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Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Once again, cycling fans forced to question sport's fairness

By Jim Caple

Apparently, Alberto Contador was able to convince Spanish cycling authorities that clenbuterol is simply one of the ingredients in Heinz 57 steak sauce.

The headline and Associated Press story say Contador was cleared of doping Tuesday, but as is so often the case in cycling, I don't think everyone will agree he is truly "cleared" or that we've heard the final word on this. Not only are there a disheartening number of switchbacks in this story, but there is no satisfactory summit finish.

Contador tested positive for a minute amount of the banned substance clenbuterol at the Tour de France in July. He wasn't informed about it until August, a month after winning the sport's premier race. The public didn't learn about it until a month after that, in September. Contador claimed the clenbuterol must have gotten into his body when he ate tainted meat on a rest day.

The Spanish cycling authorities initially accepted the explanation and "proposed" a one-year ban. The Spanish prime minister weighed in by saying no ban was legally justified if the ingestion was accidental. Poof! A week later, the Spanish federation cleared Contador, saying he was not at fault.

This is not a process that exactly inspires complete trust. The plot to "Inception" was more straight forward.

Clenbuterol, which is used to treat asthma, helps build strength and lower weight, which makes it appealing to cyclists (and just about anyone else). The World Anti-Doping Agency has zero tolerance for clenbuterol; any amount whatsoever -- even an amount as small as the 50 picograms or trillionths of a gram found in Contador's system -- is considered a doping violation.

However, because tests can detect such small traces, it is possible to unknowingly ingest it through a contaminated source. This is unlikely, but when you are talking about such a miniscule amount -- trillionths! -- Contador's story can't be ruled out even if eating tainted beef has all the credibility of Tyler Hamilton's old vanishing twin or Floyd Landis' beer and Jack Daniels defense. It would make more sense to set a threshold amount that precludes accidental ingestion, as well as indicating actual performance enhancement.

I'm not saying I believe Contador, but I don't think he's been fairly portrayed over the past couple of years, either. Lance Armstrong's supporters turned him into the official bad guy of the 2009 Tour de France because he insisted on winning (what a selfish beast!) and thereby ruined Armstrong's comeback. Others vilified Contador for Chaingate in 2010, as if it is specifically written in cycling's rule book that a rider must always stop whenever a competitor doesn't shift properly. I like Andy Schleck, but how many times were opponents supposed to stop for him when he had trouble (as they did after his bad crash on Stage 2)?

And, unfortunately, the side people take depends on whom they already like. You have people doubting Contador but accepting every Armstrong defense ("Lance has never tested positive!"). You have people excusing Contador but suspecting Armstrong of so much chemical use, he should have been wearing a psychedelic jersey ("Look at what Lance's ex-teammates say he did!"). You have a Spanish board ruling on a Spanish rider after a Spanish prime minister says he should be let off. You have Americans claiming Spanish athletes are dirty while conveniently forgetting about Americans Landis, Hamilton, Marion Jones, Shawne Merriman, etc.

In other words, the biggest losers in this are cycling fans, who once again don't know whether they can trust that their sport is fair.