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Is Contador’s doping suspension much ado about (almost) nothing?

Alberto Contador

Following the news of his provisional suspension after tests on a urine sample taken at July’s Tour de France had revealed minuscule traces of the banned drug clenbuterol, three-time Tour champion Alberto Contador has presented his side of the story in a press conference in his home town of Pinto this afternoon, claiming the positive test – which carries a potential suspension of up to two years – came as a result of eating contaminated meat before providing the sample.

Contador lays out his defence

The Spaniard, who was informed of the test result by the UCI late last month, referred to the decision to suspend him as an error and called for changes to the testing system, claiming:

The UCI itself affirmed in front of me that it was a case of food contamination.

This is a genuine mistake. I think it will be resolved in a clear way, with the truth up front. [The UCI] understands that is a special case, which has to be examined.

I’ve spent a month and half keeping this inside, without sleeping. My family didn’t find out until last night.

This is a real error. The system is very questionable and it has to be changed. I cannot tolerate the idea of a possible sanction.

Contador explained that he must have inadvertently consumed a tiny amount of clenbuterol in meat he had eaten both the day before and the day of the control. Fellow Astana teammates who had also eaten the meat were not tested along with Contador; Alexandre Vinokourov was, but had not eaten the alleged contaminated meat.

He went on to suggest that the infinitesimal amount of clenbuterol found in his sample could not have been injected deliberately, and that such a small dose could not have affected his performance anyway:

It’s actually impossible to take such a small amount. The administration of it is just not possible. So this points again to food contamination. Moreover, regarding performance, this amount is totally insufficient and doesn’t serve anything.

Millar backs Contador

British rider David Millar, who earlier today finished as runner-up to Fabian Cancellara in the men’s time trial race at the World Championships, leapt to Contador’s support. Millar understands the situation better than most, having previously been banned for using the blood booster EPO and subsequently returned to the sport as one of the most vocal proponents of the anti-doping movement. He said:

I think there’s a very strong chance that this is being blown way out of proportion because it’s a microdose and it was on a rest day and it makes no sense. It makes no sense because it would have come up in other controls.

He also questioned the wisdom of the UCI going public at this point with an as yet unresolved case:

It’s a shame that it’s been released when it hasn’t been resolved. I think it’s something that should be resolved behind closed doors and done the way it should be done properly.

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 maybe been kind of thrown to the sharks.

I think it will get resolved and I hope so for Alberto’s benefit and I hope so for the sport’s benefit.

Previous clenbuterol cases – and the ‘Gasquet defence’

Contador’s food contamination defence is a plausible one with a number of historical precedents. Chinese cyclist Fuyu Li was provisionally suspended in April after testing positive for a similarly minute level of clenbuterol. Dutch anti-doping expert Douwe de Boer subsequently stated that the amount found in his body points “clearly in the direction of a contamination” and that such a low dose would not help his performance.

American swimmer Jessica Hardy was given a one-year suspension after a positive clenbuterol test in July 2008, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport later accepted her claim that she had ingested it in a contaminated food supplement. And French tennis player Richard Gasquet escaped sanction after successfully – and uniquely – claiming that a positive test for cocaine came as a result of a kiss in a nightclub.

Are the UCI too trigger-happy?

The issue facing cycling and the UCI is how to strike the right balance between transparency and hysteria. The authorities are keen to display their openness and vigour in pursuing doping cheats, but in cases such as these there is a danger of throwing the innocent on to the less than tender mercies of an eager media who will happily trumpet – in the most black-and-white terms – the latest scandal to engulf the sport, without considering the validity of a rider’s defence or the incomplete nature of any scientific analysis.

It is a major problem for the sport which periodically threatens to tear it asunder. The UCI knows that cycling has a bad reputation among the wider sporting public and is desperate to be perceived as taking a hard line on cheats. But at the same time, if the UCI adopts a premature, trigger-happy approach which makes much ado about the tiniest of test results – which is what, to my eye, appears to be happening here – they run the risk of shooting themselves in the foot. If they consistently choose to light the blue touch paper, they cannot complain when ultimately innocent cases explode in their faces.

As Lance Armstrong will attest, throw enough mud often enough and some of it will inevitably stick. There are enough people out there already willing to do just that without the UCI offering them further ammunition.

Ezequiel Mosquera

UCI confirms positive tests for Mosquera and David Garcia Da Peña

As reported on Spanish radio this morning, the UCI have now confirmed that Vuelta a España runner-up Ezequiel Mosquera and David Garcia Da Peña, both of the Xacobeo Galicia team, tested positive during the Vuelta for hydroxyethyl starch, which increases blood volume, allowing red blood cells to deliver oxygen more efficiently. Both riders have requested testing of their B samples.

