ALBERTO CONTADOR, three times a winner of the Tour de France and the outstanding cyclist of his generation, is fighting to save his reputation after the International Cycling Union (UCI) disclosed yesterday that he had been "suspended pending further investigations" after testing positive for clenbuterol at this year's Tour.
An outraged and emotional Contador insisted at a hurriedly-convened press conference yesterday that he was a "victim" and that the minute levels of the anabolic steroid found in his system were the result of food contamination.
Contador (27) provided the positive urine test after a meal on a rest day in Pau. The meal allegedly featured meat imported from just across the border in Spain.
The trace element of the drug unearthed by the state-of-the-art WADA laboratory in Cologne, in both the A and B samples, was the extraordinarily low amount of 0.000 000 000 05 grams per ml. This is approximately 50 picograms, which is approximately 400 times less than the minimum volume that World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or UCI-approved laboratories must be able to detect.
It is an amount that would make absolutely no difference to the performance of any athlete in any sport but its presence needs to be adequately explained if Contador is to avoid a two- year ban and public ignominy.
"This is a genuine mistake," pleaded Contador. "The UCI affirmed in front of me that it was a case of food contamination. I think it will be resolved in a clear way with the truth up front. I am sad and disappointed but I hold my head high.
"I've spent a month and a half keeping this inside without sleeping. My family didn't even know until last night. This is a real error. The system is very questionable and it has to be changed. I can not tolerate the idea of sanction."
In recent years clenbuterol has been used as a slimming drug while throughout the 1990s it was commonly fed to livestock -- notably in Spain, USA and China -- to disperse fat but to promote muscle growth.
It was commonly found in veal and in 1994, there were 140 recorded hospital cases in Spain of people being admitted with dehydration and dizziness attributed to clenbrutol in meat they had recently eaten.
Such feeding to livestock was outlawed but is still thought to be commonplace in some areas of Spain and therefore present in the food chain.
If Contador can make a solid connection between the meat he ate in Pau on his day off and a particular supplier who either admits to using clenbrutol or is suspected of it, he will be in the clear.
But that is going to be difficult and fraught in the extreme.
On a depressing day for professional cycling, and for Spain in particular, it was also revealed that two further riders have failed tests from the recent Vuelta Espana -- runner-up Ezequiel Mosquera and his Xacobeo team-mate David Garcia da Pena. Both have tested positive for Hydroxyethyl starch, a plasma substitute which boosts oxygen delivery to the body.
Ireland's Nicolas Roche, who finished seventh on the Tour of Spain, will be promoted a place if Mosquera is disqualified. (© Daily Telegraph, London)