Doping: Cycling's Slow Killer

Albert FrancoContributor IOctober 8, 2010

PAUILLAC, FRANCE - JULY 24:  Alberto Contador of Spain and the Astana Team rides on stage nineteen, a 52km individual time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac, on July 24, 2010 in Pauillac, France.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Today, while some people discuss Brett Favre's "dirty old man" status (I'll consider him innocent until he's proven guilty) and others debate on the extent of Roy Halladay's dominance (I'll go as far as agreeing that he was certainly this season's most dominant, which is a tough thing for this Florida Marlins fan to admit), I’d actually like to switch gears and talk about a sport that gets a lot less coverage in the United States -- professional cycling.

Is it just me or doesn’t it seem as though, these days, you just can’t talk about this sport without mentioning three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador and all the sport-wide doping allegations? For those of you nodding in agreement, read on, as that’s exactly what I’m about to discuss.

But first, for those of you who don’t watch the Tour de France because you can’t get passed those uber-tight biker shorts or for the rest of you who do follow it but tuned-out once Lance was way too far back to make a run at the yellow jersey (read: what the race leader wears), let me catch everyone up by describing the now-infamous TDF Stage 15 that took place a few months ago on Monday, July 19. The scene was a 187.5-kilometer ride into Bagnères-de-Luchon, and it was here that defending champion Alberto Contador challenged European cycling taboos by attacking then-race leader Andy Schleck’s 31-second lead just as the remaining Schleck brother had a mechanical mishap with his bike’s chain, to claim the lead which he’d ride all the way onto the winner’s podium.

This event was even further complicated by the fact that Alberto Contador upped his overall time by 39 seconds that day (the 31-second gap he closed, plus the 8-second lead he took), and five stages later, when all was said and done, exactly 39 seconds was what separated the Tour’s victor (Contador) and it’s runner-up (Schleck), leaving fans of the sport with a major “what-if” about 2010’s version of cycling’s most renown race.

Now, I’m not here to side with anybody on that – what’s in the past is ancient history, as far as I’m concerned – but rather to give the folks who were booing Alberto Contador as he accepted his yellow jersey a little peace of mind. It’s a rare thing in sports, but sometimes karma does play a factor. Now again, I’m not saying whether or not I believe Contador did or did not cheat, I’m just pointing out that since winning his third Tour, Contador’s career has been on a major downward slope.

As August began, it was revealed Contador and Team Astana would be parting ways at season’s end, and that Contador would soon be sporting Saxo Bank-SunGard colors. About two weeks after this news broke, Alberto lost a 40-mile street race in Herning, Denmark – a.k.a. the hometown of Team Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis – to future teammate Michael Morkov and three other cyclists by a whopping 80-second margin. Luckily for him, he’d already built his reputation with Bjarne, or this would’ve been a horrible introduction for the two. Then, on August 31, word out of Contador’s camp was of an accident during training in which he slightly injured his right knee. Not a good omen for his first post-Astana season, if you ask me. However, this isn’t the end, as the worst was yet to come!

Anybody who even remotely follows cycling knows what the “worst” thing that could happen to any of this sport’s frontrunners is, so you all know where this is headed: the failed doping test. The International Cycling Union (UCI) publicly revealed at the end of September that a urine sample Alberto submitted on July 21, during the second rest day in this year’s race, had apparently tested positive for trace amounts of clenbuterol by a lab in Cologne, Germany, and that he’d been notified of that result – and provisionally suspended for it – on August 24. To this day, Contador vehemently denies having doped, instead blaming some tainted beef he ate during that rest day for the result. If proven guilty, he faces a two-year ban from the sport, but probably more importantly, he’d lose this year’s Tour de France title to the man who many feel got robbed of it anyhow, Andy Schleck. It would be Andy’s first Tour victory and Alberto would essentially have wasted 91h 58’48” – the overall time it took for him to win the Tour de France – racing in July.

I’m not really sure how I feel about all this myself, as I’m a big fan of both riders’ mountain climbing and occasional sprinting abilities. If it turns out to be true, then the UCI really has no choice but to hand the default victory to Andy Schleck. However, knowing the younger Schleck brother and his competitive streak, no matter how tainted Alberto’s victory might’ve been, one would have to believe that Andy wouldn’t want to win the tour in this fashion. So either way, whether or not karma comes back to right it’s wrongs (if it was, in fact, a “wrong”), still nobody really wins in the end. Not only does Andy not get to experience the entirety of his first Tour victory, but for the next two years, the Tour would be deprived of arguably its biggest name now that Lance Armstrong has officially ridden off into the sunset.

So though I’m neither siding with Contador nor Schleck, as cycling fans, I think the one thing we can all agree upon is the fact that doping is now totally out of control, as it may yet again decide a TDF victor. (Floyd Landis being the other most recent case of this, in 2006.) And as someone watching from the outside, seeing what’s happened now with Contador, as well as what’s recently occurred with Tour of Spain runner-up Ezequiel Mosquera and teammate David Garcia da Pena, both of whom were also suspended after positive tests for hydroxyethyl starch, one of the nation’s with the biggest doping cloud hanging over it right now is certainly Alberto Contador’s homeland, Spain. Why this is the case is anybody’s guess, but to the UCI, if there’s any way of regulating this, may I suggest you do so now, rather than later?

Frankly, I’m tired of seeing so many yellow jersey conspiracies. I like Andy Schleck a lot, and I’d hate for him to later in his career have to fend off “did he really earn it?”-type questions. In this case, given the 39-second controversy that led to Alberto’s win in the first place, if Contador gets stripped of his third Tour victory, it’d be a little more cut and dry than usual and I doubt too many folks would question the validity of Schleck’s victory, but that may not be the case down the road. So please, lets do whatever we’ve got to do to fix this problem moving forward. I’m sure measures are already being taken, but somehow we need to ensure that there are nothing but clean races from 2011 onward, because frankly, I’m not sure how many more doping conspiracies the sport of cycling can withstand.

So to Contador, if you did in fact cheat, then shame on you - you should have known better. To Schleck, if you do in fact end up the official 2010 TDF winner, then congrats, you undoubtedly earned that honor because you raced your heart out during that race and acted with nothing but class during it. And in closing, to the UCI, you know what you’ve got to do. Your job now is to figure out how exactly to do it. From me and all the other cycling fans, we wish you the best of luck. Here’s to cleaning this sport up!!