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Tour de France preview: Teams and sponsors (part 2)

In advance of this Saturday’s opening stage of the 2011 Tour de France, here is the second part of my overview of the 22 teams and their title sponsors. The final list of 198 participants is, of course, subject to last-minute changes prior to the start of the race.

Tomorrow I will look at the key contenders in closer detail, after which will follow previews of both the opening stage and the key days when the Tour will be won or lost.

Leopard-Trek

Sponsors: The management company of team manager Brian Nygaard and an American bicycle manufacturer.

Overview: The team’s main objective will be to push Andy Schleck onto the top step of the Paris podium – having finished second to Alberto Contador in each of the last two years – although Fabian Cancellara will also start as favourite for the individual time trial. Despite being a new team, Leopard-Trek can boast one of the strongest nine-man squads at the Tour. The experience and all-round ability of Stuart O’Grady and Linus Gerdemann provide all-round horsepower, while Cancellara and the evergreen Jens Voigt will set the initial pace in the mountains before handing over to Jakob Fuglsang, Maxime Monfort and finally Fränk Schleck to do the heavy lifting. This trio will seek to isolate Contador from his team and hit the defending champion with repeated attacks to set up their main man.

Liquigas-Cannondale

Sponsors: An Italian distributor of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and an American bicycle manufacturer.

Overview: A relatively young and inexperienced Liquigas squad will be relying on team leader Ivan Basso to turn around his form, which has been poor since a training accident on Mount Etna in May, with a lowly 26th-place finish at the Dauphiné. Alessandro Vanotti and Paolo Borghini will provide experienced support, while Sylwester Szmyd will be his chief lieutenant on the big climbs. Daniel Oss is a contender for the white jersey for the best young rider, but otherwise Liquigas will probably be restricted to trying to sneak a stage win via a successful break.

Movistar (formerly Caisse d’Epargne)

Sponsor: A Spanish mobile telecoms operator.

Overview: The last team to confirm their line-up, Movistar will target stage wins on all terrains. All-rounder Vasil Kiryienka and sprinter Francisco Ventoso both won stages at the Giro, while David Arroyo, the runner-up at last year’s Giro, will lead the team. He, Beñat Intxausti and Kiryienka are all capable of strong performances in the mountains, while José Joaquín Rojas provides an alternative to Ventoso in the sprints. However, there is no disguising the fact that the team will be without two of its key riders. Xavier Tondó, who was killed in a tragic accident just eight months after finshing sixth at the Vuelta, would most likely have been the team’s main GC contender here. And Mauricio Soler, who is recovering from serious head injuries sustained in a crash at the Tour de Suisse, would have been among the favourites in the King of the Mountains competition.

Omega Pharma-Lotto

Sponsors: A Belgian pharmaceutical company and the country’s national lottery.

Overview: Omega Pharma will bring a three-pronged approach to the Tour, with Jurgen Van Den Broeck (fifth last year) their GC contender, while André Greipel will be looking to outwit former HTC-Highroad teammate Mark Cavendish in the bunch sprints and the race for the green jersey. But their best shot at the yellow jersey resides with the current king of the classics, Philippe Gilbert – winner this year of Amstel Gold, Flèche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège –  who will thrive on the uphill finishes scattered throughout the opening week. In particular, look for him on stage four, which finishes on the third-category Mûr-de-Bretagne. It is a parcours tailor-made for a late Gilbert attack – and it is also his 29th birthday.

Quick Step

Sponsor: A Belgian laminate flooring manufacturer.

Overview: Quick Step have said their main focus is on stage wins, although they will also look to help Kevin De Weert, who finished 18th overall last year. Sylvain Chavanel (who wore the yellow jersey and won two stages last year) and Jérôme Pineau (who had two spells in the polka dot jersey in 2010) are both combative riders who will stand a good chance in breakaways. Chavanel won two stages last year, including one in Spa where he went solo on the kind of lumpy profile which features heavily in the first week. The trio of Tom Boonen, Gert Steegmans and Gerald Ciolek are unlikely to win any bunch sprints, but may benefit in any scrappy, fragmented finishes.

Rabobank

Sponsor: A Dutch bank.

Overview: With Denis Menchov now at Geox-TMC and Óscar Freire absent (sinus operation), Robert Gesink is the undisputed leader on a team packed with climbers which can be expected to animate the big mountains stages. The squad includes Bauke Mollema and Laurens ten Dam (fifth and eighth at the recent Tour de Suisse), Luis León Sánchez (11th at the Tour, tenth at the Vuelta last year) and Juan Manuel Gárate (who has three top ten overall finishes at the Giro to his name). Gesink finished sixth overall at last year’s Tour, and a top five finish is a realistic prospect for him.

RadioShack

Sponsor: A US electronics retailer.

