For the second time in four years, cycling faces the grim prospect of seeing the winner of the Tour de France stripped of his title in the wake of another desperate day for the sport.
Alberto Contador, three-time winner of the Tour and cycling's biggest name, was yesterday revealed to have failed a drugs test taken during this year's race. The test showed traces of the prohibited anabolic agent, clenbuterol, and the sport's governing body, the UCI, has suspended the Spaniard. But Contador has mounted a vigorous defence, claiming that the minute traces of the drug – the A test produced a fractional reading of 0.000 000 000 05 grams of clenbuterol per millilitre – came from contaminated meat. He also said that the UCI have already agreed with his version of events and should not have issued a suspension. Contador sees himself as a "victim" and the outcome as a "true mistake."
Just two days after Floyd Landis, the only man to have had a Tour de France win wiped from the record books, claimed drug use was "commonplace", the sport was stunned by news of Contador's failed test. The UCI are to undertake "further scientific investigation" and the 27-year-old will remain suspended in the meantime, with the threat of losing his title – and his reputation – left hanging menacingly.
The UCI refused to be drawn on how long the investigation could take, but there will be many – not least in the governing body – hoping that Contador's version of events proves the truth. Cyclists are among the most-tested athletes and the sport has spent huge amounts in improving its testing programme and attempting to tackle a problem as old as the yellow jersey. The UCI may even feel that it has to follow this case according to the book to prove just how much its house is in order.
David Millar, the Briton who served a two-year ban for doping offences, said: "There are strict rules and I think unfortunately in cycling for the right reasons we always jump to the worst-case scenario, and because of the history we have in the sport unfortunately maybe Alberto's just been thrown to the sharks."
If found guilty Contador faces a two-year ban and he could be barred for a year even if the UCI decide he took the substance inadvertently. Wada, the world doping authority, states that athletes have to be held responsible for what they eat or drink.
Contador held a press conference in Pinto, his home town, near Madrid yesterday lunchtime and claimed that it was a simple, if hugely unfortunate, case of a dodgy dinner. He was told of the positive test on 24 August and two days later met with UCI officials. Contador says they accepted his explanation. "The organiser of the Vuelta [Spain's leading race ] came to the Tour and our cook asked if he could bring some good meat," he said. "This person bought this meat in a shop on the way to France. I don't know where the shop gets their meat from. He arrived that day and on the afternoon of the 20th, a day before our rest day, the meat was cooked."
Contador was not the only member of the Astana team – he has since joined Team Saxo Bank – to eat the meat but says he was the only one who was then tested. He went on: "I was told that the only rider to go through a test after the meat was Alexander Vinokourov, but... because we don't usually eat meat on rest days, so as not to put on weight, he didn't ask for it. None [of the other riders] went through the control. I told all of this to UCI. The UCI understands perfectly what happened. It's a clear case of contamination, incomparable to any other Clenbuterol case. It's such a minimal amount that it's only possible to come from a food contamination. In terms of performance it would not be any use."
Contador is angry with how the UCI has handled the case. "This is a clear sign that the system is questionable," he said. "I'm not worried that they are putting into doubt my results in the Tour de France, I know how I've done things. But I can't tolerate there being a suspension. I'm not going to allow something like this to ruin my hard work."
Landis only admitted to doping during the 2006 Tour this May – he was found guilty four years ago – and his assertions have seen a federal grand jury in the US established to explore the use of drugs in cycling. One of its members is Jeff Novitzky, the federal agent who played a key role in investigating the Balco affair that rocked athletics. "There were plenty of good people in cycling who made the same decisions I did," claimed Landis this week.
Yesterday, just hours after the news of Contador's test broke, the UCI confirmed that two more Spanish cyclists, Ezequiel Mosquera and David Garcia, had tested positive for a banned substance during last month's Vuelta. Mosquera finished second. The pair's B samples will now be tested, but it is Contador on whom attention is focused. If he is adjudged to have cheated it could inflict potentially seismic damage on a sport already not short of doubters.
The man himself though is adamant. He said: "I'm sad but I can hold my head high because with the truth in front of me I can talk loud and clear."
What is clenbuterol?
* Clenbuterol is a central nervous system stimulant used as a bronchodilator or decongestant for the treatment of asthma. Its effect is to increase aerobic capacity, blood pressure and the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.
* It is not prescribed in the UK as it is slow to be eliminated from the body.
* Side effects include headache, tremor, insomnia, sweating and nausea.
* It is not a steroid but can cause muscle growth.
* It is used as a veterinary medicine in horses with respiratory problems and has been used in cattle feed – which could back up Contador's claims.
* It is on Wada's 2010 banned list as an anabolic agent. Athletes who test positive for it face a two-year ban.
* In 2008 American swimmer Jessica Hardy withdrew from the Olympics after testing positive. Her suspension was cut to a year after an arbitration panel said she took the drug inadvertently.
Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor