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Contador makes aggressive first move in response to proposed ban

Alberto Contador‘s record as a five-time Grand Tour winner was built on an ability to attack his opponents aggressively and with devastating effect. So we should not have been surprised that he chose to adopt a similar front-foot stance in his first press conference 48 hours after it was revealed that the Spanish national cycling federation RFEC was proposing to apply a one-year ban for his trace-positive test for clenbuterol at last July’s Tour de France.

The Spaniard spoke eloquently about how he maintains he is innocent and is indeed both the wronged party and a pawn in a political game of chess between the various sporting and anti-doping power-brokers.

He also announced that he intends to appeal against the proposed suspension which, if upheld, would result in him being stripped of the 2010 Tour de France title:

It’s not a question of money, or a race. It’s a question of honour. I have to defend my innocence.

Contador’s side of the story

Below I have reproduced the key quotes from Contador’s press conference, which was held at a hotel at his Saxo Bank-Sungard team’s training camp in Mallorca, with my thoughts and commentary added. I should stress that these are my opinions based on my interpretation of what facts have been made publicly known. I have neither additional knowledge nor any kind of personal agenda against Contador – however, I simply do not believe his side of the story because of the lack of compelling evidence (or indeed any evidence) in his favour.

You have to remember that this is just a proposal and I will work as hard as I can to change it. But if that does not happen I’ll appeal wherever I need to to defend my innocence to the end.

I have never doped myself, never. I can say that loud and clear with my head held high. I consider myself as an example of a clean sportsman. I find it, therefore, very difficult to handle the things that are said about me.

Very well put, but this is no more than you would expect anyone in his position to say. Whether you believe he is innocent or guilty, these are just platitudes which should not change your opinion one way or the other.

The only mistake I have made is to have a piece of meat that I had not analysed before to check it had clenbuterol.

Something may have been lost in translation here, but this sounds like a bit of a dig, along the lines of “you can’t expect me to check every possibility, can you?” I have some sympathy for this. However, the rules are very clear, and that is why all professional teams have their own chefs and support staff whose job it is to ensure the riders’ dietary requirements are met in a way which does not expose them to potentially tainted food. To deviate from the norm – as Contador’s story of eating beef brought over from Spain by a friend – smacks of irresponsibility. With irresponsibility comes culpability, and Contador’s claimed ignorance is grounds for potential mitigation but not exoneration. Such levels of rigour and paranoia are a fact of life in all top-level sports. Just ask any athlete about the precautions they have to take before they even buy something as simple as an over-the-counter cold remedy.

I have given everything to this sport. It’s my life and I have given so much to it.

Yes, Alberto. You compete out of a sense of aestheticism and altruism. You have given so much to the sport, and not taken a cent from it in earnings and winnings. Give me a break. You are a professional sportsman. I’m sure you enjoy the thrill of victory for its own sake, but don’t pretend that you haven’t taken as much from the sport as it has benefitted from your undoubted talent.

I have had 500 anti-doping controls in my career, many of which were surprise controls. I have had to leave birthday parties, get out of a cinema midway through a film, leave family and friends in restaurants to do these controls and all because I believed in the anti-doping system.

I agree that this is far from convenient, and cycling really should make every attempt to limit the intrusions it makes into cyclists’ private lives. (Instead, we get ideas like middle-of-the-night testing during races.) But it is a fact of life. Part of the price of eternal vigilance is the occasional inconvenience. You are not alone in that respect – just compare notes with Lance Armstrong – and others have suffered more than you through not being available for testing at the specified time. Christine Ohuruogu can testify to that.

I feel like a victim of a system that doesn’t allow you to defend yourself and that allows false positives to be punished as if they were cheaters.

False positive? Hardly. It was a trace-positive of clenbuterol that was identified in your sample – something you have not even disputed, rather attempted to explain away with a story of imported, contaminated beef which you have failed to back up with any substantive evidence whatsoever. We live in modern times, where by law meat has to be tracked through the supply chain. You have had nearly five months to trace the meat back from the butcher it was purchased from, and from there all the way back to its original farm source. So why haven’t you?

