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Alberto Contador: Riding in a storm

On Saturday morning, Alberto Contador will begin his quest for a fourth Tour de France victory. The 28-year-old will line up at the Passage de Gois for the opening stage wearing No 1, as defending champion, and having previously won the race in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

Contador has become the world's most prolific stage race rider, also winning two Giros d'Italia, one Vuelta Espana and numerous week-long stage races such as Paris-Nice and the Tour of Catalonia.

Although he has played down his chances of winning this year's Tour, saying that he may not be fully recovered from winning one of the hardest Giros ever in May, it's difficult to see anyone coming close to challenging the Spaniard.

As far back as 2006, Contador's biggest challenges have come not from any of his rivals on the bike.

Instead, the men that have come closest to stealing the collection of pink and yellow jerseys he has accumulated -- certainly over the past 12 months -- wear white coats instead of lycra and work in laboratories rather than the colourful mobile office that is the professional peloton. They are the anti-doping testers.

In July '06, a young Contador was about to line up for the Tour with his newly-named Astana-Wurth team. Newly-named because the team had just received backing from a group of Kazakh businesses -- under the moniker of the Kazakh capital city Astana, after previous sponsor Liberty Seguros withdrew their support due to the team's involvement in a doping scandal just weeks earlier.

The revelation by former Kelme rider Jesus Manzano in March '06 that he almost died due to a botched blood transfusion shortly after the previous year's Tour led to an investigation by Spanish police into controversial doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. That in turn led to a bigger investigation -- called Operacion Puerto -- which included other teams and riders.

Just 36 hours before the start of the '06 Tour de France, race organisers were frantically scouring a list sent to them by Spanish police. The list contained names and information pertaining to one of Europe's biggest blood doping scandals, linking cyclists, football teams Real Madrid and Barcelona, tennis players and athletes to Fuentes' clinic in Madrid.

Having hurriedly reviewed and translated the information from Spanish, the French race organisers ejected nine riders from four teams, including pre-race favourites Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Francesco Mancebo, Oscar Sevilla and Alexandre Vinokourov.

Four of the top five riders in the previous year's Tour were out. Indeed Vinokourov's whole Astana-Wurth team were removed from the race as they had five names on the list, including Contador's, leaving the squad short of the six required starters.

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While Basso, Ullrich, Alejandro Valverde and others either retired or were eventually banned from the sport for two years, Contador slipped through the net. A thorough review of the information revealed no evidence to implicate him in the scandal and a Spanish judge and the International Cycling Union (UCI) both cleared him to race.

"I was on the wrong team at the wrong time. My name was on this infamous list, but one week later, the UCI had more time to examine the documents and I was taken off," said Contador after donning the yellow jersey at the Tour a year later.

"My relation with 'Puerto' was annulled. I was cleared of any link with the scandal. I'm clean or I wouldn't be here right now. I have passed all my controls, both in and out of competition, without problem."

Tour officials too, were happy to have the Spaniard, then riding for the Discovery Channel team of newly retired Lance Armstrong, at the Tour.

"He was part of the dossier at first, but after closer review, he was rightly removed," said ASO president Patrice Clerc before the start. "His name was mentioned in taped phone conversations, but the references were related to sporting results. In no instance could his name be linked as a client of Fuentes or Operacion Puerto, so his name was excluded."


The following year, however, defending champion Contador was barred from the race. He had moved from the now defunct Discovery Channel team back to his former Astana team, and Tour organisers ASO did not invite the Kazakh squad to the 2008 Tour as two of their riders had tested positive for blood doping the previous year -- Vinokourov during the 2007 Tour and Andrey Kashechkin during a surprise out-of-competition test while on holidays just days after.

"They've deprived me of the opportunity to defend my title," said Contador at the time. "Astana should be in the Tour. The Tour is the race I've always dreamed about, I've always fought for it and I hope I'll still be fighting for it in the future."

Although barred from the Tour in 2008, Contador won the world's second and third biggest stage races, the Giro and the Vuelta, despite being told he was riding the former just a week prior to the event while on holidays.

He returned to the Tour in 2009 and took three stages and his second overall victory despite the return of team-mate Armstrong from retirement.

Last year, Contador survived the fallout from 'chaingate', an incident which saw the Spaniard break the unwritten rule of attacking a race leader who had a mechanical problem, to take his third Tour.

Andy Schleck had gone clear of Contador and had opened up a significant gap on the Port des Bales climb when his chain jammed. Contador counter-attacked and gained 39 seconds by the top. He went on to win the Tour by 39 seconds from Schleck.

Having won his third Tour, Contador looked unstoppable -- until it was announced a month later that he had tested positive for Clenbuterol on July 21, the second rest day of the Tour.

Although the result was not announced until August 24, Contador looked set to lose his title and faced a possible two-year ban. So how then, a year later, is he still racing and still winning the world's biggest races?

Used as a bronchial dilator similar to the asthma drug salbutamol, Clenbuterol assists the breathing and oxygen transportation and can also be used to help weight loss as it increases the rate at which fats are metabolised.

