Alberto Contador looks set to return to racing tomorrow to begin his defence of his Tour of the Algarve title after being cleared by the disciplinary committee of the RFEC, the Spanish national cycling federation. The committee has ruled that his positive test for clenbuterol during last year’s Tour de France did not constitute a case of doping and that as a result, no sanction will be brought against the rider. Almost as soon as Contador's representatives had confirmed the decision the UCI issued a statement (see below) saying it reserved the right to conduct "an in-depth study of the reasons behind the decision before expressing its opinion."
Responding to the news in a statement immediately posted on his Saxo Bank Sungard team's website Contador said:
"First of all, I'm relieved and obviously happy about this ruling. It has been some very stressful months for me, but throughout the case I have been totally available for all inquiries in relation to my case, and all the way through I have spoken in accordance with the truth. To both the team and the authorities I have explained, that I never cheated or deliberately took a banned substance."
While welcoming the decision as the right one, Saxo Bank Sungard boss Bjarne Riis also sounded a note of realism noting that in all likelihood the RFEC's decision would go to appeal:
"This decision is indeed proof that the relevant authorities do not find grounds for believing, that Alberto Contador has committed any intentional doping offence, which is absolutely vital for us. So I'm obviously happy on behalf of Alberto and the team. We take note of this decision and fully respect it, but we're also sensitive to the fact, that the parties of this case still have the right to appeal this decision,"
Mindful no doubt of how this will all play in the wider cycling world Riis then went on to re-confirm his team's commitment to clean cycling:
"I really want to take this opportunity to emphasize again that nothing in our values has changed. We're still a team that strongly condemn all kind of cheating, including doping. But we will at all times also be a fair team. It is of great importance, that we don't equate conscious cheating and an accidental intake of a banned substance."
According to the Spanish cycling website Biciclismo earlier this afternoon, Spanish radio reported that Fran Contador, the three-time Tour de France champion’s brother and manager, received a phone call from the secretary of the RFEC in which he was informed that a definitive statement was being prepared. Contador’s lawyer, Andy Ramos, is also reported to have confirmed that his client has been exonerated. Contador will reportedly be interviewed on Spanish television tonight.
The RFEC, for its part, has not yet confirmed the news on its website, but it has taken what appears to be the highly unusual step of issuing a statement in which Fernando Uruburu, president of the disciplinary committee, attacks those in Spain who have called into question the independence and objectivity of its investigation, including allegations that it had succumbed to "political and media pressure."
The precise reasons for Contador’s reported acquittal are not, as yet, clear. The rider, who moved from Astana to Saxo Bank SunGard at the end of last season, has always insisted that the minute traces of clenbuterol found in a urine sample taken on the second rest day of last July’s Tour de France resulted from his having eaten a contaminated steak the evening before.
Last week, in an interview with Spanish radio, Contador revealed that part of his defence would be based on article 296 of the UCI’s anti-doping rules, which provides that a ban can be eliminated “if the rider establishes… that he bears No Fault or Negligence,” although the onus is on the cyclist to “establish how the Prohibited Substance entered his system in order to have the period of Ineligibility eliminated.”
However, he also hinted at other evidence supporting his case, without elaborating what that might be. This morning, French daily L’Equipe reported that the cyclist’s case may have been aided by a technicality, in that a letter from the UCI outlining the charges brought against him was never forwarded to Contador or his legal representatives.
If that is true, that would be a stunning development in the case, given that it has been more than four and a half months since news broke that Alberto Contador had beem provisionally suspended, with the delay partly attributed to the UCI and WADA undertaking as rigorous an investigation into the case as was possible ahead of the file being passed to the RFEC on 7th November.
According to L’Equipe, Contador and his legal advisors did not receive a letter sent by the UCI to the RFEC three days earlier in which the sport’s worldwide governing body outlined four possible factors explaining his positive test for clenbuterol last July.
Contador and his lawyers, reports the French newspaper, claimed that the fact the letter was not sent to them breaches the rider’s rights as the accused to be informed of the action against him, as required by the Spanish constitution.
A reading of the relevant section of the UCI’s Anti-doping Rules suggests that the UCI fulfilled its duty in writing to the Spanish federation, and that procedural error will lie in the RFEC not then communicating its contents to the cyclist and his legal representatives.
If reports that Contador has escaped on a technicality are correct, one can only imagine the manner in which the news has been greeted by the UCI and WADA which are almost certain to appeal the verdict to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Contador’s exoneration marks an scarcely credible reversal of fortunes for the 27-year-old. Only two weeks ago, the RFEC announced that it proposed banning him for a year, in itself a lower penalty than the statutory two-year ban that testing positive for clenbuterol would appear to merit.
Speaking yesterday as rumours began to circulate that the three time Tour de France champion was set to be cleared, Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the US Antidoping Agency, suggested that a full exoneration of Contador would create an exceptional situation. Speaking to The New York Times, he said: “It’s a very, very unique set of facts that would justify someone being completely cleared, so unique that we haven’t seen it at all, at least here in the United States.”
Tygart added that he had reservations about the apparent U-turn performed by the RFEC, saying: “If there’s truly been a flip-flop, as reported, it appears to be a classic example of the fox protecting the henhouse. It would look like they are protecting a national hero.”
That was echoed in article published by Spanish daily El Pais earlier today, which correctly anticipated the RFEC’s decision and began with the sentence, “Spain, represented by the disciplinary committee of the RFEC, has decided to exonerate Alberto Contador.”
Quite what the reaction of Contador's fellow riders will be tomorrow, should he start the Tour of the Algarve, is unclear. This isn't the first time he has been under suspicion of doping - in 2006, he was linked to Operacion Puerto, but subsequently cleared.
In the present case, reports suggested that analysis of Contador's urine also revealed traces of plasticizers, which could be evidence of an illegal transfusion (and equally, could be due to an innocent medical procedure), although no formal test has been established for these and this issue was not the subject of the investigation into last July's failed test.
We'll bring you news of the official statement plus any reaction as soon as we are able to.
Contador case: UCI to study the RFEC’s decision
The International Cycling Union has received the decision of the Disciplinary Commission of the Spanish Cycling Federation (RFEC) in the case of Alberto Contador.
While acknowledging the differences between the conclusions of the recommendation that had been presented to the rider by the rapporteur of the RFEC Disciplinary Commission and those expressed in the Commission's decision announced today, the UCI reserves the right to conduct an in-depth study of the reasons behind the decision before expressing its opinion.
In accordance with the regulations the UCI now awaits the full dossier on the case from the RFEC.
Once this documentation has been received, the UCI will issue its decision within 30 days.
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.