The 34-year old Mosquera signed a lucrative two-year deal with the Dutch Vacansoleil team earlier this month. His performance at the Vuelta was a huge publicity boost for the Xacobeo team, which is desperately trying to raise sufficient funds to continue next year. Today’s news will be a terrible blow to the team’s future prospects, although the convenient – deliberate? – timing of its release in the aftermath of the Contador suspension will likely minimise the collateral PR damage the team will suffer.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

25 Responses to Is Contador’s doping suspension much ado about (almost) nothing?

  1. Kitty Fondue says:

    I wonder why they chose to break the news today, considering that the UCI has known since end of July and Contador has known since end of August. Kind of puts a shadow over the excellent World TT race today.

    But I also think that if the UCI clearly thinks that this is not a case of intentional doping and that they are investigating further, they shouldn’t have made this announcement until they’ve finished the investigation. Because already on all the cycling websites is the usual stuff about ‘hang him high’ from those cycling ‘fans’ who seem to get a perverse pleasure out of pouring vitriol over all and sundry before the final investigation is finished. (I wonder why these people still follow cycling if they hate everyone connected with it so much. Geez, don’t they have anything better to do with their time?)

    So I think it’s just odd.

    • Tim says:

      I agree with you 100%. The timing is curious to say the least. Either say it straight away or don’t say it all until the investigation is done. (Although it did at least provide the means for the Mosquera/Garcia Vuelta positives to be neatly buried.) Saying nothing now costs nothing – Contador was done for the season anyway. And why make him sweat for a month until going public? I can understand delaying so as not to undermine the Vuelta, but to do it in the middle of the Worlds, as you say, is idiotic.

      The only reason I can think for rushing it today is that the UCI had been made aware that the story was going to leak, forcing their hand. I’m reaching, though.

      I don’t bother reading the forums on days like this. To quote a little Macbeth, they are full of tales of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  2. Kitty Fondue says:

    They should all be as kind and understanding as us, really, shouldn’t they, Tim. If my beloved Cancellara had somehow (gulp) lost the TT today, I wouldn’t have said harsh things about him! If he’d bashed into the barriers on those final S curves and been thrown over the fence, I wouldn’t have said harsh things about him. I would have cried bitter tears because I don’t like David Millar, but I would have blamed Fabian. Because, as a fan, I am committed to loving him no matter what. I would have been understanding. Why can’t everyone be like us???

  3. Kitty Fondue says:

    I meant I *wouldn’t* have blamed Fabian … My Freudian slip showing???

    • Tim says:

      I have to admit that, as a fellow Brit, I do like Millar. He did the crime, did the time, and unlike many others we could mention (cough, Ricco, choke, Vino) he was man enough to confess to it and come back with a renewed purpose which is ultimately setting a good example to young riders. He’s still a pretty mean TTer, too!

      • Kitty Fondue says:

        It’s not because of his ban that I dislike Millar. He did do his time and he should be welcomed back into the peloton, etc etc. I dislike him because he came back with such a smug, holier than thou attitude (although that has softened), it just really got up my nose. I call him The Twitcher because whenever he’s being interviewed he can never look at the interviewer but is looking all around and a lot of ‘yeah, um’ yadda yadda – you’d think he’s been in this game long enough to get some media training!

        Someone said he was one of my irrational hatreds but I think I’m being very rational about it! I do see the difference between him and Ricco (and his 50 mysterious pills during a raid today …) but he’s not for me. Don’t even get me started on Bradley Wiggins! (To show I’m not a Brit-cyclist-hater I will admit to a real love of Geraint Thomas.)

  4. Tim says:

    Fair enough, I can understand that.

    Wiggins is a phenomenal athlete, but he was overrated after a 2009 Tour which was short on testing summit finishes. This year’s tougher climbs found him out, and I think his real level is somewhere between the two – he’s probably good enough to finish top 10 in Grand Tours, but no more than that. Had he been at the Vuelta, he would really have struggled with the succession of killer climbs in the final week. I like Brad – he sometimes shoots himself in the foot with what he says, but he is honest and has had plenty of demons in his life to deal with.

    I like Thomas, who is a mean TTer with real all-round potential if he can develop better climbing legs. By all accounts he’s a lovely bloke as well.

    The sooner Ricco disappears from the sport the better. Enough said. No surprise at today’s revelations whatsoever.

  5. UM ESLS says:

    Thanks for the comment on our blog today. I am interested to see what becomes of the suspension and the title. Experts are actually backing him up, so it will be interesting to see if he is cleared.

