Tour de France: Contador set to embark on Tour with cloud of doping doubt still above him
Spaniard is tipped to reclaim yellow jersey – but he won't know if he's a real winner until a month later. It's a ridiculous situation he tells Alasdair Fotheringham in Les Herbiers
When the Tour de France favourite Alberto Contador clips his feet on to his bike pedals early tomorrow afternoon in the Passage du Gois tidal causeway on France's Atlantic coastline, it will be the starting point of a race which will end officially on the Champs Elysées 22 days later – but on which the final curtain will actually fall around a month later somewhere in an anodyne office block in that most anodyne of countries, Switzerland.
That will be the time and place where Contador receives the official notification from the Court of Arbitration for Sport [CAS] whether he will finally receive some kind of sentence for his positive dope test for the banned drug clenbuterol in last year's Tour. If Contador receives the maximum sentence, a ban of two years, it will have dramatic consquences.
At a penstroke the 28-year-old Madrileno will lose the Tour de France he won in 2010, the Tour of Italy he conquered this May and whatever result he achieves over the next three weeks: small wonder that last autumn he said if banned, he might even contemplate retirement.
Yet at the moment Contador, cycling's star rider, races on, and with the full weight of the law on his side. He was cleared of doping by his Federation in February, only for the UCI, cycling's world governing body, and the World Anti-Doping Agency to appeal the decision in March. Three months later, nothing has been decided, hence the persistent whiff of scandal which will accompany Contador – who insists he is innocent – for the next three weeks as he and the rest of the 197-strong peloton pedal around France.
And if the last six major Tours Contador has raced are anything to go by, not to mention 19 predictions for him to win out of 22 from the team directors in this year's race, the end result of the Tour will most likely be a yellow jersey on the Spaniard's back in Paris.
It will not be straightforward: the fourth Tour de France win out of four participations is hard enough, but the last rider to do the so-called "double" – the exceptionally difficult task of winning the Tours of Italy and France in the same year – was the late Marco Pantani 13 years ago. However, 1998 was also the year when the Tour all but ground to a halt in the throes of its worst doping scandals, an unfortunate coincidence that Contador will not appreciate.
Yesterday, as the Spaniard faced the press, the atmosphere was nothing like the tension faced by the leading cyclists during the time of police raids, team expulsions and strikes back in 1998. But Contador still looked anything but at ease in a packed conference room where the not-so-hidden agenda of some journalists had little to do with the upcoming race per se, and a lot to do with Contador's presence in the race at all.
To his credit, Contador did not duck any of the questions to do with his battle to clear his name and his team manager, Bjarne Riis – who confessed to doping his way to a Tour victory in 1996 – addressed the question.
"Everybody would love to have had a solution to this before the Tour, but it hasn't happened," Riis said. "I don't see why Alberto should be punished [by not racing the Tour]. If you don't agree with Alberto being here, then question the system – not him."
Not everybody agreed: "Ever since you've turned professional every team you've ridden for has been implicated in doping, you've never made an anti-doping statement and you are under a huge doping cloud," one journalist flatly accused Contador.
"You're misinformed. I've always been 100 per cent anti-doping, although everybody is free to think what they want," was the Saxo Bank riders cool and brief response.
Contador, in one area at least, is right: whilst never one of doping's most outspoken critics, in the past he has spoken, on occasion, about cycling's need to clean up its act. The Spaniard was far more impassioned when asked how it felt to be racing in an event which he could lose a month later in the courtrooms. "I'm going to go on concentrating on the Tour, and I find it ridiculous that I could lose the Tour like that. Every race I've won since January I've been tested and there are few other riders out there who can say that they've been as tested as me. I know I'll be under a lot of pressure, probably more off the bike than on it. But I'm used to it."
If Contador claims he is accustomed to taking the heat – and his memorable duel against team-mate Lance Armstrong in the 2009 Tour bears witness to that – for the Tour, the situation is hardly new, either. Contador's presence continues a tradition of winners or favourites enshrouded in suspicion that – with the exception of Carlos Sastre in 2008 – stretches back to 1996.
Indeed Contador's words have an echo of seven-times winner Lance Armstrong's well-worn defence against doping, that he is the most tested athlete in the world. The American, though, is looking increasingly beleaguered as more and more of his former team-mates line up against him.
The Spaniard has some notable defendants in his right to race, ranging from five-times Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault to David Millar, one of the leading voices in the fight against doping. Even Bradley Wiggins, originally quoted as questioning Contador's presence, says he thinks the Spaniard is innocent.
There are several pointers that that could be the case: Repeated cases of food contamination with clenbuterol such as Contador claims have appeared across the globe in the last year – the most recent involving five Mexican footballers. The amount of clenbuterol found in Contador's system, was tiny, less than 40 times the minimum a laboratory has to report.
There are persistent rumours that Wada will establish a threshold of a minimum for clenbuterol, which would make Contador's case irrelevant. What is agreed, even by his greatest detractors, is that the situation has dragged on for far too long.
There was a month between Contador being informed of his positive test by the UCI and it being made public, and his Federation then took three times the usual month-long period deliberating over whether he should be cleared.
None of the blame for those delays can be laid at Contador's doorstep. Equally, if CAS does decide Contador is innocent, then for him to have missed out on the Tour de France purely because – as he alleges – he ate a contaminated steak would seem unfair. Meanwhile, Contador says since September he has not eaten red meat – just in case the unthinkable happens.
However, the case has forced cycling back under the anti-doping spotlight even before the Tour has begun, and to judge by the muted reaction he received at the Tour's official presentation as defending champion last night, not one very much to the liking of the public. In a radio station poll, 63 per cent of listeners said he was not welcome in France.
Contador's presence, then, adds a huge complication – and if he wins, will likely give the final podium in Paris a slightly surreal edge. And by the time CAS's decision is revealed next month, and the case is resolved, fans' impatience with a sport that seems incapable of sorting out its doping issues will surely have worn thin.
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