Alberto Contador is not banned from cycling.
Far from it; he finished fourth in the five-day early season tune-up stage race, the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal. He was actually positioned to finish higher than that, being only six seconds off the pace after the fourth stage, but he dropped 45 seconds (15th place) in the finishing 17.5 km Individual Time Trial stage. The race winner was the up-and-coming young Tony Martin of the aggressively anti-drug HTC-Highroad team. He’s just the kind of rider who wants to win races like this, as the established strong men of the pro peloton unkink the winter-knotted muscles and fine-tune their bodies for the bigger races of the warmer months. Contador, for instance, might try for an unprecedented one-season sweep of the major European national stage races, the Giro d’Italia (May; he’s booked for it), the Tour de France (he’s defending champion), and the Vuelta d’España (his national race–how could he miss it?).
The unlikelihood of this situation just a few months ago makes it more astonishing. Contador tested positive for a low concentration of the banned substance clenbuterol during the first rest day of the 2010 Tour de France. The level was 50 picograms, 40 times less than the drug-testing protocols of the WADA require testing for. Seen one way, this is evidence of the kind of microdoping techniques Floyd Landis talked about. Contador thought he’d get away with it because the amount in his blood at the time of testing was “under the radar.” Seen another way, this trace amount is so insignificant that it is not even evidence of doping, but of some trivial impurity from somewhere else. Contador blamed beefsteak brought over the border from Spain by his buddies who visited on the rest day. This brought indignant refutations from the Spanish Beef Council, who deny that their growers use the growth product in their animals. So Contador’s defense is that a sentimental attachment to home-grown beefsteak sourced from some unofficial Spanish cattle ranch outside of Beef Council control was responsible for the 50 picograms.
There is no word as to the origin of the trace elements of a plasticizer usually definitive of blood storage bags also found in his blood. The WADA has not yet made them part of the banned substance list. Perhaps Contador’s steak was carried from Spain in a blood bag.
Bike riders accused of doping are tried by their own national cycling federations. The UCI or the rider can then appeal the finding to the CAS, or international Court of Arbitration for Sport. While reviewing Contador’s case, the Spanish cycling federation tried to get the UCI to conduct the process jointly with it, and to co-sponsor the verdict. The UCI declined, saying it was the Spaniards’ job and they had to do it. It should be said that Spain has a reputation for being unusually tolerant of doping in professional sports. The infamous Operation Puerto of 2005 ff., that cost a number of cyclists a couple of years’ suspension simply by being rumored to be connected with some of the notations, diaries, and blood bags found in the investigation, was about footballers more than cyclists. Thus it was largely swept under the rug without formal legal proceedings, because football is big money, unlike cycling. Spanish riders have been among the most frequent dopers, and Spanish teams among the most systematic users (e.g. Kelme and Liberty Seguros).
Ultimately the Spanish federation found Contador guilty and imposed a one-year suspension. That was about a month ago. Riders generally reacted unsympathetically, saying “all the signs were there” in the 2010 Astana team. Andy Schleck, second place in last year’s Tour de France, pronounced himself a top contender this year. However, Contador was given the opportunity to reply. He did so by using the “Spanish beef” story (once more goading the Spanish Beef Council into a rebuttal) and arguing that the amount found in his blood could not enhance performance. The Prime Minister of Spain, heretofore unknown as a doping expert, proclaimed that he was sure Contador was innocent. The Federation bought Contador’s explanation and absolved him of wrong doing.
There’s been little reaction from cyclists since the absolution. Everyone has just gotten on with racing. One wonders what Floyd Landis must be thinking. Or Greg Lemond. Neither has criticized the result in public. Would they have been so quiet if the accused had been Lance Armstrong? And one wonders if Lance wishes that he’d had the Spanish Prime Minister reacting in print to his accusers all these years, rather than hearing the vituperations of Lemond and Dick Pound, who readily condemned Armstrong without evidence.
Lance never gave a confirmed positive test; Contador now has.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.