As nearly every cycling news site on the planet has now reported, Tour winner Alberto Contador tested positive for the banned substance Clenbuterol during this year's Tour. Ruh-roh. Clenbuterol is a stimulant used to treat allergies and asthma, and is also used as a weight loss supplement. It's a fairly well-known part of the doping arsenal, though it is also easily detected.
Contador's press release asserts that the positive came as a consequence of eating contaminated food. Clenbuterol is sometimes used in industrial farming in an effort to raise leaner meat. The practice is banned in most countries, and it seems unlikely that Contador would have encountered tainted meat in Western Europe.
Pulling on my conspiracy hat, it's also possible that Someone Nefarious spiked the Tour favorite's food with the substance. When Stefano Garzelli testing positive at the Giro, some stories surfaced that the Mapei team had received spiked water bottles. The allegations were never proven, and Garzelli served a doping suspension. Of course, the more straightforward answer is simply that Contador took Clenbu. It wouldn't be the first time an athlete took an easily detected substance of very little value. Bike racing never made anyone any smarter. As always when these doping cases start, it's pretty much impossible to tell what exactly happened. Up is down, black is white, and anyone with a good lawyer sounds totally innocent.
As we all know by now, strict liability requires an athlete to monitor everything that enters his body and holds him responsible for any positive tests. Earlier this year, Fuyu Li of The Shack tested positive for Clenbu and claimed food tainting. Still, Li faces a two year ban from the sport. The high profile nature of a positive at the Tour de France guarantees a lengthy and painful legal battle for all involved. A two year's loss of salary for Contador is high stakes, indeed.
Of course, Bjarne Riis paid an enormous sum to hire Contador It could be a rough ride for Riis, if Contador's positive holds up. Meanwhile, second placed Andy Schleck left Saxo Bank for the new Luxemburg team. Should Contador lose his shirt, Schleck could become the new Tour winner. Though not all races revise the full standings in the event of a positive doping control, the Tour did recognize Oscar Pereiro as the winner after Floyd Landis tested positive in 2006. Hey Bjarne, how's that irony tasting?
We're a long way from passing the shirt to Schleck, as the legal proceedings in this case promise to be nasty, brutish, and long. Tomorrow, Contador will hold a press conference in Pinto, Spain, and offer his side of the story. Soon enough, we'll know more than we ever wanted to know about Clenbuterol and its uses, and every possible way that Contador could have taken it inadvertently. We'll probably also get a thorough seminar in strict liability and its limits. Really, I can hardly wait.
Update, Thursday Contador faced the press earlier today in Pinto, Spain, to offer his side of the story. As expected, the rider claimed he had accidently ingested the Clenbuterol by eating tainted meat brought to the Tour from Spain. "I am a victim of this situation," said the Tour winner. He also pointed to the small quantity of Clenbuterol in his sample and it's steady diminishing over subsequent days of tests. Contador emphasized, "It's such a small quantity that it's impossible to take any other way apart from through food, and at performance level it does absolutely nothing for you." The rider further claimed that UCI had told him "to his face" that his case derived from food contamination.
For it's part, the UCI issued a brief press release, but declined to comment in any detail on the case. The UCI explained that due to the small quantity of Clenbuterol detected, it had already ordered the B-sample tested. The B-sample confirmed the original test. Though the UCI said it intended further scientific study of the case, the organization nonetheless provisionally suspended Contador from racing.
Outside, the speculation rages like a brushfire in a Santa Ana. (For the non-Californians in the audience, that's pretty much totally raging.) Several anti-doping experts including Don Catlin and Rasmus Damsgaard have commented on the case so far. To the degree that there is consensus on the case, the small quantity found in Contador's sample seems to lend some credibility to Contador's argument about tainted food. At the same time, Damsgaard noted that blood doping with tainted blood could also potentially lead to a positive test like this one.
The difficulty of determining with certainty that a rider took a substance inadvertently forms the basis of the strict liability rule. Though a rider may have innocently or unknowingly taken a banned substance, it's impossible to determine that he did not take it for performance enhancement. Consequently, the presence of Clenbuterol, even at a small quantity, in Contador's samples spells bad news for this year's Tour winner. He faces an uphill battle to convince the authorities to waive his liability and forgo the required sanctions. Certainly, precedent does not bode well for the Spanish rider, though no doubt there is considerably more twists and turns as this case travels its bumpy road to decision.
Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty.
Story, Jen See.