With Contador, cycling loses yet again
The 2010 Tour de France took 23 days and covered 2,200-some miles over lung-exhausting mountain passes, bone-shattering cobblestones and endless roads of hair-pin turns, charging costumed fans and the occasional sheep herd crossing the path.
Declaring a victor has been even more grueling.
After 566 days filled with oddly delayed test results, head-shaking denials (tainted steak?), brain-cramping appeals, an endless procession of lawyers and doctors and more than 4,000 pages of court documents, the only thing we know for certain is the man who crossed the finish line in the yellow jersey is no longer the winner. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled Monday that Alberto Contador doped during the 2010 Tour and stripped him of his title (as well as giving him a two-year ban). For now. Contador could still appeal to a higher authority, however, such as Lance Armstrong's lawyers.
Andy Schleck, who has finished second in the race the past three years, will likely be declared the 2010 winner, but he said such an announcement will not make him happy.
"I battled with Contador in that race and I lost," Schleck said in a statement released by his RadioShack Nissan Trek racing team. "My goal is to win the Tour de France in a sportive way, being the best of all competitors, not in court. If I succeed this year, I will consider it as my first Tour victory."
Well, we prefer to see our races decided on the road. But it's been a long while since our feelings about cycling champions could test 100-percent clean of doubts. After all, the Contador verdict not only throws the 2010 Tour into dispute, but it also casts doubt on his other two victories (2007, 2009), as well. So if you're keeping score, the Tour winner has been caught doping or later admitted to doping or been suspected of doping at some point in 14 of the past 16 Tours. That doesn't include Michael Rasmussen, the 2007 Tour leader who abruptly dropped out after Stage 16 amid doping suspicions. But it does includes Armstrong, who, depending on your view, is either sport's most unjustly persecuted hero or its slickest cheat.
One reason so many riders get caught is because the sport of cycling actually tries to catch the cheats, as opposed to, say, football, where players somehow grow ever larger, stronger and faster with barely a positive test. Contador was busted for 50 trillionths of a gram of clenbuterol, an amount so low Jeff Novitzky couldn't detect it with a team of bloodhounds and every "CSI" unit on TV.
That's what makes all this so difficult for fans. When athletes can be busted for such small traces of a banned substance, even the lamest excuse of accidental contamination has to be considered. And that just leads to a lengthy, complex and politicized process involving multiple jurisdictions in different countries.
That it took more than 18 months to get Monday's ruling isn't surprising given that two months passed before Contador's positive result even became public. Follow that with the initial slap on the wrist he received from Spain's cycling federation (REFC) and the differing verdicts from the various jurisdictions, and it's not surprising when fans don't know whom to believe. Hey, it's difficult enough to even keep track of who has issued the ruling -- CAS, WADA, UCI, REFC or, perhaps (what with the contaminated beef defense), PETA.
Considering all that, the only thing certain about Monday's verdict is that, no matter the ruling, it was guaranteed to leave most of us disappointed and frustrated either way. Contador and Schleck famously battled up the Tourmalet in clouds and fog in 2010 and, in many ways, the race just got foggier and foggier after it ended.
The only real solution to all this, of course, is for the cyclists to stop cheating. Given the history and demands of the sport, that's probably never going to happen. I'll continue to love cycling despite the scandals, as will most cycling fans. But I also know this: Until there is a long stretch where the winners are determined the instant they cross the finish line, not two years later in court, no one else is going to take the sport seriously.
And so, if Monday's ruling leaves the 2010 Tour winner up in the air, the loser is not: It's the sport of cycling itself.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.