In the world of bike racing, palmares define the arc of a cyclist’s career. Each is a recognition for having finished in the top three of a one-day race or a single stage of a multi-day stage race. The same recognition goes for the top three finishers of an entire stage race, or for a podium finish in several other categories, depending on the race, such as most overall points, top climber, or best young rider. While some superior support riders seldom if ever win, most accumulate a cluster of these special recognitions over the span of a career.
Yesterday superstar rider Alberto Contador had an astonishing 27 palmares stripped from his record. He was just found guilty of doping in the 2010 Tour de France, a race in which he was deemed the overall winner for lo these past 19 months. The phantom of Andy Schleck suddenly ascended the fantasy retrospective Paris podium to accept the silent cheers of a ghostly crowd who had departed to return to their suppers of brie, baguette, and petit chateaux Bordeaux a year ago last July. Doughty Chris Horner found he had finished 3rd in the 2011 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya GC. Michele Scarponi not only belatedly won the 2011 Giro d’Italia, but gained or improved in five other awards in that race.
This, dammit, is not the way bike races are supposed to be contested or won. It was bad enough when it took over a year to strip Floyd Landis of his ill-gotten gains in the 2006 Tour de France. The result was never in much dispute. In the Contador case, given the much greater sophistication of both doping and testing, the concentration of the contaminant was very small and the result therefore harder to interpret. Yet the evidence apparently suggests strongly that Contador did use clenbuterol, and perhaps received a blood transfusion, during the 2010 Tour.
The thing is,we’ll never know for sure. Sports justice, and/or the European sense of justice itself, seems oddly off-key to American ears. In European cycling, guilt is proclaimed unless or until the accused party can prove his innocence. And while we think in terms of guilt as being “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” in sports doping doubt casts a long shadow indeed, and hearsay and circumstantial evidence have a huge impact on the fate of the accused. A rider may well be suspended when the first journalistic accusation is made. A rider is generally fired when the second test of the medical sample, the so-called “B test,” confirms the A test, before the rider has a chance to appeal. No hearing, no check of the accuracy of the lab results, nothing. And the stakes are high. Contador’s suspension will probably require that he return his salary as of July 2010. It is estimated that he made €5 million (that’s 7.5 million in cheesy US dollars) in 2011. Bet he’s spent some of that; bet he drives a new Ferrari or the equivalent. And on top of that he may be heavily fined to the tune of over €2M.
Ultimately, Contador could not prove that the clenbuterol in his system was not from doping. He also couldn’t prove that the traces of plastic compounds in his blood in suspicious quantities, compounds that are used in blood transfusion bags, did not indicate a transfusion. His first trial was with his national (Spanish) cycling organization. They ultimately refused to suspend him. Then the UCI (International Cycling Union) and the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) appealed to the CAS (Court for Arbitration in Sports). Contador can appeal the verdict to the CAS, but only on procedural grounds. One must ask what procedure could possibly have been overlooked in a process that took 19 months. One principle, however, has certainly been violated: justice delayed is justice denied. The whole fiasco of allowing him to contest the 2011 Tour de France before it was determined that his 2010 Tour performance was legitimate is ample evidence of that.
Andy Schleck, to his great credit, made a most sportsmanlike and dignified statement in response to the suspension. He said he did not want to win a race by a court decision but on the road in competition. He said that on those grounds he did not win the 2010 Tour. That if he wins this year he will regard it as his first Tour victory. That he has always believed that Contador was clean in 2010. Schleck did not say this: that he might well have won in 2010 if he had not lost 30 seconds to Contador when the Spaniard attacked him when he (Schleck) dropped his chain on a climb. That set up the “anticlimax” on the last mountain stage finish atop the foggy Col de Tourmalet, when Contador kept pace all the way up the last climb with Schleck. No need to attack, because Contador was ahead on time, and Schleck could not shake loose from him. The same result would have led to a Schleck victory if he had been ahead by those seconds he lost in the earlier incident. In a sense, then, Schleck’s belated Tour championship is good karma. What goes around comes around, and the bad sportsmanship of Contador gets its just reward.
And speaking of karma, in other cycling news the US Attorney’s office has announced that the Federal Government is dropping its investigation of Lance Armstrong without bringing any charges. Despite the USADA’s interest in the government’s evidence Lance appears to be off the hook after years of innuendo and accusation. And yet he was never proven to have used clenbuterol, testosterone, EPO, transfused blood, or any other illegal substances. The best Tour rider of his generation, and perhaps the best ever.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.