It’s incredible and embarrassing all the things that have happened these past few months. It’s been like a public lynching, a political fight, a war between the UCI and WADA. It has left me disillusioned and embittered.

The UCI and WADA certainly do not always see eye to eye over the policing of anti-doping procedures, and there is undoubtedly an element of political gamesmanship at play here. But that has nothing to do with the facts of the case. You have a positive test result, and you have done nothing to disprove it other than giving your word that it was an innocent error.

I note also that you did not comment on the results of the plasticiser test which pointed towards possible blood doping. In fairness, that test has been neither vetted nor approved for use, and the test results therefore have no bearing on the outcome of your case, so I can understand why you choose to ignore it. But it does look suspicious, no?

Contador also firmly stated that he would not retire if banned, as he had previously threatened to do:

A few times over these past few months I was at the point of exploding, of crashing down, I simply couldn’t take it any more. Now I have changed my mind, a lot of time has passed, my emotions have tempered.

That is fair enough. I’m not sure anyone ever took that threat that seriously anyway, as it was clearly both an emotional response and one aimed squarely at the authorities to consider the implications of any action they might take.

What has everyone else said?

Neither the UCI nor WADA have passed official comment on the proposed ban so far, and have said they will not do so until a final verdict has been delivered. That seems right and proper.

However, Contador’s position has been supported by former Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov, who himself has previously served a one-year ban for blood doping. He said:

No decision has been taken [yet]. Contador is still the winner of the Tour de France.

And, of course, he was supported to the hilt at the press conference by his new team boss, Bjarne Riis:

My team will continue to support Alberto as long as the final ruling is not anything else than a case of intake by accident. It is extremely important to distinguish from those who try to cheat on purpose and those who take something by accident. It is those cheaters who we want to fight.

He added:

As far as I am informed right now, everything points to accidental contamination.

Oh, really? Everything in Contador’s story certainly points to accidental contamination. I’m not sure about all the other evidence, whether real or circumstantial. And Riis’s words will always have a slightly hollow ring to them, coming as they do from a man who won the 1996 Tour de France and admitted 11 years later that he had doped.

In reality, Riis has no option but to stand by his rider, having signed him to a €3m per year contract through to the end of 2012 only last summer. Without Contador, he will face pressure from the sponsors who signed on in the expectation of having their name plastered across the jersey of the world’s best stage race rider. Without Contador, he will likely enter the Tour de France with young Australian Richie Porte as his primary general classification rider.

Riis has muttered about having plans for the season both with and without Contador. Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport has linked him with a move for Geox‘s Denis Menchov. The Russian, who finished third at last year’s Tour, will currently not be able to ride in this year’s edition after Geox failed to secure a wild-card invite last week. However, he has a two-year contract with the team which would need to be bought out.

What happens now?

Contador now has until February 9th to answer the RFEC proposal, after which a definitive decision should be issued within a week. If the proposed ban is enacted, it will also result in his disqualification from the 2010 Tour, which would then be awarded to runner-up Andy Schleck.

He then has 30 days to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) should he want to – which he has indicated would be likely. Similarly, either WADA or the UCI could lodge an appeal to ask for any ban to be lengthened.

There has also been no mention yet of any proposed fine to be levied alongside the ban. Contador could conceivably be fined as much as 70% of his salary if he is banned for more than 12 months. Not to mention he would presumably be asked to repay his winnings from last year’s Tour. The winner’s purse alone was €450,000 which, although the winner traditionally gives this to his teammates, would have to be repaid out of Contador’s pocket.

There is more than Contador’s innocence at stake – there is also his bank balance.

Of course, while the best case scenario for Contador would be to have his ban overturned, the process of taking it to CAS would almost certainly not be completed until after the 2011 Tour, during which time he would still be suspended.

And there is always the danger that his ban might be extended, something which RFEC president Juan Carlos Castaño has warned against:

If Contador appeals to CAS, I see it as very difficult that the case won’t become more complicated, including even making it worse.

The standard ban for a first doping offence is two years, although this has been mitigated in a number of cases. If Contador were to lose an appeal, a two-year ban would become a very real possibility, with all the sporting and commercial consequences that would bring for him.

