Cycling fans are used to that slow sinking feeling. It’s the leaden weight that accompanies breaking news flashes, rolling yellow bands on twenty four hour TV stations and the eternally cutting words: “suspended for doping”. Yet again the sceptics will nod knowingly and the faithful will struggle to find words to defend their sport. It is the worst possible news for fans of the sport of professional cycling: Alberto Contador has been provisionally suspended on suspicion of doping.
Contador, undoubtedly the biggest name in any peloton and three times winner of the Tour de France, has been tarred with such a damaging accusation for failing a test during this year’s Tour. He tested positive for banned substance clenbuterol in minute quantities, with some sources putting the estimates at as low as fifty trillionths of a gram. Conceivably he is wholly innocent. Clenbuterol has been known to worm its way into food chains through the actions of unscrupulous farmers who seek to increase their livestock yield. The Spaniard claims that he has fallen foul of such meat, and that is where the problems begin.
Contador’s version of events are entirely plausible. Given the level of banned substance that was shown up by the drugs test the tainted meat is the most probable cause. There is, however, no way of proving the mercurial climber’s innocence. It is his word against the incontrovertible truth of scientific fact – and how often has that been the case with riders that have cheated.
Floyd Landis protested his innocence to whoever would listen and took his case to the highest court of arbitration for sport before singing like a particularly attention hungry canary when he realised the game was up. Marco Pantani claimed conspiracy, lies and human error as his defence against a welter of evidence that showed him as a drug cheat. The waters are mired even for those most in the know. Doping has reached a level of sophistication whereby ultimate proof of a cyclist’s guilt is near impossible. Conceivably Alberto Contador could simply have a team of specialists whose artifice could cover even the most flagrant doping. Equally he could well be innocent. The international media has no time for such nuance.
Why should it? Headlines that read: “ Cyclist could well be a drugs cheat, tiny level of banned substance found in urine” aren’t going to lead to copies of L’Equipe, the Gazzeto dello Sport or the Guardian flying off news-stands. Moreover the crushing disappointments of so many cases where riders have indeed been doping set a weary precedent that we now expect to be fulfilled.
The Contador case has a long time to run. If he is found to be guilty it could crush the sport once and for all. How do you rebuild confidence in the authenticity of a sport that has had its name dragged through the mud one too many times? Lance Armstrong of course is still under investigation for doping following Landis’ claims that he too was involved with doping during their time together on the US postal team. Armstrong, who has come to embody all that is still good about cycling, stringently denies the claims and rightfully points to the fact that he was tested almost three times more than the average cyclist during the period referred to by his compatriot. Regardless the spectre of doping works on a basis where guilt or innocence is largely immaterial. It is the connotations that it brings, the cynicism it generates and the malaise it casts over the sport in a wider sense that really hurts cycling. Should Alberto Contador be proven guilty he could set cycling on a terminal decline. Should Lance Armstrong suffer the same fate, given his success over such a long period, he may well kill it.