It is perilous to turn your back on the cycling beat, even for a week. That was amply illustrated during my recent vacation when the sport's two most polarizing figures tag-teamed to make major news within 24 hours of each other.
As federal investigators continue to probe doping and fraud allegations against Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner retired -- for real, he said. With a doping suspension looming, three-time Tour champion Alberto Contador was cleared to race again -- for now. From afar, the overlapping headlines made it seem as if the two were still competing for room on the road as they did during their operatic season together on Astana in 2009.
In terms of impact, however, it was no contest.
Armstrong's muted sign-off fell like a pebble into a deep well. That is partly because it came just one race early -- he initially committed to a farewell Tour of California in May -- and partly because he had become a non-factor from a competitive standpoint.
His two-year comeback fell short of his own expectations and left him on the brink of another season with many more reasons to quit professional cycling than to continue: his knee, his personal life, his foundation, cumulative fatigue, a desire to better control his message while under legal siege or all of the above. His retirement in 2005 prompted sweeping tributes; this time, as most of the coverage noted, an epitaph will have to wait until the investigation plays out.
By contrast, the first ruling in Contador's convoluted case has potentially far-reaching implications for anti-doping enforcement and for sport in general.
Last month, I described Contador's adjudication process in Spain as a farce because the facts were being evaluated by officials from that country's cycling federation -- the very people who would least want a national icon discredited. It turns out that was an understatement.
Under the current World Anti-Doping Agency code, there's no room for discretion on a positive test for clenbuterol, no matter the amount, unless the athlete can prove accidental ingestion. (Even then, a reduced sanction is called for.) Contador's tale of tainted steak and imperfect regulation in the beef industry simply didn't establish that. In the absence of hard evidence of contamination, the notion that the RFEC's competition committee initially "proposed" a one-year suspension rather than the mandatory two years was dubious enough.
It only got worse.
Politicians, up to and including Spain's prime minister, publicly stated Contador should not be sanctioned. Then, the rider's legal team claimed a required letter of notification from international cycling officials never arrived. The latter is an interesting protest given the still-unexplained time gaps in the case that played to Contador's favor. Exhibit A: He had a full month to quietly marshal his defense after being informed of his positive test, as opposed to the average rider who gets ambushed with the news.
I heard the speculation that Contador would be gently lifted off the meat hook, and I didn't buy it. Having covered cycling for a dozen years now, I should know better than to dismiss anything.
Spanish officials scored a great exacta here, rendering a decision that is both completely illogical and totally cynical. The chances of an appeal by either WADA or the UCI, cycling's governing body, or both, are high. Why struggle with potential indignation at home when it's so easy to pass the buck?
The message to prominent Spanish athletes is clear: We've got your back.
Contador's case timeline began with an unusual month-long delay in informing him of his positive test. Now the process is at a point where it's unlikely an appeal can be concluded before the July 2 start of the Tour de France.
WADA and UCI officials understandably won't commit themselves until after they've reviewed the case file, but an appeal is inevitable. It's either that or take clenbuterol off the banned list. There is no real point in prohibiting it if this precedent is allowed to stand. More importantly, Contador's interim victory calls into question the most basic tenet of anti-doping jurisprudence -- that the athlete, rather than the prosecutors, bears the burden of proof.
The agencies have roughly three weeks from now to decide whether to intervene, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport generally hears cases and issues a ruling within three months of an appeal. CAS could agree to either side's request for an expedited hearing, or it could grant either side more time.
It's wearying, at the very least, to think about the possibility of a Contador suspension being handed down during the Tour. Or what if CAS were to rule against him after a successful title defense, imposing a two-year sanction that could nullify two Tour wins in one fell swoop? That would be chaos even by cycling's generous standards of absurdity.
Contador's temporary reprieve made headlines around the world, including Food Safety News. If WADA needs to study the subject of clenbuterol contamination more closely, or entertain the idea of a threshold amount under which there would be no doping sanction, so be it. But until then, Contador should be judged by the existing rules. The only constructive thing about the inexplicable decision out of Spain is his case may finally end up in the hands of people who will do just that.