Appealing to CAS represents a high-risk strategy. An alternative solution would be to negotiate a compromise which allows him to serve a nominal 12-month ban but still compete in 2011. The Spanish newspaper El Diario Montañés has claimed that Contador’s legal team will ask for the ban to be applied from July 25th last year, the date on which he last competed, rather than the more customary date on which he was notified of the positive test, August 24th. Bringing forward the date to July would enable him to compete in this year’s Vuelta a España, which starts on August 20th.

Does anyone smell a rat?

In his press conference, Contador made worrying accusations about the way in which the news of the proposed ban had been made public:

As you all know, the day before yesterday I received the proposed ban of a possible one-year ban, but it’s an absolute disgrace that after waiting all these months that I learned about it from the media rather than from the appropriate authorities.

It is shameful that it was leaked to the press before I was told officially.

If true, he is absolutely right that it is an appalling way to do things. Even though the official announcement was not expected until Thursday, by Wednesday evening the news was already flying around the news wires, having been clearly leaked. For the media to learn of the outcome before the athlete is no way to handle such a matter.

He also reiterated his anger that he could be banned for having such a tiny and insignificant amount of clenbuterol in his system:

Those responsible for the anti-doping system have to rethink things. There’s an anti-doping regulation [which states that any amount of clenbuterol detected is a positive] which is completely obsolete.

The amount of clenbuterol found in my system could have had no effect on my performance and is physically impossible to take intentionally. In no way did it help me win the Tour de France.

His point about there being negligible performance benefit is likely true given the minute concentration in which the blood was detected in his sample. From a layman’s perspective, it would make sense to have a lower threshold below which any ‘accidental’ ingestion would confer no physical advantage. However, the rule is what it is, and expressions about crying over spilt milk spring to mind.

Where now?

As I suggested in my previous post, there is a distinct possibility that we are at the beginning of a long and winding road of legal and scientific disputes, which will likely drag on until the summer – effectively meaning the 2011 Tour de France will start before the 2010 winner has been finally confirmed.

Yet again, cycling will find itself dragged through the mud at a time when its reputation among casual and would-be fans is already at an all-time low.

Is a year’s ban enough of a deterrent? Not really. But as I have said previously, there is already enough precedent to suggest that 12 months is the going rate for a clenbuterol trace-positive. I don’t like that – I would much rather it was at least two years – but I also think there should be a minimum threshold concentration so that all future cases are simply black or white, with no grey area in between for obfuscation. In reality, a year is all the UCI and WADA can reasonably expect. I don’t like that, but we live in a pragmatic world.

None of that, however, is the concern of Alberto Contador. If he is innocent, then he must fight to save his reputation. And if guilty, he must at least fight to preserve his career and his commercial interests. The fact he has the wriggle room to mount a legal challenge is not his fault. That is solely the fault of the rule-makers in the wider sport.

In the midst of a sea of argument and counter-argument, the truth will only become further muddied. As I have stated before, I am not inclined to believe Contador’s story, because it remains a fairy tale with about as much basis in fact as the tooth fairy, and because of the (admittedly less than robust) evidence of the plasticiser test.

As a lover of the sport, I really do want to believe that Contador is innocent. However, I cannot. But equally I will defend his right to defend himself to the fullest extent the process will allow, even if that damages the sport in the eyes of many. Let battle commence.

My previous posts on the ‘Conta-dope’ scandal

Conta-dope suspension adds another chapter to Tour’s tale of woe

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

Experts suggest Contador’s ‘contaminated beef’ defence may be a load of bull

Whatever the truth, mud will stick to Contador and the UCI

The beginning of the end for Contador?

Contador’s one-year ban just the start of a long, winding road

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Contador’s one-year ban just the start of a long, winding road

Contador at the 2010 Tour de France (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Although it had not been officially announced, it was already being widely reported last night that the Spanish cycling federation RFEC has notified three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador of their decision to hand him a 12-month ban after his positive test for trace amounts of the banned drug clenbuterol at July’s Tour.