The concentration of Clenbuterol found in Contador's urine was a mere 50 picograms, 400 times less than the threshold required by a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accredited laboratory. In fact, if his samples had been tested in almost any other lab, we would never have heard anything about it.

The problem is, however, that there is no allowable threshold for Clenbuterol in cycling. Even a minuscule amount means you're considered to be doping.

"The issue is that the lab has detected this," said WADA director general David Howman. "There is no such thing as a limit where you don't have to prosecute cases. This is not a substance that has a threshold. Once the lab records an adverse finding, it's an adverse finding and it has to be followed up.

"Clenbuterol has been used for over 20 to 30 years. It is not anything new. Nobody has ever suggested it is something you can take inadvertently."

Contador and his legal team, however, did exactly that, blaming the presence of Clenbuterol in his body on contaminated beef, imported from Spain during the Tour.

"The UCI itself told me to my face that it was a case of food contamination," said Contador days after the news leaked of his positive test.

"I have been in contact with them to handle this in the most appropriate way possible and analyse it and see clearly that it is a case of food contamination in which I am the victim."

Provisionally suspended last September by the UCI, the Spanish federation proposed a one-year ban for Contador in January, but his legal team stepped in and Contador was cleared of any wrongdoing in February this year.

"I'm relieved and obviously very happy about this ruling," Contador said. "It has been a very stressful few months. I have explained that I never cheated or deliberately took a banned substance."

Unhappy with the outcome, the UCI and WADA lodged appeals with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to overturn the decision.

In the meantime, Contador continued to race and won the Tour of Murcia, the Tour of Catalonia, and a stage of the Tour of the Vuelta Castilla y Leon before travelling to Italy in May to take his second Giro victory.

Originally scheduled for early June, Contador's legal team applied to have the CAS hearing delayed. The UCI and WADA both ceded to the request, allowing the Spaniard to go for his fourth Tour victory.

"We would have liked to welcome him knowing he was finally cleared," said race director Christian Prudhomme this week. "We were told he was cleared by his federation. We believed that he would be judged during the Tour but we did not learn about the extension until the end of May.

"It is unbelievable that, a year later, we still don't have an answer and that we must wait until after the Tour de France for those answers."

Prudhomme is not the only one exasperated at the delay in the Contador case.

"I just hope justice prevails,'' said BMC team leader and former world champion Cadel Evans. "If he is innocent, well, I hope he is proven innocent. If he is positive, well, he deserves to be punished.

"As to why it takes so long, I'm a little bit mystified about that. In our job we get paid more when we go faster, but lawyers seem to work the other way round. You have to be sure of these things, and to be sure of these things takes time. I would just like a decision.''

The delay in the hearing means that Contador could go on and win this year's Tour and then ultimately be stripped of the last two Tours and the last Giro win. As they have done on previous occasions, the Tour organisation or even his Saxo Bank team could ban Contador from the race.

"BMC did that with (Alessandro) Ballan at the Giro. I can't see why (Saxo Bank team manager) Riis is not doing that with Contador," said Irish star Nicolas Roche this week.

"On the other hand, if he's proven to be clean in August, then Contador is such a big investment for Saxo Bank that it would be a catastrophe to have put him on the sideline.

"I think on the legal side, he's okay to ride the Tour but the bigger issue is the fact that he's someone under investigation. It's difficult to give a proper point of view. Nobody has the information.

"It's just a question of waiting until August. It would be terrible if he won the Tour and the Giro and was later proven positive because it would mean he took us all for eejits for the last couple of years."

Criterium du Dauphine winner Bradley Wiggins said. "Sports-wise, it is not a good thing that a bloke who tested positive four times is in the race. It is also bad for all those teams that are fighting to be clean as is the case with my team Sky."

"It's pointless arguing about it," says Roche, however. "When the evidence comes out, then you can give your point of view. Wiggins said that someone who has failed four tests in a row can't be a mistake. I'm not a scientist. I just go on what I read and I totally agree with what Wiggins said.

"The problem is not commenting on people who have been proven positive. If a guy is tested positive and banned, then he's a cheat, and I've no worries about saying that. The problem is commenting on suspicion. I'd love to be able to criticise him if he was proven to be dirty, but at the moment, the information is not there."

Public opinion towards dopers has changed steadily in recent years, with Contador being booed loudly at the finish of some Giro stages this year. Like many others in the peloton, Roche feels a two-year ban is not enough to discourage doping.

"If he's guilty, he's guilty, and should be sentenced like everybody else and not differently because he's Contador and the others are not Contador," he said.

"If you use a doping product you should get a sentence, regardless of the damage done to the sport. I think two years is not enough and agree with (UCI president) Pat McQuaid that four-year sentences should be introduced.

"I think it's going to damage the image of the sport, if he's eventually found guilty. Not because it's one guy testing positive, but because he cheated the system and took us all for stupid for over a year.

"On the other hand, it would be very unfair to criticise and go after this guy if he's clean. From that perspective, I do hope that all the facts are there and there isn't a mistake made."

Winning this year's Tour may prove easy for Alberto Contador. Keeping the victory, however, may yet prove much more difficult.

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