Overview: Lance Armstrong‘s former team will start with four captains and no big-name sprinter, with both Robbie McEwen and Robbie Hunter left out. Veterans Chris Horner (39), Levi Leipheimer (37) and Andreas Klöden (36) are among the most experienced riders in this year’s race, and each has claimed a significant stage race win this season (the Tour of California, Tour de Suisse and Tour of the Basque Country respectively). Janez Brajkovič is the baby of the group at 27, but the winner of last year’s Dauphiné is an accomplished climber and time-trialist who may well turn out to be the freshest of the four in the final week of the Tour – if he is allowed a free rein, that is. Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia are among the strongest and most experienced domestiques in the entire peloton, with the former a likely candidate to slip into breakaways.

Saur-Sojasun

Sponsors: A French water and environmental services company and a French health food company.

Overview: Arguably the weakest of the four wild-card teams, Saur-Sojasun will start the Tour without their top sprinter Jimmy Casper, who has been left out. A largely unknown team will focus on profiting from any opportunity to put men into breakaways. Perhaps the strongest member of their team is Jérôme Coppel, who was 13th at this year’s Dauphiné (having finished fifth in 2010), and will most likely seek a breakaway win.

Saxo Bank-Sungard

Sponsors: A Danish bank and a US-based multinational software corporation.

Overview: The team is built around Alberto Contador, who will be seeking to win the Tour for the fourth time before facing a hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport which could potentially take both his 2010 win and 2011 results away from him. Contador will be supported by a deep phalanx of climbers, including compatriots Jesús Hernández, Benjamín Noval and Daniel Navarro, Chris Anker Sørensen and Richie Porte. Expect them to keep a low profile on the flatter stages, meaning they will be largely invisible until the race hits the Pyrenees.

Sky

Sponsor: A satellite television broadcaster.

Overview: After a disappointing Tour debut in 2010, Sky will be returning wiser and stronger. Bradley Wiggins remains as the team’s focal point, and will be confident after his win at the Dauphiné. However the team will be stronger in the mountains for the presence of new recruits Rigoberto Urán and Xabier Zandio. Ben Swift will be the lead man on the sprint stages. As a team, Sky will be among the favourites for the team time trial on stage two. And success there could set up Edvald Boasson Hagen for a stint in the yellow jersey, as the Norwegian is well suited to week one’s hilly stages (although his participation is in doubt at the time of writing after he was diagnosed with shingles at the weekend).

Vacansoleil-DCM

Sponsors: A European organiser of luxury camping holidays and a Belgian farm supply company.

Overview: The team will target the sprints with Romain Feillu, who has seven wins to his name already in 2011, taking precedence over Borut Božič (who has won stages at the Tour de Suisse this year and the Vuelta a España in 2009). However, they may struggle in the rarefied environment of a Tour bunch sprint. Their best chance of a win may come from Johnny Hoogerland, who can be expected to feature regularly in breakaways.

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

Stage 1 preview

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

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Giro d’Italia preview: The teams and sponsors (part 2)

In advance of this Saturday’s opening stage of the 2011 Giro d’Italia, here is the second part of my overview of the 23 teams and their title sponsors, which reveals an eclectic mix of bike manufacturers, financial services providers and even pump manufacturers and farm supply companies. Only in cycling …

The final list of 207 participants is, of course, subject to change in the last few days before the race as teams publish their official starting line-ups, but are accurate to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing.

Look out for further previews over the next couple of days.

Katusha

Sponsor: A Russian business conglomerate.

Overview: Katusha can boast genuine contenders for both overall and stage victories at the Giro. Joaquim Rodríguez finished fourth at last year’s Vuelta a España, having led the race but fallen to pieces during the individual time trial. However, he has already had a strong spring, winning a stage at the Tour of the Basque Country and finishing second to Philippe Gilbert at both Amstel Gold and Flèche WallonneFilippo Pozzato is less likely to win a straight sprint against the likes of Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar, but could certainly win from a breakaway group, as he did at Porto Recanati last year.

Lampre-ISD

Sponsors: An Italian sheet steel manufacturer and a Ukrainian steel manufacturer.

Overview: Michele Scarponi will be seeking to improve on his fourth place finish last year, and enters the race in good form, having won the Giro del Trentino and finished third at Tirreno-Adriatico. On the flat, 37-year old Alessandro Petacchi will look to add to his 24 Giro stage victories.

Leopard Trek

Sponsors: The management company of team manager Brian Nygaard and an American bicycle manufacturer.

Overview: This is very much the B-team for Leopard Trek, with Andy and Fränk Schleck, Fabian Cancellara and super-domestique Jens Voigt all keeping their powder dry for the Tour. The team was due to be led by sprinter Daniele Bennati, who won three stages and the points classification in 2008, but he has had to pull out after a crash at the Tour de Romandie last week. (He has been replaced by climber Brice Feillu.) Wouter Weylandt also claimed a sprint stage last year while riding for Quick Step, but can expect little support as the team will probably focus on breakaways and the mountains instead.