However, this is likely to be only the first step in a protracted legal wrangle which is unlikely to be resolved before the 2011 Tour kicks off.

If upheld – Contador has ten days to lodge an appeal – it means the 28-year old would be stripped of his 2010 Tour win, making him only the second winner of cycling’s biggest race to lose his title for a doping offence (after the recently retired Floyd Landis in 2006).

The official verdict is expected to be announced some time between the 10th and 15th of February.

Why only one year?

A positive test would normally carry a mandatory two-year ban, but RFEC appears to be taking the case of Alessandro Colò as precedent for a shorter sanction. The Italian cyclist also tested positive for clenbuterol at last April’s Tour of Mexico, but had his punishment halved by the Italian Olympic Committee because of the high occurrence of the drug in cattle in the region.

Also last year the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) accepted the explanation of American swimmer Jessica Hardy that a similar trace-positive for clenbuterol was the result of inadvertently taking a contaminated food supplement, refusing the World Anti-Doping Agency‘s (WADA) request to extend her ban from one to two years. And 2009 Giro d’Italia runner-up Danilo di Luca had his ban for CERA mitigated to 15 months after “co-operating with the authorities”.

Contador’s defence is that he unknowingly ingested the banned substance via meat which was brought to the Tour from Spain. Use of the drug in cattle which will be used for human consumption is illegal in the EU, and Contador has never provided any substantive evidence to support his claim.

There is also the evidence of a separate test carried out on another sample he provided, which showed the presence of plasticisers commonly used in transfusion bags, pointing to the possibility of blood doping – which is also illegal – which provides an alternative explanation for the one-off appearance of a trace amount of the drug in Contador’s sample. However, this test is not ratified for use by WADA, and consequently the evidence is not admissible as part of the disciplinary process. Nonetheless, it is interesting data – and somewhat less anecdotal than Contador’s protestation of innocence.

When will the ban start?

An apparently small but important detail which could shape the legal landscape for the next few months will be the date from which Contador’s one-year ban is applied.

Contador’s offending sample was given on July 21st, and to the best of my knowledge he was notified of the positive result on August 24th (although some reports put it as early as the 23rd or as late as September 30th). In any of these cases, a 12-month ban would render him ineligible to compete in the 2011 Tour de France, but depending on the ban’s start date, he might be able to compete in this year’s Vuelta a España – a race he won in 2008 – which starts on August 20th.

My understanding is that there is no precedent for starting the ban from July 21st, but if it is applied from the August date and – hypothetically speaking – reduced from 12 months to, say, 12 months minus one week, that would pave the way for him to participate in the Vuelta. Short of his ban being overturned – a process which will drag on into the summer anyway, during which he will remain suspended – this is probably the best-case scenario for Contador.

The long and winding road begins here

Contador is currently attending his Saxo Bank-Sungard team’s training camp in Majorca. He and team boss Bjarne Riis are scheduled to hold a press conference tomorrow afternoon, at which his next move should become clearer. He has previously threatened to retire if banned – this seems unlikely – but there is a strong possibility he will lodge an appeal with CAS, setting in motion a process which normally takes at least six months to resolve.

Equally, there is a possibility that either WADA or cycling’s governing body, the UCI, will seek CAS’s intervention to lengthen the ban. I suspect this is unlikely. There is both enough doubt (in a legal sense) and enough precedent to suggest they would be pushing water uphill in seeking a longer suspension.

My view

Putting the legalities of (a) what is and isn’t admissible as evidence and (b) what is proof and what is merely circumstantial supposition to one side for a moment, here is my opinion. No new facts, no deep insight – just my interpretation of the sometimes garbled evidence which is available in the public domain.

Even though he will be labelled simplistically as yet another doper by a lazy mainstream press, Contador’s ban is merely for the presence of clenbuterol in his system. There is no definitive judgement about whether the drug was ingested deliberately or not. Ignorance alone as a defence may lead to mitigation but not exoneration. In that sense alone, Contador is ‘guilty’.

However, while Contador’s contaminated beef story is plausible, in the absence of hard evidence it is little more than a fairly tale. It is a possible explanation, but it is also both unlikely and unconvincing.

