Alberto Contador has failed a second doping test, and there is no way to hear that as a fan of cycling without wanting to throw something.
Last week, when news broke that Contador had tested positive for banned substance clenbuterol during his third Tour de France victory this summer, the optimistic (read: naïve) among us still had hope that something other than doping could be at play. An emotional Contador said that he was a victim and had accidentally ingested the substance through contaminated filet mignon that a friend of his team’s chef had brought over from Spain. And despite how ridiculous that sounded, and rather overwhelming evidence that everyone in cycling is cheating all the time, we found facts to argue the case. Clenbuterol is used, illegally, in livestock to increase their lean-tissue growth. Contador’s home country of Spain, where the filet mignon had come from, was site of several outbreaks of poisoning through clenbuterol-contaminated meat in the nineties. As Contador pointed out, the amount found in his urine was too small to have any performance-enhancing benefits, and the failed test took place on a rest day, which does seem like an exceedingly stupid time to take a drug that acts like steroids and EPO mixed with amphetamines (effects: muscle-building, fat-burning, lung-capacity increasing). The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) also tested him the day before that rest day and for several days afterward, and the results were consistent with a single, possibly accidental, ingestion.
The pessimists (read: realists) among us, though, suspected that, as is common among cheating cyclists, Contador had been giving himself autologous blood transfusions (i.e., transfusions using his own blood) to increase his red-blood-cell count and thus his oxygen flow. The low-concentration spike of clenbuterol that day could have come from injecting blood, withdrawn at a time before the Tour, that contained clenbuterol. And the next day’s stage, the last day of mountains in the 2010 TDF, was a showdown between Contador and runner-up Andy Schleck on the brutal climb up the Col du Tourmalet, exactly the kind of day when Contador might feel pressured into trying to get an artificial edge. Sadly, the latest failed test seems to back this up.
According to the Times, the WADA unveiled a new test this summer to detect plasticizers, a chemical found in plastic IV bags full of blood. A test on Contador’s urine sample from the day before his positive clenbuterol test had revealed plasticizer levels at eight times the minimum amount that indicates doping by blood transfusion. And a positive test for plasticizers can be used in conjunction with other positive tests to determine sanctioning from the International Cycling Union (UCI; it’s a French acronym).
All signs point to Contador being totally, completely screwed. He’s facing a two-year suspension and possibly becoming only the second rider in history to be stripped of his TDF title. (The first would be good ol’ admitted doper Floyd Landis.) The failed plasticizer test requires some explaining, but on its own it doesn’t come with an automatic suspension. A positive clenbuterol test, however, does. Clenbuterol is ridiculously powerful — it’s commonly used to help horses with breathing problems — and the WADA puts it in the same class as zero-threshold drugs like human-growth hormone, meaning that any amount detected results in a positive test. (Contador tested positive for a very low level.) The WADA’s position, basically, is tough luck; every athlete is responsible for knowing what goes into his or her body. It’s not an uncommon stance: in 2008, swimmer Jessica Hardy tested positive for clenbuterol and had to miss the Olympics. She later proved it had come from taking a tainted supplement, but still only got her suspension reduced from two years to one.
Contador’s food-contamination excuse wouldn’t be likely to hold up anyway. The supposedly tainted meat is long gone, and there are no urine samples for the teammates who ate the steak with Contador; the only other Astana team member to get tested that day was Alexandre Vinokourov, and he never touched the steak. Also against him is what he ate: steak. The instances in which clenbuterol has been passed onto humans almost all involve eating liver — where the drug is processed and therefore is most concentrated. Indeed, an expert sourced in the Times said that in order for Contador to get the concentration of clenbuterol found in his system, the cow would have had to have been injected with enough of the drug to kill it before slaughter.
No matter the end result, Contador is losing big. He’ll likely lose this season to fighting the charges, and chances are he’ll lose one or two more. (He’s said he may just quit cyclingif rulings don’t go his way.) If he somehow makes it out on the other side, doubt will always hang over the reputation he’s been building as the greatest cyclist of his generation, and one of the all-time greats. And if this isn’t enough, soon we can expect the WADA to start scrutinizing Andy Schleck (who’s been tweeting his support of Contador). Schleck lost to Contador by only 39 seconds, and if Contador doped, it’s hard to believe Schleck wasn’t doing the same. Thanks to Contador, we fans of cycling are starting to feel like fools; we’re starting to feel like Mets fans. And that is a terrible way to feel.