Alberto Contador's uphill struggle for justice
A monkey with two left thumbs and a rusty typewriter could write the Tour de France's recent dope-smeared history, because it does not take a genius to attach a long string of question marks and asterisks to all the dubious and downright discredited results registered at cycling's premier race over the past 15 years or more.
Sadly, this year, again, may be no exception.
If Alberto Contador wins in Paris on July 24 but is then stripped of this and last year's title because of the banned muscle-building drug detected 11 months ago in his urine, then it will not just be the monkey who will be furiously rewriting the record books. We all, sadly, again, will have to push the "erase" button in our memories and flush away another batch of sporting performances that proved too good to be true.
But as you tune in to the Tour over the next three weeks, wondering whether what you are seeing will soon be rendered moot by a court in Switzerland, tell yourself this: Contador is perfectly entitled to be there while the wheels of justice turn, albeit more slowly than many would like.
You do not have to approve. You may wish that the Spaniard had opted instead to stay home in Pinto while this mess is sorted out, or that Tour organisers somehow found a way to shove a stick in his spokes.
But it might have been worse.
Prizes, placings and titles can be redistributed if the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), in August or September, holds Contador responsible for the clenbuterol that washed through his system at the Tour last year.
It would not be the first time that podiums needed to be rejigged. Nor, given how hard cycling works to catch the cheats who carry on regardless, will it be the last. The Tour survived the doper Floyd Landis clutching the winner's trophy in 2006, 1996 champion Bjarne Riis later confessing to using Erythropoietin (EPO), cortisone and human growth hormone, and other indignities inflicted by countless other fraudsters.
Even if the court strips Contador of his 2010 title and whatever result he achieves this year, and even if the US federal investigators prove that the seven-time champion Lance Armstrong cheated, too, there will still be roadside fans hollering "Vive le Tour!" for many Julys to come - because the 108-year-old race is more than the sum of its champions.
But if Contador sat out this Tour only for the court to clear him in the months ahead, as his own Spanish federation already did in February, then he would have suffered a huge wrong that could never be righted.
With his brain, brawn and sharp accelerations on mountain climbs, Contador could eventually join the elite of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Armstrong in winning at least five Tours. He will approach the starting line today with three previous victories. If his only mistake in winning last year was to eat a clenbuterol-tainted filet mignon on one of the rest days, which is what he says happened, then that should not cause him to miss this opportunity to win again.
From the outside, it may look as if this case has dragged unnecessarily, but Contador's reputation and livelihood are at stake. The science of drug testing is complicated, even more so in this case where the amounts of clenbuterol detected were tiny and where there is evidence that the drug does sometimes leak into the food chain, because farmers illegally use it to bulk up farm animals. Even before the CAS appeal, the evidence dossier had swelled to more than 600 pages. So justice cannot be rushed, even if doing so would have pleased Tour fans. "It's a very important case and I don't think we can blame the parties to take a little bit more time to review all arguments and to be well prepared," said Matthieu Reeb, the CAS secretary general.
David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that when sporting justice seems to drag, "people's patience starts to stretch and the credibility of the whole process starts to stretch, so we've all got to work together to see if we can tighten it up".
But in the Contador case, "I don't think anybody or any person engaged is at fault," he said. "I think it is part of a process that you have to put up with."
In future, perhaps such cases should go straight to the CAS, rather than be argued first at a national level, as happened with the Spaniard.
"It would certainly be quicker to just do it once," said Howard Jacobs, a sports lawyer, who has represented dozens of athletes in doping cases. "I honestly see a lot of merit in that. It's very difficult for the athletes to do these cases twice … A lot of times they don't have the resources to fight it once, let alone twice.
"For most athletes and most sport, I think it would be better to have a single hearing, if it was a fair hearing, like, say, at the Court of Arbitration for Sport."
So there is something for the future. For now, let Contador ride - at least until we need to call again on that monkey.
The main Tour contenders
Alberto Contador, Saxo Bank-Sungard
Possessing a rare mix of climbing and time-trial skills, Spain’s three-time winner is regarded as the best stage racer in the world and is regarded as the man to beat. But will he have enough energy after winning the title at a brutally hard Giro d’Italia, last month?
Andy Schleck, Leopard-Trek
After finishing over four minutes behind Contador in 2009, he was runner-up by only 39 seconds in a thrilling finale in 2010. With only one time trial this year, and four mountaintop finishes, the climbing specialist may have his best chance.
Cadel Evans, BMC
Like Schleck, Evans has also been beaten to the Tour de France yellow jersey by Contador, in 2007. A year later the Australian finished runner-up to another Spaniard, Carlos Sastre.
Ivan Basso, Liquigas
Six years after a career-best runner-up finish to Lance Armstrong in 2005, Basso is hoping to be in contention. Having won the Giro d’Italia in 2010, barely a year after his return to the sport following a two-year doping ban, the Italian has focused his entire season on the Tour.
Bradley Wiggins, Team Sky
Two years after a surprise but deserved fourth-placed finish with Garmin, Wiggins – the Olympic track pursuit champion – is back. He won the warm-up Criterium du Dauphine.
Robert Gesink, Rabobank:
It has been 31 years since the Tour de France was last won by a Dutchman, when Joop Zoetemelk triumphed in 1980. Gesink, a specialist climber at his best in the mountains, finished sixth last year.
Tour de France: a quick study
Here are some key questions and answers about the three-week race:
Why has Mark Cavendish never won the Tour de France?
Because the Briton, above, arguably the best sprinter in the world, is not a good climber. Time gaps in mountain stages are far bigger than in flat stages, giving climbers a huge advantage over sprinters. Most great Tour riders are all-rounders, winning both time trials and mountain stages.
Have there been deaths on the Tour?
The most famous fatality was the death of the Briton Tom Simpson on the Mount Ventoux in 1967. He was only the second rider to die on the Tour after Spain’s Francisco Cepeda in 1935. The third and most recent casualty was the Italian Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli in 1995 during a stage in the Pyrenees.
Cycling is an individual sport, so why are there teams?
The Tour is raced by 20 teams of nine riders. Each team usually includes a leader – the man with the best chance for the final classification – sprinters, climbers and every type of rider who can help the team to win a stage, take a jersey and bring home prize money.
What is a “bordure”?
Also called an echelon, it is one of the nightmares of the peloton. When the wind is strong and blowing sideways, it can split the bunch into little groups no longer sheltered inside the main body and can lose considerable time. It happened to the three-time winner Alberto Contador two years ago in a stage finish in La Grande Motte.
Updated: July 2, 2011 04:00 AM