What seems more likely is that Contador, who was at that point in the Tour below his best and locked in a close battle with Andy Schleck for the yellow jersey, received a transfusion of his own blood provided earlier in the season to boost his performance in the tough Pyrenees stages which followed. That transfusion still contained a trace amount of clenbuterol – which could have been used for muscle-building and fat reduction in training – which had not yet fully decayed. And the concentration level at which it was found in the Cologne lab was much lower than other labs are able to detect, something he would not have been aware of.

Let us not also forget that Contador was also under suspicion in Operación Puerto – the scandal which engulfed Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, among others – although he was quickly cleared by the Spanish authorities. I make no judgement one way or the other on that one.

All the above is an extrapolation of the evidence we already know about. There have been strong arguments for and against that theory for the past few months, but that is what I believe occurred. In a legal sense, Alberto Contador is guilty of ignorance but under strong suspicion of being a more complicit accomplice in a systematic attempt to gain an unfair performance advantage. In my mind, you can forget about all the legal qualifiers: he is just plain guilty.

I genuinely hope I am wrong – cycling needs another major doping scandal like I need to amputate a toe. However, I strongly suspect I am not.

Whatever happens, do not expect the story to end with a simple acceptance of the suspension by Contador. I have previously wondered whether this case might prove to be the beginning of the end for Contador. In reality, we now stand at the end of the beginning of a long and winding road. Who knows where it will ultimately take us?

My previous posts on the ‘Conta-dope’ scandal

Conta-dope suspension adds another chapter to Tour’s tale of woe

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

Experts suggest Contador’s ‘contaminated beef’ defence may be a load of bull

Whatever the truth, mud will stick to Contador and the UCI

The beginning of the end for Contador?

Whatever the truth, mud will stick to Contador and the UCI

After the feeding frenzy of the first 24 hours following the news of Alberto Contador‘s provisional suspension by the UCI – and the deluge of evidence, counter-evidence and wild theorising that accompanied it – the flow of news from the mainstream media has slowed to a barely noticeable trickle. In reality, it will probably be some time now before we see significant progress from the ensuing investigations, but as ever there are several well-informed sources in the blogosphere who have kept the debate alive with a combination of fact and informed opinion which casts far greater light on the affair for those who are interested in the detail behind the sensationalist headlines.

I have provided some relevant (and highly recommended) links at the end of this post, but the bottom line is this: regardless of the truth of the situation – and every new bit of news that emerges makes things look bleaker still – the credibility of the three-time Tour de France winner is probably already damaged beyond repair.

Here are a few observations that have arisen from my reading:

  • It seems ludicrous to me that the UCI has effectively assumed the dual role of prosecution and defence – or at least this is how it appears from the outside. Why did UCI president Pat McQuaid instruct Contador to remain silent about the test result? At best, it was a ham-fisted attempt at PR damage limitation by the UCI. At worst, it smacks of a conspiracy to cover up the truth.
  • If the story was not on the point of being broken by L’Équipe and German journalist Hans Joachim Seppelt, would Contador and the UCI have ever gone public? And how many other positive tests from leading riders have been covered up like this in the past, for fear of damaging the sport?
  • Why is there no lower limit for clenbuterol levels to allow for cases of small-scale, accidental consumption which provides no significant physical benefit? The UCI is surely now compelled to suspend Contador, even if the trace reading is genuinely a result of contaminated meat (although they could always reduce the length of the suspension in mitigation). The authorities seem to have created a rod for their own back here.
  • Earlier this year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted the explanation of American swimmer Jessica Hardy that she had inadvertently taken a contaminated food supplement, and refused WADA‘s request to extend her ban from one to two years. However, given that ignorance of the presence or source of a banned substance is generally not considered an acceptable defence in such cases, how will the UCI justify anything less than a one-year ban?
  • Now that he has been officially suspended (albeit provisionally) by the UCI, the burden sits with Contador to clear his name. Six weeks after he was originally informed of the offence, we have seen claims and expert scientific testimony from the Contador camp, but no actual evidence other than his word. It doesn’t look good.

