Thursday, June 30, 2011

Contador Heads Into Unknown at Tour


 

PARIS, June 29, 2011 (AFP) - Despite years of Grand Tour experience, Alberto Contador will head into the unknown when he begins the defence of what could turn out to be another controversial Tour de France crown.

 

The 98th edition of the world's premier cycling event begins Saturday and while Contador has several potential challengers other obstacles could stand in the way of a fourth yellow jersey win.

 

The joy of a third yellow jersey triumph for Contador in 2010 was tempered a month later after he announced he had tested positive for clenbuterol on the race's second rest day.

 

Almost a year has gone by and, much to the annoyance of the organisers, the final judgement is still pending.

 

"Obviously we would have liked to have a final ruling before the start of the Tour," lamented Tour director Christina Prudhomme who, nevertheless, said he will be treating Contador as innocent until proven guilty.

 

Contador's claim that he ingested the banned substance while eating a contaminated steak was accepted by the Spanish authorities, but did not wash with the International Cycling Union (UCI) nor the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

 

Both bodies appealed the decision to clear the Spaniard to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which will not make a final decision until August.

 

The UCI also says it will treat Contador with respect, although that pledge will have little value if CAS finds the Spaniard guilty and he has to hand back all the wins he pocketed since and including last July.

 

The psychological burden borne by Contador ultimately failed to wreck his bid to win what was an immensely difficult Giro d'Italia last month.

 

But despite being on course for a rare double, not seen since Marco Pantani's feat in 1998, it remains to be seen whether Contador has enough fuel in the tank, both physically and mentally, to go the distance.

 

In any case Andy Schleck, who lost the race by only 39secs last year, has only one objective.

 

"I'm going there to win the Tour. I've been second twice so this time I want the top step of the podium," the Leopard team's climbing expert said during the Tour of Switzerland last week.

 

If organisers were longing for another Contador v Schleck duel, they should certainly have it -- and much more thrown in for good measure.

 

This year's race has something for everyone, from the sprinters like Britain's Mark Cavendish -- the winner of an amazing 15 stages in three editions -- to the 'punchers' like Belgian Philippe Gilbert, who are at home on the undulating stages that finish with an uphill sprint.

 

Yet it's to the climbers that Prudhomme is offering most rewards.

 

Featuring only one individual time trial, a 42.5 km ride around Grenoble on the 20th and penultimate stage, the 21-stage race has nine days in which at least one categorised climb appears.

 

The opening salvos in the yellow jersey battle could come as early as eight and nine in the Massif Central, or the powder kept dry for any one of a trilogy of Pyreneean stages which feature the race's first summit finishes (stages 12 and 14).

 

If the yellow jersey is still undecided after two hard days in the Alps, it almost certainly will be on stage 19. Over 42 km of climbing features as the peloton tackles the legendary Telegraphe and Galibier mountain passes before finishing on the summit of Alpe d'Huez.

 

The presence of several other bona fide contenders won't make Contador or Schleck's job any easier. Australian Cadel Evans, Italian Ivan Basso, Dutchman Robert Gesink, Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck and Britain's Bradley Wiggins all have the credentials to play a leading role in the race.

 

Although Contador and Schleck could end up courting their rivals for indirect help as the race goes on, for now Schleck is simply wary of the threat.

 

"I think Gesink will be really good. Cadel will be strong and I believe Ivan (Basso) will come to the Tour in good shape. Van den Broeck also showed good form in the Dauphine (Libere) race," said the Luxemburger.

 

"I'm not going to the Tour just to fight Contador."

 

Contador Gives up Meat

 

Contador says he has stopped eating meat since testing positive for clenbuterol on last year's Tour de France, a result he blamed on contaminated steak.

 

The 28-year-old favourite to win this year's Tour, which gets underway on Saturday, also said in an interview published on Wednesday that his Saxo Bank team will have its own cook this year.

 

"No, I have not eaten meat again," he told sports daily Marca when asked if he had eaten meat since traces of clenbuterol were discovered in a test on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour, which he won.

 

This year the team is taking preventative measures, Contador said.

 

"In the team everything from the vegetables to the pasta to the bread will be prepared by the team's own cook. Everything, absolutely everything, at least on the major races. That way we can guarantee the food is fresh and has quality."

 

Contador's claim that he ingested the banned substance while eating a contaminated steak brought to France from Spain was accepted by the Spanish authorities, but did not wash with the International Cycling Union (UCI) nor the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

 

Both bodies appealed the decision to clear the Spaniard to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which will not make a final decision until August.

 

The UCI also says it will treat Contador with respect, although that pledge will have little value if the CAS finds the Spaniard guilty and he has to hand back all the wins he pocketed since and including last July.

 

Some of Contador's critics suggest he may have inadvertently put clenbuterol -- a weight-loss and muscle-building drug -- back into his system via an illicit and performance-enhancing blood transfusion.

 

"Like everything in life, there will be people who believe me and others who don't, but at this point everyone knows there can be food contamination," said Contador.

 

WADA lists clenbuterol as an anabolic agent that is prohibited for use by athletes at all times, both in and out of competition.

 

American swimmer Jessica Hardy tested positive for the substance at the US trials in July 2008 and served a one-year suspension.

 

But the CAS later accepted her explanation that she had unknowingly taken it in a contaminated food supplement.

 

The psychological burden borne by Contador did not stop him winning an immensely difficult Giro d'Italia last month.

 

But despite being on course for a rare Giro-Tour double, not seen since the late Marco Pantani's feat in 1998, it remains to be seen whether Contador has enough fuel in the tank, both physically and mentally, to go the distance.

 

Contador, who also won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, said he had recovered mentally from the Giro but was not sure if he had managed to completely recovery physically from the race.

 

"At a mental level I think I am fully recovered and that is very important. But at the physical level I still have to see how I am," he told the newspaper.

 

"I think the first days will not be the best for me," added Contador, who joined Saxo Bank from Astana shortly after winning last year's Tour.

Hat Tip To: Bicycling Magazine

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