Contador's doping drama looms large over 98th Tour de France
Three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador is once again the favorite
Contador tested positive for doping during '10 Tour, which he blamed on bad beef
Positive test could cost Contador 2010 Tour title and a possible 2011 Tour title
With the Tour de France nearly upon us, here's a shout-out to Wordsworth's wingman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" -- which comes in particularly handy when you're watching a pro bike race.
To get past those elements of a story that might seem implausible, Coleridge wrote, the audience must put its "poetic faith" in the artist, must disable (I'm paraphrasing) its internal bull detector. For us cycling fans, that means taking pleasure in the sight of the peloton in full flight -- the dramatic spectacle of a band of spindly warriors gutting themselves on the switchbacks of the Galibier, for instance -- while ignoring the nagging voice in the back of our minds, the one insisting that the other shoe is about to drop.
That's going to be especially tough during this, the 98th Tour, which starts Saturday on a treacherous stretch of road called the Passage du Gois, a causeway that is twice a day submerged by the tide. Even after the water recedes, parts of the road remain covered with muck and slimy residue. Kind of like cycling itself.
None of this means I won't be rising early every day to get my Tour on. (In addition to the 14 hours of daily Tour-related coverage on Versus, its big brother, NBC, will broadcast parts of Stages 1 and 2 this weekend.)
Your pre-race favorite, once again, is Alberto Contador, the defending champion and winner, most recently, of the three-week Giro d'Italia. Just 28, Contador has won three Tours de France and six grand tours (three-week races) in his career. He is the most gifted stage racer in a generation (sorry, Lance), an elegant, lethal combination of climbing prowess and skill in the time trial. He also happens to be a blight on this race.
Yes, the Tour ends on July 24 on the Champs Elysees. But the real drama doesn't start until August 1, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, hears Contador's appeal. You may remember that a month or so after he won last year's Tour, it was announced that Contador had tested positive for clenbuterol, the result, he said, of eating tainted beef. So it was surprising when the Spanish Cycling Federation -- which sometimes seems more interested in protecting dirty riders than punishing them -- recommended that he be banned for a year. It was less surprising when the federation reverted to type, abruptly announcing that, upon further review, it had decided to take Contador at his word.
Less trusting was the UCI, cycling's governing body, and the World Anti-Doping Association. They appealed the Spanish federation's decision to the CAS. Originally scheduled for June, the hearing was postponed until August at the request of Contador's lawyers. That's good news for the Spaniard, who now rides for Saxo Bank and will be able to defend last year's title. But it's more bad news for a sport that, try as it might, can't get out from under the shadow of performance-enhancing drugs. The possibility that Contador could be stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title, should CAS find him guilty, will distract and detract from everything else that happens during the race.
"Sports-wise," says Bradley Wiggins, who rides for Team Sky, and has emerged as one of Contador's primary threats, "it is not a good thing that a bloke who tested positive ... is in the race."
If CAS upholds those appeals, Contador will be stripped not only of last year's Tour, but of all of his results in the interim. That batch of palmarès could include a victory in this year's grand Tour. So, if it's Contador on the top step of the podium in Paris on July 24, be sure to get a good look at the guy just beneath him. Because that could end up being your winner.
Who might that be? Wiggins displayed superb form earlier this month, winning the Criterium du Daphine, a week-long Tour tune-up. But I still see Contador's top threat as Andy Schleck, the whimsical, likeable stick-figure Luxembourger who is probably the second-best climber in the world. Schleck hasn't won any races so far this season, but that's not necessarily cause for alarm. Like a lot of general-classification contenders, he's timed his training to peak in the second half of this Tour, when the peloton enters the Pyrenees, then the Alps. Contador is still without peer in the high mountains, dropping the best climbers in the world with his signature, vicious accelerations. Yet, for some unexplained reason -- tainted beef? -- he seemed to have fewer of those short, sharp bursts in his quiver at last year's Tour. And Schleck, meanwhile, continues to improve in the time trial.
Their rivalry takes on added piquancy this year, on account of the Bjarn Factor. Andy and his brother Frank bolted from Riis's Saxo Bank-Sungard team last year in order to ride for a new, Luxembourg-based outfit called Leopard-Trek. (After the Schlecks had announced their imminent departure, Riis booted Andy from the Vuelta a Espana in the middle of that race. The younger Schleck apparently had broken team rules by -- gasp! -- going out for a drink after the team dinner.) To replace his team leader, Riis went out and signed ... Contador.
Remember, also, that Schleck might have beaten Contador in 2010 were it not for an ill-timed dropped chain in the 15th stage, on a mofo of a climb called the Port de Bales. Schleck had to briefly dismount, and though the protocol of the sport calls for Contador to wait until his rival had remedied his mechanical problem, the Spaniard punched the accelerator, gaining 39 seconds on Schleck. Those seconds ended up being Contador's margin of victory.
Contador later apologized to Schleck for his controversial attack. "I forgave him," says Andy. "But I did not forget."
Contador has demonstrated an admirable imperturbability in the face of adversity during past Tours. This time, he'll spend three weeks riding around with the possibility that all of his suffering may be for naught. He will need to be strong -- will need to push such negative thoughts from his mind. He will need to suspend disbelief.