I have heard the situation described as being that there will never be enough evidence to convince those who believe in Contador, whereas there is already more than enough for those who have always been convinced of his guilt. It’s an apt summary, and the majority of people generally fall firmly on one side of the fence or the other.

Having spent much of the last four days reading everything I can on a subject about which I can only claim a little knowledge – which, as the saying goes, is a dangerous thing – I find myself somewhere between the two extremes, but leaning increasingly towards the side of the doubters. I am prepared to grant Contador the presumption of innocence, but recognise that his defence is somewhat flimsy and unconvincing – plausible, yes; credible, not so much.

There are also enough question marks in his history to show that he has never been the most open and transparent of athletes. For one thing, his close links to Manolo Saiz, the former manager of two Spanish teams – ONCE and Liberty Seguros – who were also embroiled in doping scandals do not help, as does his public refusal on several occasions to provide blood and DNA samples to demonstrate that he is clean, and his less than totally unequivocal answers to journalists’ questions, such as this response given to Cycling Weekly‘s Edward Pickering after the decisive Mont Ventoux stage last year:

Pickering: Can you assure us that you’ve never taken any banned performance-enhancing products, nor used any banned methods, and can you take this opportunity to make a strong statement for clean cycling?

Contador: I’m available 365 days a year, which is something I accept with good grace for the sport I love. I will continue to have this attitude.

And then there is his involvement in Operación Puerto. Yes, he was quickly cleared by a Spanish court, but the fact remains the initials ‘AC’ do appear in paperwork seized in the investigation, and given what often appears to be a diffident attitude towards doping from the Spanish authorities, one has to wonder about what really happened here, particularly in the context of a heavy weight of circumstantial evidence elsewhere.

I don’t think it is exaggerating too much to say that this is an extremely complex case, and while I am 100% in support of Contador being treated in exactly the same way as Joe No-Name, I fear for the ongoing credibility of the sport, particularly if the UCI cannot categorically demonstrate that they are whiter than white. There are few things worse than a corrupt policeman.

While admirable in many ways, it also doesn’t help the sport’s image when Bernhard Kohl, who was stripped of his third-place finish at the 2008 Tour after testing positive, told the US Anti-Doping Agency science conference yesterday:

I was tested 200 times during my career, and 100 times I had drugs in my body. I was caught, but 99 other times I wasn’t. Riders think they can get away with doping because most of the time they do. Even if there is a new test for blood doping, I’m not even sure it will scare riders into stopping. The problem is just that bad.

(By the way, I’m not suggesting Kohl should have been prevented from speaking, merely that the timing is unfortunate from Contador’s perspective.)

As if I haven’t already painted enough of a doomsday scenario, to make matters worse the New York Times is now also reporting that Contador failed a second test at the Tour the day before testing positive for clenbuterol, registering eight times the legal limit for a plasticizer commonly found in blood bags. The allegation had already been raised by L’Équipe last week, but this is the first time it has been reported that the test result came from a different sample.

The testing process involved is new and has not yet been approved by WADA, so the positive test is almost certainly inadmissible as evidence. However, it adds to the collateral damage to Contador’s reputation which is rapidly moving towards the point of no return as far as the court of public opinion is concerned. Things are not looking good for the Spaniard.

Even if Contador is fully exonerated and the UCI are shown to have acted with the relevant propriety – hey, look, airborne bacon! – the reality is that there has already been more than enough doubt cast over the integrity of both that all but the most blinkered optimists must realise that the events of the last week will continue to drive casual fans away from one of the most physical challenging sports there is, a sport I love.

But mud sticks.

According to Contador’s Wikipedia entry, he enjoys hunting in his spare time. The shoe is very much on the other foot right now.

