Three-time Tour de France champion Aberto Contador says that he is hungrier than ever for success – if not for a mid-race steak dinner – after being cleared last month by the Spanish national cycling federation, the RFEC, of doping charges brought after testing positive for clenbuterol during last month’s edition of the race.
In an interview with Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, the 27-year-old claims that he immediately suspected that contaminated steak was at the root of his failed test, explaining: “A cyclist's life, especially during a stage race, is all about routine. The only thing I had done differently from usual was eat that meat. A friend of mine had brought it from Spain so we could have a little party together.”
The Spaniard says that his experience means that he is now ultra-cautious about what he eats, and veal is off the menu for him. “I don't trust it. I have nothing against breeders. I know lots of them take their jobs very seriously and do everything according to the regulations. Clenbuterol is illegal, of course, but there's always someone who ignores the rules in order to make the calves grow more quickly.”
As he had said in the aftermath of the news of his failed test breaking last September, Contador reiterated that he had considered walking away from the sport for good, “lots of times. I've been through some really tough moments. Maybe what some of the people who have said things about me don't realise is that I'm not a robot, but a person.”
The worst moment, he added, was “right at the beginning. So many horrible and stupid things were written and said about me in the media.”
Contador confesses that he does not know what world cycling’s governing body, the UCI, and the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) plan to do now, although it would be a huge surprise to the cycling world if they didn’t appeal the Spanish federation’s decision to clear him to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
“The only thing I would like is for them to read the whole dossier properly, without having any pre-conceived ideas or being put under any external pressure,” he says. “With my biological passport and drug test records they have an awful lot of data about me collected throughout my career. I believe in the system but they also have to show they believe in it.”
The cyclist believes that the past few months have changed him, however. “I'd like to be the same as before but I think that's impossible,” he reveals. “I've suffered a lot. I'm more reserved now. And perhaps a little more selfish. It doesn't hurt to wear a bit of armour.”
A hugely popular figure in Spain, Contador appreciates the support shown to him in his home town of Pinto, near Madrid. “That hasn't changed,” he maintains. “Nobody has shown me any disrespect back home. I'm proud of that.” He adds that the suspicions surrounding him have not affected his relationship with his family, insisting, “we're strong people. But seeing my mother and father cry was hard to take.”
Contador acknowledges, however, that putting together what turned out to be a successful defence has come at a financial cost, though he is unable to quantify exactly how much he has spent on legal fees. “I haven't worked it out but an awful lot. A bucket-load of money. I've never asked for tests to be tweaked, though, to make them look favourable to me. I've only asked for the scientific truth.”
The rider is aware that the wealth he has accumulated to date in his career gave him an advantage that not all athletes can afford when it came to putting together his defence team, admitting, “it is a justice that not many people could afford. But I hope my battle can also help those with less means than myself.”
Responding to cristicism from Quickstep’s Tom Boonen, who has three times tested positive for cocaine out of competition but never been banned and who stated “If other people had been in Contador's shoes they would have already been punished,” the Spaniard replied: “He's not seeing things properly. He should realise that thanks to my work, my sacrifice and my money, unfair rulings will be changed. And maybe one day he will benefit from that himself. Because if things aren't changed, I bet what happened to me will happen to others too.”
Referring to the intervention in his case of the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who had declared shortly before the RFEC’s decision that “There is no legal reason to sanction Contador,” which attracted much criticism at the time, particularly outside Spain, the cyclist said: “I was very surprised when he said that but I'm not sure it helped me. The Comite, the organisation that acquitted me, is completely independent.”
He added that within the Spanish press, “objectivity had made way for spite” after news of his positive test first came out, with a number of the country’s leading newspapers calling for him to be sanctioned.
Contador is currently focusing on a programme including the Vuelta Murcia, Catalunya, Castilla and Leon ahead of the year’s first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, which gets under way in Turin in a little more than two months’ time, and having studied the stage profiles on the internet, says: “It's hard, extremely hard. There isn't a queen stage; there are six.”
The Saxo Bank-SunGard rider won the race in 2008 – a year in which he was unable to compete in the Tour de France due to the exclusion of Astana, which he had joined that season – and reflecting on his victory, said: "It was incredible. It's the stage race that I have enjoyed most. At the roadside there is passion like nowhere else. People don't only go down to the road because the race is passing but because they understand cycling. They know what it's about.”
While Vuelta winner Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale, third in last year’s Giro, won by his team mate Ivan Basso, is seen as favourite for this year’s edition of the Italian race, Contador believes that it isn’t his fellow riders that will provide the stiffest opposition come May. “Kreuziger, Scarponi and Menchov will all be there,” he states. “But the toughest opponent will be the route.”
Looking further ahead to July, Contador says that the Tour de France “is in my plans. If I can, I'll race.” Asked whether he believes he can win both the Giro and the Tour – a feat last achieved by Marco Pantani in 1998.
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.