Bjarne Riis, owner and manager of Alberto Contador’s new team SunGard-Saxo Bank, says that the cyclist remains focused on the 2011 season despite the uncertainty over whether he will actually take part in it as the verdict over his positive test for clenbuterol at last year’s Tour de France nears.
Speaking at the Santos Tour Down Under, currently taking place in South Australia, a race in which Contador is not competing, Riis said told Reuters that the Spaniard, who signed from Astana at the end of last season on a two-year contract, “is scared but he is still extremely motivated by his job."
Referring to the three-time Tour de France winner’s current form, the Dane remarked: "During the pre-season camp, he was already way ahead of his team mates in the climbs. I know his lawyers built him the best possible defence."
Contador has repeatedly claimed that his positive test for the banned substance on the second rest day of last July’s race, which he was leading at the time, resulted from his having eaten a contaminated steak.
News of the positive test broke in late September, with Contador immediately provisionally suspended by world cycling’s governing body, the UCI, which in November referred the case to the Spanish governing body, the RFEC.
Press reports at the time also suggested that a separate sample taken from Contador contained traces of plasticizers, which could be taken as evidence of illegal blood transfusions, but no formal test for those has yet been agreed and the issue therefore falls outside the remit of the case being decided by the RFEC.
"We are worried and we have been doing our best to protect him,” admitted Riis, who fought hard during 2010 to secure sponsorship for this season, with Contador’s arrival presumably influential in getting Saxo Bank to renew its backing and SunGard to step up to become co-title sponsor.
“We did all we could to sign the best rider in the world and I cannot imagine that he is not going to wear the Saxo Bank jersey," Riis continued.
The RFEC is expected to announce its verdict next month at the latest – press reports today suggest that a decision could be revealed as early as next week - but there is little prospect of that bringing the saga to an end.
Should Contador receive a two-year ban, which many observers believe is the only sanction that can be applied since there is no minimum threshold required for a positive finding of the substance, then Contador is likely to appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) as being too hard, given his claims that ingestion was innocent.
On the other hand, should the RFEC give Contador a token ban of, say, three months – a course some believe the body will take, with its president having publicly expressed sympathy for the cyclist’s predicament – then the UCI and World Anti-doping Agency are expected also to appeal to the CAS on the grounds that the penalty is too lenient.
Last week, UCI president Pat McQuaid claimed that Contador would most likely miss this year’s Tour de France even if he were free to ride, because of lack of preparation time, but Riis refuted that suggestion.
"It's pure speculation," he insisted. "Of course, they found clenbuterol in his system but the concentration was infinitesimal.
"He did not win the Tour de France thanks to this. It's even surprising that it appeared only one day (in his system)."
Riis, of course, is better qualified than most to discuss the issue of winning the Tour de France with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs.
In 2007, the Dane admitted that he had used drugs including EPO on his way to winning the 1996 edition of the race, adding that “"My jersey is at home in a cardboard box. They [Tour organisers ASO] are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself."
For the time being, Riis is continuing his plans for the 2011 season based on the assumption that Contador will be riding with his team, and refuses to countenance the opposite being the case.
"I don't want to think about it. For the moment we work normally, as if his season was about to start," he maintained.
The team has also been rocked by a number of departures of riders and staff, mainly to the new Leopard Trek team, including the Schleck brothers and Fabian Cancellara.
"Some 17 to 20 people left Saxo Bank," confirmed Riis. "I now have a team that is less strong but it is still a nice team. Richie Porte is a huge talent and will be a Tour de France protagonist in one or two years," he added, referring to the 24-year-old Tasmanian who last year won the best young rider’s classification at the Giro d’Italia and also held the race leader’s maglia rosa for three stages.
Despite Riis’s protestations that there is no Plan B and that the season is being planned on the assumption that Contador will play a full part, it would surprise few if it were the young Australian who ended up leading the Danish team in the Tour de France come this July.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.