———-

For detailed and knowledgeable analysis of the Contador case, I would highly recommend the following blogs:

The Boulder Report: More Questions than Answers in Contador Case

Pappillon (blog of Joe Papp, former UCI Elite rider): Five Questions to Clear Up the Contador Clenbuterol Affair

The Inner Ring blog

See also this piece in the UK’s Cycling Weekly:

Alberto Contador, the clenbuterol, the beef excuse and the traces of plastic

And ITV’s Matt Rendell and Ned Boulting have also covered the evidence and potential ramifications in a special edition of their Real Peloton podcast:

Real Peloton podcast

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Valverde receives two-year ban – what a Piti (not)

Alejandro Valverde (image courtesy of khoogheem)

It has been a long time coming, but Alejandro Valverde was finally given a backdated two-year global ban yesterday evening by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). He will be unable to compete again until January 2012, meaning he will be unable to defend his Vuelta a España title in September.

The Spanish Caisse d’Epargne rider had already been banned from racing in Italy by the national authorities there, a sanction which prevented him racing in both the 2009 Giro d’Italia and Tour de France (part of the latter being run on Italian soil).

Valverde was one of the most prominent names identified in Operación Puerto, nearly four years ago. A bag of blood labelled Valv/Piti – Piti was the name of Valverde’s dog at the time – was found to contain traces of the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin), and this were positively matched by the Italians against DNA taken from a sample of Valverde’s blood at the Tour de France when the race crossed into Italy in 2008.

Veteran Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen made the following comments on his Twitter feed shortly after the news broke:

The decision to ban is fair after you look at what happened to guys implicated in Operación Puerto. And let’s see the other Spanish athletes (football, athletics, tennis etc) brought to justice the same way. Good for one, good for all.

Laudable though this objective may be, it seems unlikely. The Spanish cycling authorities have been noticeably reluctant to pursue any cases, and the potential furore – and lawsuits – that would accompany, say, any La Liga footballers being exposed for doping would suggest that other sports are unlikely to break the mould.

The official UCI press release reads as follows:

The International Cycling Union (UCI) is satisfied by the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on the Alejandro Valverde case. Mr Valverde has been suspended from all competition for two years commencing 1 January 2010.

By deciding to suspend the Spanish rider, the CAS agreed with the UCI, which had appealed in 2007 together with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) against the refusal of the Spanish Cycling Federation to open disciplinary proceedings against Mr Valverde for his involvement in Operation Puerto.

The UCI and cycling as a whole have certainly suffered greatly from this affair. The damage caused by Mr Valverde’s behaviour since the UCI became convinced of his guilt cannot be fully compensated for by this regulatory sanction. Nevertheless, the UCI is now relieved and contented with CAS’s decision as it resolves a situation that had become untenable.

Following the CAS’s decision, Mr Valverde will not be allowed to participate in any cycling events before 31 December 2011. Furthermore, he has been disqualified from all competitions in which he has competed since the beginning of the year and all points allocated to him have been removed. Mr Valverde must also return all prizes received.

The UCI World Ranking has been modified accordingly.

Valverde’s suspension includes the annulment of his 2010 results to date. (The UCI and WADA were unsuccessful in attempting to get earlier results voided, meaning Valverde’s 2009 Vuelta win will stand). However, Cadel Evans – fifth at the Giro – is consequently promoted to the number one ranking to go alongside his rainbow jersey, having won the 2009 World Championship road race.

It has taken a long and protracted legal battle to finally reach this point, and yet the weight of evidence against Valverde has always (to my untrained eye) appeared more conclusive than against, say, Ivan Basso, who has already served a two-year ban and, of course, won the Giro on Sunday.

Valverde, naturally, has already announced he will appeal against the ban, calling it “totally unjust and illegal”. Now I’m no expert on the intricacies of anti-doping procedures, but while it does appear that the case against Valverde was constructed in a somewhat unorthodox manner, CAS were satisfied that the blood was indeed his, and that the positive test result for EPO was authentic.

I, for one, will be hoping Valverde’s appeal is unsuccessful. I suspect most neutral observers would agree.

Basso wins Giro, but shadow of Operación Puerto remains

Ivan Basso (image courtesy of Darcy McCarty)

As expected, Ivan Basso completed his second Giro d’Italia win yesterday, negotiating the 15.3km time trial around Verona safely to win by 1:51 over Caisse d’Epargne‘s David Arroyo. But, as I stated yesterday, it is difficult  to be 100% enthusiastic about a victory by a cyclist whose career is forever tainted by his role in the Operación Puerto doping case.

