PARIS, July 27- Alberto Contador leaves Paris on Sunday with yet another Tour de France crown, and the same angelic smile that paints a picture of a no-frills cycling champion.Behind that facade is a rider who, like cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, has realised there are more painful things than suffering for long hours in the Alps and Pyrenees.
In 2004 Contador crashed in the Tour of Asturias. It later emerged he had crashed while unconscious, prompting a check-up which revealed a cavernoma, an aneurism.
Contador had the choice of ignoring the problem and risking never riding again, or having a risky operation. A scar which required 100 stitches is testament to Contador’s will to compete.
"He told me this experience helped him to see what is important in life: every time he looks in a mirror he can see the scar," said Jacinto Vidarte, a former journalist who is now Contador’s press officer.
Contador’s third victory on the Tour de France, he admitted, was his toughest test yet.
But while the 27-year-old was pushed to the limits by 25-year-old Luxemburger Andy Schleck, he showed a greater understanding of how to handle real rivals, and how to respond.
Former French professional Laurent Jalabert saw their rivalry on the 2010 Tour de France like this: "Schleck has been the best bike rider on this year’s race, but Alberto has been the most cunning."
Angelic off the bike, Contador becomes a baby-faced devil on it.
In 2007 he won the race in rather fortunate circumstances, inheriting the yellow jersey late in the race after Denmark’s Michael Rasmussen, then leading, was excluded for suspected doping.
After his Astana team were banned from the 2008 edition because of doping demeanours carried out a year earlier while under different management, Contador turned his attention to the Giro d’Italia and Tour of Spain.
He won both, joining an elite club of cycling greats to have won all three Grand Tours.
Contador’s preparations for the 2009 race were going well, until Astana announced the signing of Armstrong as the American planned his comeback after a four-year absence.
Despite efforts by management, their cohabitation was tense. Contador was the designated team leader, but Armstrong showed little proof of playing a key support role and was even outspoken on Contador’s few tactical faults.
Contador’s response may have come from his legs, as he rode away from Armstrong and other potential rivals in key mountain stages.
But his ability to soak up the barbs, defy team orders and keep to his own strategy showed a mental toughness which took everyone by surprise.
Armstrong came into the 2010 edition with a new team, and despite its worth on paper the investment made by RadioShack gave poor profits.
As the American folded on the first day in the high mountains, Schleck would go on to be Contador’s main challenger again before finshing an agonising 31secs behind the Spaniard on Sunday.
In hindsight his displays of friendly rivalry with Schleck suggest Contador has the head, as well as the legs, to continue his winning streak.
While Schleck went on record after every incident involving Contador, whether good or bad, the Spaniard kept his cards far closer to his chest.
When Schleck finally called for Contador to show his hand, the Spaniard did so relentlessly, countering an attack by the Luxemburger on the final pitches of the Port de Bales climb moments after Schleck suffered a mechanical problem.
That day Schleck lost 39sec to Contador, who won by the exact same margin in Paris on Sunday.
While Schleck looks ahead to next year, others remain in awe of Contador and his ability, unlike many former Tour champions, to win all year round.
"He’s got the complete package, and that’s hard to beat," said Australian Michael Rogers.
"Contador’s one of the few that performs all year round. That just goes to show his class. I think he’s certainly got it in him to win a lot more Tours."