Liquigas-Cannondale

Sponsors: An Italian distributor of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and an American bicycle manufacturer.

Overview: With defending champion Ivan Basso absent (to focus on the Tour), Vincenzo Nibali is a more than adequate replacement as team leader. The 26-year old finished third and won a stage last year, and on many occasions looked stronger than Basso in the mountains. He went on to claim his first Grand Tour win at the Vuelta last September. Liquigas‘s effort will focus solely on putting him in the maglia rosa in Milan.

Movistar (formerly Caisse d’Epargne)

Sponsor: A Spanish mobile telecoms operator.

Overview: The predominantly Spanish Movistar squad have already proven their strength in depth in mountain races this season, with four riders placing in the top ten at the Tour of the Basque Country. With the Italian Marzio Brushegin dropped from the team due to his involvement in the Matonva doping investigation, the team will focus their efforts behind David Arroyo, who was runner-up behind Basso last year. But look out also for Belarusian Vasil Kiryienka, who won a stage in the Basque Country and was second at the Critérium International. Expect the team to attack forcefully on the mountain stages.

Omega Pharma-Lotto

Sponsors: A Belgian pharmaceutical company and the country’s national lottery.

Overview: Unsurprisingly Philippe Gilbert, who swept the Ardennes Classics, will not be present in Italy as he refocuses on the Tour. But both sprinter André Greipel and GC leader Jurgen van den Broeck will also be absent. The largely unknown 22-year old British sprinter Adam Blythe is the replacement for Greipel. Sebastian Lang may feature in the mountains, but otherwise the team will view the Giro with low expectations of success.

Quick Step

Sponsor: A Belgian laminate flooring manufacturer.

Overview: The team will look to improve on a terrible season so far by targeting stage victories with the sprint pair of Francesco Chicchi and Gerald Ciolek. Chicchi is a regular winner, although he has yet to claim his maiden Grand Tour stage and is winless in 2011. The German has not developed into a sprinter of the highest order since escaping the shadow of Cavendish and Greipel at HTC-Highroad. In the mountains the team will focus on helping Jérôme Pineau to a high GC placing.

Rabobank

Sponsor: A Dutch bank.

Overview: Rabobank will race at the Giro without their big names – Robert Gesink, Luis León Sánchez and Óscar Freire – and with consequently lowered expectations. Australian Graeme Brown will be the team’s best hope in the sprints after Theo Bos was forced to withdraw with a respiratory infection, while Bram Tankink and Pieter Weening are strong, experienced riders who may fancy their chances in an escape.

RadioShack

Sponsor: A US electronic goods retailer.

Overview: Without the retired Lance Armstrong and key GC men Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, RadioShack will look to Robbie Hunter to lead out the evergreen Robbie McEwen in the sprints. Portuguese riders Tiago Machado and Manuel Antonio Cardoso are experienced campaigners who will lead the team’s GC challenge.

Saxo Bank-Sungard

Sponsors: A Danish bank and a US-based multinational software corporation.

Overview: Saxo Bank will put all their eggs in one basket here – but what an egg! Alberto Contador has won the last five Grand Tours he has entered, including the 2008 Giro. His support team is not the strongest, but does include compatriots Daniel Navarro and Benjamin Noval, who joined alongside him from Astana and will do the majority of the donkey work to protect their leader in the mountains.

Sky

Sponsor: A satellite television broadcaster.

Overview: It is difficult to see Sky featuring prominently, as they have chosen to field a particularly weak team. Thomas Lövkvist is the nominal team leader, but has just one top-20 finish in eight attempts at a Grand Tour (17th in the Tour last year) and placed a modest 10th at Tirreno-Adriatico in March. Russell Downing and Davide Appollonio will target the sprints, and Kjell Carlström is a previous stage winner at Paris-Nice. But without Bradley Wiggins, Rigoberto Urán, Juan Antonio Flecha, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Ben Swift, this is a team of competent pedallers lacking any true winners.

Vacansoleil-DCM

Sponsors: A European organiser of luxury camping holidays and a Belgian farm supply company.

Overview: With Riccardo Riccò sacked, Vacansoleil lack a genuine GC contender. Matteo Carrara, winner of last year’s Tour de Luxembourg, will lead the team and is certainly capable of a finish high in the upper reaches of the top 20. Borut Božič is a decent second-tier sprinter, but will realistically do well to finish any stage in the top three.

Giro d’Italia preview

Teams & sponsors (part 1)

Five key stages

Key contenders for the maglia rosa

Link: Giro d’Italia official website, Steephill.tv

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

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?

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