Alcatel Lucent (NYSE:ALU) is not a member of the S&P 500 index, being based in France and all. But it it were an S&P component, it would have been among the index's five strongest performers in 2013.

Shares of the networking equipment maker have more than tripled this year. If you bought Alcatel shares at 52-week lows this summer, you'd almost have a four-bagger on your hands.

It goes without saying that Alcatel Lucent has absolutely crushed all of its networking rivals in terms of stock returns this year. The sector is actually littered with dead money. While Alcatel shares tripled, Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) and Juniper Networks (NYSE:JNPR) each gained just 7% and Swedish rival LM Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) stopped at 15%. All three of Alcatel's most important rivals trail far behind the S&P 500's 25% gains.

It's almost unfair to put these tickers together in one chart for a year-to-date comparison, but I'll do it anyway:

ALU Chart

ALU data by YCharts.

However, only a true contrarian investor would have bet on Alcatel Lucent at the start of 2013.

The company nearly died in 2012, drowning under a massive debt load with no cash flow rescue in sight. Alcatel nearly defaulted on some of its debt obligations before two banks threw the company a $2.1 billion lifeline in the form of even more debt.

In January, it looked like a buyout would be the only thing that could save Alcatel. Even so, Juniper and Ericsson wouldn't have had the financial muscle to pull it off and Cisco already promised to simplify its operations rather than bulk up with billion-dollar acquisitions. "If you invest here, please don't take out a second mortgage to finance the position," I said at the time. "Only use money you could afford to lose, in case the dreams of buyouts and turnarounds never come true."

These days, Alcatel is pumping out impressive telecom-grade routers and winning the occasional high-profile contract. The company is still far from a safe bet, but speculators with an iron gut have cashed in handsomely in 2013.

Can Alcatel Lucent sustain this spectacular rally in 2014? Maybe so, but do keep in mind that the company still bleeds cash and the debt load is heavier than ever. New CEO Michel Combes still has a mighty tough row to hoe here.

ALU Net Financial Debt (Quarterly) Chart

ALU Net Financial Debt (Quarterly) data by YCharts.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Cisco Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 daysWe Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.