Ultimately, there was no repeat of the dramatics of last year’s closing time trial, where Denis Menchov crashed on wet cobbles almost within sight of the finish, only to pick himself back up and complete his win. This year’s Verona finale – over cobbles again, but thankfully dry – was won by Saxo Bank‘s Gustav Erik Larsson in a time of 20:19. Basso finished 42 seconds down in 15th place, but crucially ahead of Arroyo, the only man with even a remote chance of beating him.

Basso’s first Giro win came in 2006, but was followed twelve months later by a two-year ban after he was identified as one of several cyclists in the Operación Puerto blood doping investigation, including 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich and Michele Scarponi, fourth overall in this Giro. After his ban expired in late 2008, he placed a strong fourth in both the 2009 Giro and Vuelta a España, but this was the first time since his return he has truly looked like the rider previously identified by Lance Armstrong as one of his biggest threats at the Tour.

It is too simplistic to point the finger at Basso and say that his race-winning performance over the past three weeks is evidence of a once-guilty man – he has never admitted to more than an intention to engage in blood doping – sinning again. To do so is tantamount to branding any competitor who wins any sporting event as a cheat, as opposed to one who has earned the right to call themselves a champion through a combination of talent and sheer hard work.

At this stage, it is not necessarily meaningful to draw comparisons between Basso and the other leading riders as we do not know who is in peak condition, and who is building up more gradually with a view to peaking at the Tour de France. Certainly, that is the case with Bradley Wiggins, who was openly stating before the Giro started that his 2010 season is all about the month of July. If Basso’s form remains strong relative to the other yellow jersey contenders at the Tour, then – and only then – we will have a basis for some realistic benchmarking.

Basso also clearly benefitted from the support of the strongest team in the Giro, with Liquigas placing three riders in the top ten. No other team possessed either the ability to control the front of the peloton the way Liquigas did, or a wing-man of the quality of Vincenzo Nibali (third overall). Both were key factors in ensuring Basso had to expend no more energy than absolutely necessary, a luxury not available to key rivals such as Cadel Evans and Alexandre Vinokourov.

In addition, let’s not forget that many of the top riders and their key squad members were absent altogether from the Giro. Vinokourov led a weakened Astana team missing two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador. RadioShackLance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and all – opted for the Tour of California over the Giro. Saxo Bank placed Richie Porte seventh overall, but this was with very much a second-string squad, missing Andy Schleck, Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voigt (all racing in California) and Andy’s brother Frank.

For now, despite my personal reservations about Basso’s past – which he does acknowledge, albeit opaquely – and the possible implications for his current form, we should take nothing away from his achievement.

This is a great moment for me in my sporting career. I went through a bad moment and now I am back in a good way. The team protected me 100% and had faith that I could win. This is something important we did as a team. I’m delighted, it was a really tough Giro. This victory is something fantastic, it was a spectacular Giro that was tense right to the end.

In Basso’s defence, since his return he has openly posted his training data and blood values online, and also works with Aldo Sassi, one of the sport’s most respected trainers. Pat McQuaid, president of the sport’s governing body, the UCI, also publicly backed the Italian as a ‘clean’ athlete subsequent to his ban.

I am pleased to see the battle between Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans. They are superb riders, 100% clean and give a good image to the sport.

Whatever you think about its winner, it has been a spectacular Giro d’Italia, with three weeks of close, frequently unpredictable racing, occasionally farcical but always enthralling. In the coming weeks we have some serious warm-up events such as the Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour de Suisse, before the main event of the cycling calendar, the Tour de France, which kicks off in Rotterdam on July 3rd. Make a date.

Final General Classification

1. Ivan Basso 87h 44m 01s

2.  David Arroyo @ 1:51 behind

3.  Vincenzo Nibali @ 2:37

4.  Michele Scarponi @ 2:50

5.  Cadel Evans @ 3:27

6.  Alexandre Vinokourov @ 7:06

7.  Richie Porte @ 7:22

8.  Carlos Sastre @ 9:39

9.  Marco Pinotti @ 14:20

10. Robert Kiserlovski @ 14:51

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