The co-founder of the Danish financial institution Saxo Bank has revealed that he believes Alberto Contador’s claim that he tested positive for clenbuterol as a result of eating contaminated meat. He also insists (as we reported last week) that his company will continue to back Bjarne Riis’s ProTour outfit, irrespective of whether or not the Spanish rider receives a ban following his failed drugs test during this year’s our de France.
In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Lars Christensen, who helped set up a stockbroking firm called Midas in 1992 that would subsequently evolve into Saxo Bank, also said that the decision this summer to renew sponsorship of Riis Racing, where it will act as co-sponsor with IT services firm SunGard, was influenced by the news that Contador had signed for the team for 2011.
In shock news however of a banker saying one thing and apparently doing another, on the same day El Pais published that interview, the Danish newspaper Politiken has run an article claiming that Christesen and his fellow shareholders have put Saxo Bank up for sale, amid rumours that the bank is being ivestigated by the Danish government.
Christensen enjoys a close friendship with Riis, and there's clearly no guarantee that any future owner of the bank would be as well-disposed towards backing a pro cycling team, irrespective of the Contador situation, something that is bound to cause the team owner yet more sleepless nights.
Asked whether he believed Contador was innocent, Christensen replied with a categorical “Yes.” He continued: “I'm no expert, but the explanation given by Contador is the most plausible. I believe that from the start he has been the victim of a very unfortunate incident we all hope does not cause major problems.”
The Danish banker’s support of Contador appears to be based on his acceptance of the cyclist’s explanation that a contaminated steak was the source of the clenbuterol for which he tested positive during the second rest day of this year’s Tour, which Contador went on to win to seal his third victory in four years in cycling’s biggest race.
However, the interview made no reference to separate reports that traces of plasticizers, for which a test has not yet been formally approved for anti-doping purposes, and which might indicate the use of illegal blood transfusions, had also been discovered in samples taken from the Astana rider.
Christensen admitted that he had not spoken with Contador himself in recent weeks, but he had been in regular contact with Riis, adding that he was aware that the latter had spoken with the Spanish cyclist on a number of occasions.
“It’s very important that Contador knows that for our part at least, we believe in his innocence and we are going to respect the sponsorship agreement and we’d like Contador to be with us. Therefore we hope that all of this gets cleared up as soon as possible.”
Put on the spot over whether Contador’s contract contained specific provisions relating to doping, Christensen said: Our agreement is with the team. We will respect our commitment to the team, whether or not Contador competes. That is the only provision we have agreed to discuss publicly.”
At the end of 2009, Saxo Bank had said that it was withdrawing its sponsorship at the end of the 2010 season, but Christensen told El Pais that Riis’s recrutment of Contador had led to the decision to continue its backing.
“One day during the Tour, Riis, with whom I have a very good personal relationship, told me of the possibility of Contador joining the team,” he explained. “I told him that if he succeeded, Saxo Bank would sponsor the team for another year. We got involved in the contract because we think that Contador is the best cyclist in the world, with whom we can go even further. The prospect of signing with Contador was decisive.”
El Pais asked Christensen when it was exactly that he knew that Riis had signed Contador, the Dane revealing that it was after the Tour, once Riis had told him that the team was set to lose Andy and Frank Schleck. “Signing Contador was a strong response,” he added.
Quizzed as to whether he would accept the prospect of Contador racing in a Saxo Bank jersey after serving out a doping ban, Christensen said, “That’s Riis’s decision,” but pressed further over whether such a prospect might damage the image of the company, he acknowledged that it might be an issue.
“It’s hard to know,” said Christensen. “In cycling there’s a higher degree of risk. But what attracted us to Bjarne’s team is that it has always been a leader against doping, designing systems that afterwards have been used by other teams.
“So we said that if there was a case of doping in the team we would be very disappointed, but in Contador’s case it’s making a long leap of the imagination to think about might happen if he were convicted,” affirming that if Contador were found guilty, the bank would continue to support the team.
The confusion over Contador apart, Christensen still believes that cycling is a good way of marketing his business. “There are very few sports, perhaps with the exception of Formula 1, that reach so many people and such different places,” he maintained. Even if you sponsor a major football club, the impact tends to be local. And besides, we’re with a great team like that of Riis which is in the elite every year. It's more a question of confidence in his leadership. We’re not experts in sport, we’re bankers.”
Christensen, however, is eager that the uncertainty regarding Contador be resolved as quickly as possible. “For Contador, the team and for cycling, it is very important that this be clarified,” he insisted. “If he gets suspended, it will be a new situation to see if the sponsor is affected by a single person who eats a steak. Does that mean that the cycling sponsorship has an extra risk? Because what if a football player eats a steak? "Would that ruin a sponsorship?”
He continued: “In this case there is an added risk because if it were clear that there had been doping, we would be the first to say that such an action can not be anticipated by anyone.
“But if you can not prove anything more than he ate a steak and do not reach a conclusion on the merits of a very small amount of clenbuterol, I think the case will invite reflection of many sponsors who will wonder if in this sport we are in a lottery and you cannot plan.”
Irrespective of Christensen’s belief in Contador’s innocence and whether or not the rider will be free to lead Bjarne Riis’s team next year, Saxo Bank is likely to be bracing itself for another high-profile departure, with widespread reports yesterday that the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project has agreed a contract with the Swiss time trial and classics specialist.
Besides the Schleck brothers, Bryan Nygaard’s new outfit has already signed Jens Voigt from Saxo Bank with other riders including Stuart O’Grady expected to follow, and besides Nygaard himself, many of the backroom staff are also former Riis Racing employees.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.