  6. Kitty Fondue says:

    Well, I think we found out the calibre of the man when Ricco dumped his girlfriend, who just had his baby, because she had tested positive. The hypocritical little worm. I’m of the mind that you do your ban and you are allowed to come back – I don’t think that you also have to do the whole sackcloth-and-ashes thing – but with Ricco, well, he comes off a ban and I think the entire world was just thinking ‘it’s only a few weeks and he’ll test positive again’ and then he’ll be out. No love lost there – the peloton is a better place without him.

    I know why people like Wiggins – plucky straight-talking Brit with stupid hair – but I thought that he was spectacularly ungracious during the whole Sky ‘will-he, won’t-he’ debacle of a year or so ago. When he finally did sign, he said it was like going from Wigan to Manchester United. Which was basically a slap in the face to Garmin and all the teammates who worked really hard for him in the Tour and also Garmin gave him a decent contract when he was absolutely no one in road racing and even thinking of quitting! I just thought that that showed a real lack of respect to his former teammates – really arrogant but with no real reason to be, I think.

    I just hope that people let Geraint develop at his own speed and don’t fill his head with ridiculous and unattainable expectations too early. He was so endearing during the Tour when he really just looked and sounded over the moon after the cobbles stage. That’s the difference, in my mind, between GT and BW – this excitement and respect for the sport and the others in the peloton.

    • Tim says:

      Spot on about Ricco. It was by some distance the least surprising doping story in recent memory.

      Brad’s choice of words in leaving Garmin was a tad unfortunate – he has a habit of shooting from the lip a bit too freely a bit too often – but at the same time I understand him seizing his one big payday. After years of being unloved and paid a pittance by FDJ and Credit Agricole, he finally joined a team (Cofidis) who treated him decently, only to be thrown out of the 2007 Tour through no fault of his own. Even as a triple Olympic gold medallist, it is only the last couple of years when he has started to earn decent money, so when Sky offered him a shed-load after overachieving last year, I get where he was coming from with his Wigan/Man U comment.

      I like Wiggo for the same reason I like Cav – they are both characters who say what they think and bring a bit of colour to the sport. Too many of their contemporaries are a bit too media-polished for my liking.

      Geraint will be a very good one. It will be interesting to see how he develops – in my mind, he is more of a Classics man than a Grand Tour GC contender, but we shall see how he goes.

  7. Kitty Fondue says:

    My favourite for colour and speaking his mind is definitely the mighty Jens Voigt. He’s brilliant. Just brilliant.

    • Tim says:

      Agreed. Surely everyone loves Jens Voigt? I still have a mental image of him furiously riding a junior’s bike to catch up with the peloton after his crash at this year’s TDF. Cycling will be greatly impoverished when he finally hangs up his helmet.

  8. Kitty Fondue says:

    My favourite was when he’d been in the breakaway on one of the key mountain stages (forget exactly which one – I’m such a slacker!) and he backed off just before the crest for Andy to catch up and then he just rode himself ‘inside out’ as Paul Sherwen would say, up and over the mountain with Andy on his wheel. The face! The agony! It was sheer willpower that gave him that extra surge of power – *that’s* the reason I love cycling so much.

    Hey, the film Chasing Legends about the 2009 Tour – in which our hero Jens steals the movie – is finally having a theatre release in the UK but only for the evening of the 21st. It’s at Odeon Covent Garden and Empire Leicester Square on that evening. Do you live in London, Tim?

    • Tim says:

      Riders like Jens are one of the big reasons cycling became a sport I love, rather than one I like. Their selflessness and willingness to endure such pain in the service of their team leaders is wonderful – not like so many other pampered sportsmen who earn ten times as much for a tenth of the effort.

      London on a weekday evening will be tough for me, as I live and work out towards Newbury. I’m hoping Chasing Legends will get a DVD release at some point – I’d love to see it as I’ve heard nothing but good things about it so far.

  9. Kitty Fondue says:

    Actually, if you just google Chasing Legends UK, you’ll find a blog in the first couple entries that has all the cinema locations – they’re all over the country so there might be something closer for you. Because of the release, they’re not allowing the DVD to be released until December – you can’t even get it shipped in from the States (my favourite ruse…).

    • Tim says:

      Good tip. I’ve found a couple of places showing the film within half an hour or so’s drive. I’ll look them up. Failing that, I’ve got something to add to my Xmas list. Thanks!

  10. Tim says:

    Oh dear. The article below potentially casts the Contador case in a different light, not least the UCI’s attitude towards it. The suggestion that the story was about to be leaked anyway – my initial suspicion – doesn’t make anyone look too clever. And the notion that Contador’s story may not be as credible as it first appeared is yet another body blow for the sport.

    I guess this one may run and run after all.

    http://www.velonation.com/News/ID/5846/German-journalist-claims-UCI-denied-Alberto-Contador-positive-test-says-rider-may-have-received-transfusions.aspx

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