racing Contador? He signed Contador on one of the largest contracts around after the 2010 Tour. According to reports, they agreed on a two-year €9m contract, 4.5m a year for 2011 and 2012 [CT: according to my sources which I believe to be credible, Contador is the highest paid rider in the world as Specialized also pays a portion of his salary]. Shortly after they inked the deal, the news broke that Contador tested positive.

Riis supported Contador due to the contract and his team’s new look. He had already transformed his Danish team into a Spanish mountain armada. He brought in Daniel Navarro, Benjamin Noval and Jesús Hernández, Spaniards who helped their capitán to past glories.

Contador claimed, and still says, he’s innocent and that the Clenbuterol came from a contaminated steak he ate on the Tour’s second rest day in Pau. The drug, however, may be used to aid weight loss and breathing. In other words, it is strictly banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Wada’s director general, David Howman indicated there’s no place for a threshold, even if Contador says otherwise. “It’s not a substance that is taken inadvertently, it’s one that’s taken intentionally and therefore must remain on the prohibited list,” he said last year. He added there’s “very little” threat of accidentally taking the drug in Europe and that the problem is mostly contained to China and Mexico.

WADA’s rules are clear: if testers find it in your system, no matter the amount, you are guilty. Cyclists Alessandro Colom and Li Fuyu were both were given immediate bans. There are also darker undertones, too. There were reports that the Clenbuterol may have entered Contador’s system via a blood transfusion or that it was used to mask another drug.

Contador knew the likely outcome of the case. However, with Riis’ support, he went on to win the Vuelta a Murcia, the Volta a Catalunya, the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon and the Giro d’Italia in 2011. He cheated his fellow cyclists and the fans as the judicial system edged ahead.

Thomas Löfkvist was one of the few that spoke out. Contador “has the right to be here and compete as the rules now stand,” he said at the 2011 Giro. “But it is so annoying that if, in three weeks, they rule that he must be suspended. It’s wrong.”

When this year started, Contador went at it again. He won two stages in the Tour de San Luis in Argentina before the sports high court in Switzerland, the CAS, pulled the trigger.

“It ends an interminable process,” said Tour director Christian Prudhomme at the time. It is “embarrassing for the organisers of all the races in which Contador had been able to take part.”

Riis and his backers at Saxo Bank must have bought into “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” saying because in June they renewed Contador’s contract for three more years, through 2015.

Milking it

Why did everyone welcome Contador to the races? Prudhomme said it was embarrassing on the organisers’ behalves. The Tour is the biggest around, though, and it saw just as exiting racing, if not better, last year and this year.

Other organisers, the Giro and specifically those in Spain, however were scrabbling to have Contador. His presence drew in TV viewers, more roadside fans and more sponsors. They thought, “Why not milk him while he’s waiting for the CAS verdict?”

Some fans didn’t see it that way. At the Giro, one created a sign that read “Contador… Filetto o Fialetta?” (‘Filet or phial’?) Another baited him with steak on a fishing line as he climbed Monte Zoncolan. Most, however, were curious and applauded his performances.

The Italian journalists loved it. They seemed more thrilled to see Contador win their Giro than when Ryder Hesjedal, a Canadian, won this year. The Spanish media, like their country’s race organisers milked it. Contador is their one cyclist who sells their newspapers, drives media interest and excites the fans.

Why not just turn a blind eye? The Spanish federation, the RFEC, did so by shelving Contador’s case in February2011. Contador tried. He said in the Giro that he wouldn’t even consider giving the pink jersey back if found guilty.

“Those are things that don’t even warrant a moment of my time,” he explained.

Contador also said, “That [2010] Tour is mine, no one can take it away from me. Absolutely no one can take it away from me.”

On February 6 this year, the CAS did take it away and more. The three-member panel said that Contador failed to prove where the Clenbuterol came from and delivered a sentence that most of us knew was coming.

Looking ahead

Did the court’s ban strike a blow to Contador? Yes and no.

“I did not want to stand [still]. I changed my training places,” Contador said in a poorly translated press release last week. “There have been days of having more desire and others less, but I’m just as tired as another year at this time because I trained hard.”

Contador’s last race was in the Mallorca Challenge, on 5 February. He returned last week on August 6 – only six months out of competition. In that time, he trained like mad. He visited some of the French passes he used to race over and took part in the second edition of Il Marcha Cicloturista Alberto Contador near his home town of Pinto.

He lost his race speed, but worked towards regaining it last week in the Eneco Tour. Some say he is the favourite to win the Vuelta for a second time, a similar comeback to Ivan Basso, who won the Giro both before and after his doping suspension. However, some say that this new Contador will suffer because he’s no longer doping. They point to the 2011 Tour, where Contador failed to shine in the mountains, losing time on the Luz Ardiden and Galibier mountain stages and placing fifth overall. It was the first time he failed after starting and winning the last six Grand Tours.

Chris Froome may clean house in the Vuelta following his second overall at the Tour. His Sky team has turned the cycling book to a new chapter via training methods and racing style. Contador, and other former cheats like Alejandro Valverde, may once again have a hard time keeping up.

What else?

Contador sounds as if he’s in for a hard time. What else is there for him? Contador went and trained on the World Championships circuit in Valkenburg. He rode the closing Cauberg climb several times to test himself and his ability to lead team Spain.

Spain gladly welcomes Contador back and wants him to lead its national team. It apparently has yet to suffer serious hangovers from its doping scandals. The Italian federation, sick after various cases, ruled in June 2011 that any doper who served six months or more will no longer has the right to race in its national teams at the Olympics or Worlds. Contador can be thankful he isn’t Italian.

Contador can also be thankful he’s in Riis’ team. Riis truly loves the sport, but he failed to take the necessary moves to send a clear and clean message. He backed Contador and renewed his contract, seemingly happy to have more of the same.

Why would Riis do that? Our tall Danish friend needs El Pistolero because his team is down in the dumps. His team counts four wins this year. Last year, it closed with 19 if you add in the nine wins Contador had. This year it will be well off the mark compared to last year and the heydays from 2010 back to 2008 – with 38, 44 and 48 wins respectively.

Anticipating Contador’s return, he loaded his Tour team with sprinters this year and saved the Spanish Armada for the Vuelta. It probably won’t work out, but it’ll be a good practice run for Contador’s future.

They still need to think about the points rule. The international cycling federation, the UCI recently ruled that after a doping ban, a rider’s points earned in races won’t count when his team applies for a racing licence. Riis said that he’d take the UCI to the sports high court over this rule.

What does Contador have to look forward to in the coming years? He will be able to win the Giro in the coming years. The Tour will be hard to win again. Contador, nicknamed Pantani, after Marco Pantani, as a child because of his climbing abilities, will find cycling is no longer the same.

“I remember watching when I was a kid, Richard Virenque and stuff, but that’s not realistic anymore,” Team Sky’s Brad Wiggins explains after he won the Tour. “Mick [Rogers] is one for the numbers, when someone would attack, he’d say ‘Leave them. We’re riding at 450 watts, and it’s not possible to sustain that unless you have a couple of extra litres of blood in you.'”

If Contador can come back and win a Grand Tour, he’ll prove he is one of the greats. If he speaks up about doping, instead of simply suggesting rule changes and blaming the butcher, he’ll become one of cycling’s champions. The road is ahead of Contador, who just needs to decide his direction.