My interest in pro bike racing is pretty much confined to the Tour de France. I’ve been watching the Tour for the last four years, attracted mainly by the scenic shots of France – the chateaus, the medieval walled towns, the modern and old parts of the cities. I’ve even posted brief descriptions of the team jerseys for the Tour, to explain who those sponsors are that no one’s ever heard of.
But I’ve never been able to psych myself up to watch the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta a Espana. Or the one-day classics at the beginning of the season. Or the lesser stage races in other countries. So take my opinions here for what they’re worth, coming from an uninformed cyclist.
The news that Alberto Contador has been exculpated in his doping case isn’t all that surprising. The Spanish Cycling Federation ruled that the trace amount of clenbuterol found in his system during a rest day at the 2010 Tour de France was ingested unintentionally.
Both the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban the use of clenbuterol by athletes; it increases muscle mass and reduces fat. The Drug Enforcement Administration says athletes typically take 60-120 micrograms per day. Contador is accused of having 50 picograms of the drug in his system. A picogram is about half the size of a microgram.
Now, you might dislike Contador, going back to his feud with Lance when they were both on the Astana team. But to me, his story is plausible. Although the European Union prohibits the use of clenbuterol in food-producing animals, it is known to be illicitly used to increase the leanness of meat in livestock. The US Dept. of Agriculture says people in Spain, France, Italy and elsewhere have become sick after eating meat tainted with clenbuterol.
You might also demand that a zero-tolerance drug policy be rigorously enforced by the powers that be in cycling – that if anyone is found with any concentration of illicit drugs in their system, they’re out. But hot on the heels of the Contador decision comes the news that the British Sky cycling team is backing off from its zero-tolerance drug policy. It seems that all the best coaches in the sport have some involvement with illegal doping in their past. Sky is apparently hoping these folks will be clean when they come to work for Sky, but that cloud will always hang over their heads.
Oh, and if Contador is not going to be penalized for clenbuterol, what about Chinese rider Li Fuyu, who rides for Radioshack? He is also under suspension for testing positive for “clen” in a race.
It’s just too hard to keep up with it all. And keeping up with it isn’t very rewarding. My conclusion: The whole system is corrupt. And as such, it does not deserve my support, or my interest. I won’t be watching the Tour this summer, or any other bike race. One of the reasons I ride is to be healthy. When cycling tolerates the use of banned substances, it is undermining the health benefits, and sending a disturbing message to fans and non-fans all over the world.