Giuseppe Martinelli, who was Alberto Contador’s directeur sportif at Astana, says he believes the Spanish rider is clean but has urged him to accept the one-year ban he appears likely to receive following his positive test for clenbuterol in last year’s Tour de France to avoid the same fate as another of his former charges, Marco Pantani.
In an interview published in today’s print edition of the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, the 55-year-old Martinelli, who a little over six months ago celebrated with Contador on the Champs Elysées after the cyclist won his third Tour de France title, was unequivocal about what he believed the Spaniard should do now.
The cyclist continues to protest his innocence and has said he will fight any ban imposed by the Spanish federation, the RFEC, but Martinelli says he should “accept the ban and start again, thinking to when he’ll return to racing. He’s the strongest, he’s already demonstrated that.”
He rejects the notion that this would in effect be an admission of guilt on Contador’s part, saying: “I’d like to make it clear, to avoid any misunderstanding: I believe in Alberto. He’s clean. And knowing very well what an effort we put into winning this Tour, you can imagine how much it would cost me to lose it…”
Martinelli, who in his own career won Olympic silver in the road race at the 1976 Montreal Olympics as well as stages in the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta, believes that Contador is now at a crossroads.
“There are times when you have to make a choice,” he explains. “Either you bash yourself against a rubber wall and bounce backwards, or you find the courage to start again. Alberto has to do only what his head tells him, without becoming influenced by the too many people that surround him. And he mustn’t commit the same error as Marco Pantani made in 1999.”
That was the year in which Pantani, leading the Giro d’Italia on its penultimate day, was thrown off the race for having an excessive haematocrit level. Regulations provided for a suspension of 15 days for health reasons, but Pantani stayed away from cycling for months, which Martinelli believes helped contribute to the downwards spiral that led, less than five years later, to his death in a Rimini hotel room.
“After the exclusion from the Giro at Madonna di Campiglio, Pantani should have presented himself at the Grand Depart of the Tour,” he insists. “I didn’t manage to convince him. With the experience of the last 11 years, I’m sure that now I’d manage to do so…
“Going back to Alberto, I’m sure he’s done nothing illegal, but in the condition he finds himself in it’s not easy to demonstrate that, because in cycling the burden of proof is reversed. So, Alberto, think already about when you’ll come back. A year’s ban would expire at the end of August. That’s not too long, if you think about it.”
That assumes that the RFEC does ban Contador for a year, as was widely reported last week, although the UCI was quick to state that no final decision had yet been reached. Moreover, there could still be further uncertainty over the date of his eventual return, should the UCI and the World Anti-doping Agency decide to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport with the aim of securing a two-year ban.
Martinelli, who has now stepped up to the role of team manager at Atsana, was asked why at the team’s recent presentation in Monte Carlo, there was no reference whatsoever to Contador, now with Saxo Bank-SunGard, or to his 2010 Tour de France success which, for the time being at least, has not yet been expunged from the record books.
“It was a decision made more out of love than anything else,” he explains, adding: “I’ll make a confession to you: my boss asked me if we could get him back.”
He acknowledges, however, that the loss of Contador is a blow to the Kazakh team. “We’re missing the phenomenon,” he admits. “But we know that, and we’ve redesigned the squad. We’re betting on Kreuziger, who up until last year was at the same level as Nibali, then Vincenzo expoded,” referring to the Czech rider’s former Liquigas team mate, winner of the Vuelta last September.
But, he points out, at 24, Kreuziger is two years younger than the Sicilian, “and Vinokourov will also still be very competitive.”
Referring to his new role as team manager, Martinelli says that “the responsibility of the post-Contador period is heavy. There are many more things to do. The Kazakhs are used to winning, if that doesn’t happen I expect a bit of trouble…!”