Contador blames food contamination

Three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador blamed contaminated meat Thursday for his positive doping test during this year’s race, the latest blow to a sport battered by drug scandals.

The Spanish rider has been provisionally suspended after a World Anti-Doping Agency lab in Germany found a "very small concentration" of the banned substance clenbuterol in his urine sample on July 21 at the Tour, according to a statement from cycling governing body UCI.

"It is a clear case of food contamination," Contador told a news conference in his hometown near Madrid.

Contador said the meat was brought across the border from Spain to France on a rest day during the Tour at the request of the team’s cook.

Contador said the meat was brought by a Spanish cycling organizer, Jose Luis Lopez Cerron. Cerron said earlier Thursday on Spanish radio that he was a friend of the team chef, who had complained of poor quality meat at the hotel where the team was staying.

Contador said he ate the meat on July 20 and again on July 21. He called the UCI’s suspension of him "a true mistake."

Contador said he learned of the positive test on Aug. 24 and met with UCI doctors two days later.

"On the 26th we talked at length about how all this had happened. The UCI itself told me to my face that it was a case of food contamination," Contador said.

He said he has been in conversations with the UCI ever since "to handle this the most appropriate way possible and analyze it and see clearly that it is a case of food contamination in which I am the victim."

The UCI said the amount of clenbuterol in Contador’s sample was "400 time(s) less than what the antidoping laboratories accredited by WADA must be able to detect."

Both Contador’s A and B samples tested positive and the cyclist has been "formally and provisionally suspended," the UCI said.

With seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong now back in retirement, Contador is cycling’s biggest star, so it could be devastating for the sport if the Spanish rider is proved to have cheated.

The UCI’s statement gave no indication of whether Contador will be stripped of his latest Tour title or be banned.

"The UCI continues working with the scientific support of WADA to analyze all the elements that are relevant to the case. This further investigation may take some more time," the statement said.

The company that runs the Tour said race organizers were awaiting the UCI’s definitive decision and offered no further comment in a short statement.

Having invested millions of dollars in recent years in what is widely regarded as the one of the most stringent anti-doping regimes anywhere, cycling authorities hoped to be turning the corner on widespread doping by riders that had long made a mockery of the sport and repeatedly sullied the Tour, its showpiece race.

Although just 27, Contador is already the greatest rider of his generation. His victories at the Tour starting in 2007 and at other major races were seen as a possible break from cycling’s dirty past.

"This is serious and this case needs to be clarified," Pierre Bordry, the outgoing head of France’s anti-doping agency, told RTL radio. "Clenbuterol is a forbidden substance, whatever the amount which is detected. If they really found it, it’s forbidden."

WADA director general David Howman told The Associated Press that testing positive for even the most minute amounts of clenbuterol could be enough to sanction an athlete, although he declined to discuss the specifics of Contador’s case.

"The issue is the lab has detected this. They have the responsibility for pursuing. There is no such thing as a limit where you don’t have to prosecute cases. This is not a substance that has a threshold," said Howman, reached by telephone as he was changing planes in Dubai on his way to the Commonwealth Games in India.

"Once the lab records an adverse finding, it’s an adverse finding and it has to be followed up."

"Clenbuterol is a substance that has been used for over 20 to 30 years," he added. "It is not anything new. Nobody has ever suggested it is something you can take inadvertently."

Douwe de Boer, a Dutch anti-doping expert hired by Contador to study his test, said the rider told him that smaller traces of clenbuterol were also found in his urine in the two days after the positive result but were so minute that the UCI classed them as negative.

All of Contador’s tests before July 21 were negative, De Boer said. The July 21 test was conducted on a rest day at the Tour, when the race was near France’s border with Spain. De Boer said friends from Spain visited Contador and brought meat with them – he believes it was beef – "to celebrate their meeting."

"My conclusion is that it is very likely that this extra-low concentration (of clenbuterol) entered his body without him knowing it and one of the scenarios is contaminated meat," de Boer said in a telephone interview. He said the UCI’s "lack of speed" in deciding whether to sanction Contador suggests that the cycling body is "seriously" considering the contaminated food argument.

Contador beat Andy Schleck of Luxembourg by 39 seconds in winning his third Tour in four years.

"What a crazy day in cycling with the news about Contador," Schleck wrote on Twitter. "I only heard about it in the press. I hope he is innocent and I think he deserves the right to defend himself now."

Contador is a lithe but powerful rider who likes to use explosive bursts of speed up sharp mountain limbs to shake off rivals. Having won all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain, something Armstrong never achieved, he appeared destined to become one of cycling’s all-time greats.

If Tour officials strip Contador of his title, he would be just the second cyclist so punished. The first was American Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title after a positive test. For years, Landis denied doping but admitted this spring that he used performance-enhancing drugs. In doing so, he accused Armstrong and others of systematic drug use.

Federal agents in the United States probing suspected doping in US pro-cycling have been trying to corroborate Landis’ claims. Armstrong insists he rode clean and says Landis has no credibility. On Wednesday, a US federal grand jury convened for the investigation heard testimony from exercise physiologist Allen Lim, who has worked with both Landis and Armstrong.

Armstrong, who retired in 2005 but came back three years later, and Contador had a fractious relationship when they rode together on the Astana team at the 2009 Tour. Contador won that year, while Armstrong placed third. Armstrong said then that Contador has the potential to become a five-time Tour winner. Armstrong is now back in retirement after riding poorly at this year’s Tour. This August, Contador departed Astana and signed for the next two years with the Saxo Bank-SunGard team.

In Denmark, Team Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis told Danish website he was notified of the positive test around midnight in a phone call from Contador’s lawyer.

"There is nothing else to do but wait for a decision in the case," Riis said. "We are talking about so small amounts that even UCI has doubts about the test."

Riis said he spoke with Contador.

"He told me the same which he probably will say at the press conference today: that it must have been something he has eaten," Riis said.

Riis admitted in 2007 he had used the performance-enhancing drug EPO from 1993-1998, including when he won the Tour de France in 1996.

Astana team director Yvon Sanquer was not immediately available for comment.

At Astana, Contador rode this year with Alexandre Vinokourov, who served a two-year ban for blood doping during the 2007 Tour. In France, prosecutors have also been investigating syringes and transfusion equipment found by police in a medical waste container traced to Astana’s 2009 Tour team. In 2008, Contador was unable to defend his Tour crown because Astana was banned from the race following Vinokourov’s blood-doping violation the year before.

Clenbuterol has anabolic properties that build muscle while burning fat. It is commonly given to horses to treat breathing problems. In medicine, it is used to treat asthma. In similar ways to stimulant drugs such as amphetamine or ephedrine, it can increase the heart rate and body temperature.

Athletes and body builders are thought to use it in combination with other performance-enhancers such as growth hormone and steroids to build and define muscles. It is listed by WADA as an anabolic agent that is prohibited for use by athletes at all times, both in and out of competition.

Contador’s positive test distracted attention from cycling’s world championships underway in Australia. Some riders there were not yet ready to condemn Contador.

"I 100 percent give Alberto fully the benefit of the doubt," said British rider David Millar, himself banned for two years in 2004 after admitting to using the banned blood-booster EPO. "It doesn’t make much sense in that it was a rest-day control and it’s a micro-dose … Alberto gets controlled every day when he’s in the yellow jersey and that would have come up the day before or after the race."