The Tour de France finished this year amidst a lot of excitement. There was the inspirational tale of Cadel Evans’ realization of the long-fought quest to become the first Australian (or citizen of the Southern Hemisphere, for that matter) to emerge victorious in the battle for the yellow jersey. There were the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, flanking Evans on the Parisian podium, the first brothers to ever share a top-three finish in the Tour at the same time.
We saw Mark Cavendish continuing his run toward history, bagging five more stages to move to sixth all-time in the Tour stage records. And by grabbing his third straight victory in one of the most famous sprints in cycling, the traditional final stage on the Champs-Elysées, Cavendish also claimed his first green jersey in a still-blossoming career. And Samuel Sanchez, finishing 6th with the King of the Mountains jersey on his back, claimed his seventh straight top-ten placing in a grand tour in his past seven starts.
There was the ten days in yellow for French star Thomas Voeckler, who showed immeasurable grit in coming oh-so-close to becoming the first Frenchman on the podium in Paris since Richard Virenque took second behind Jan Ullrich in the pre-EPO testing days of the 1997 Tour. In the process he added ten more days in the maillot jaune to the ten he enjoyed seven years ago in the 2004 Tour, his twenty combined days now second behind Fabian Cancellara’s 21 career stages in yellow among active riders. There was his teammate, 24-year-old Pierre Rolland, who enlivened the French fans with his stirring victory on Alpe d’Huez en route to an 11th-place finish and the white jersey as the best young rider of the race.
But one story continues to loom over the entire sport, helping to chisel away at the good publicity generated by the most wide-open Tour in quite some time — the 2010 result is still in question even as we wrap up 2011′s thrill ride. Alberto Contador, who was in this year’s field but managed only 5th place after winning the past two editions, is still awaiting word from the Court of Arbitration for Sport about whether they will overturn the Spanish cycling federation’s exoneration of his positive test for clenbuterol at last year’s Tour.
We first found out about the positive result over two months after the red-flag sample was collected, on the final day of September last year. At that time it seemed obvious that Contador was going to be sitting for two years; past precedent under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) protocol had held firm time after time regarding this particular drug. In fact, only once had the penalty been mitigated — in the case of Jessica Hardy, an American swimmer who was able to definitively produce the supplement she was using for analysis to demonstrate that this was a case of taking a tainted product rather than any malevolence on her part. And even then, she’d received a one-year suspension for her positive result.
In January, it looked as though this was the path Contador was headed down when the Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) issued a one-year ban on Contador. But then, abruptly, the federation did a complete about-face almost immediately after issuing the initial verdict, completely clearing Contador of any and all guilt in the matter. Of course, this was hardly the end of the story, as the UCI (cycling’s international governing body) and WADA were able to appeal the Spanish ruling by the RFEC one last time to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne.
Their decision in the appeal was supposed to come by June, leaving Contador free in the interim to race as a free man as per the Spanish decision in his case. He won the Giro d’Italia in May and, after the CAS announced its intention to delay its ruling on the appeal until August, announced his intention to attempt to become the first cyclist since Marco Pantani in 1998 to sweep the maglia rosa of the Giro and the maillot jaune of the Tour in the same season.
Of course, we did not see that happen this year. Contador was knocked out of contention early and often, crashing several times in the first week and unable to shed any of the other contenders in the mountains. He went on an audacious attack on Stage 19, hoping to win at Alpe d’Huez and take time out of his opponents there, but he was pipped by Sanchez and Rolland and forced to finish without even a stage win to his name.
But he did get one victory today, as the CAS announced that they would be delaying their decision even further. This apparently was at the request of WADA, but it might as well have been a godsend for the Spaniard. Now there is no question about his fall campaign; now he can plan for any objective he chooses, be it a world championship or a run at one of the fall classics or just shutting things down and lying low for a while after an unsuccessful Tour defense.
Whatever he chooses, the result remains in question. And as a betting man, I’d still say that the odds are better that he’s going to see some results stripped and some more time away from the sport than that the CAS upholds without amendment the Spanish federation’s ruling. But as WADA waffles and the UCI is forced to abide by the RFEC decision and allow Contador on the start line wherever he shows up, it does little to help the attempts to alter the image of cycling as a dirty sport.
For every day that there is no resolution, there is doubt left in the minds of casual sports fans as to how serious cycling really is about cleaning its house. Despite the fact that anybody familiar with doping in sports can tell you that cycling has done more than any other sport to remain at the forefront of testing its athletes, all the casual fan sees is another positive result and cracks another “Tour de Farce” joke.
It is the sheer number of tests conducted — in and out of competition, announced and unannounced, and for more chemical compounds and with more sensitive testing equipment than any other professional sport — that leads to more positive results, that in turn makes the sport look dirtier than others. It isn’t like every other sport is devoid of the dilemma of performance enhancement in its ranks… it is just that cycling’s transparency, rather than making it look cleaner, has instead just made the media focus on each positive as another indictment rather than another step forward.
And in that spirit a 2011 Tour that was high on excitement and low on doping drama can only gain so much from positive publicity. When you test as thoroughly and as frequently as the UCI does under the jurisdiction of WADA, you’re bound to catch somebody attempting something. Even the most flagrant of penalties, after all, is never a fail-safe deterrent for those that would try to transgress the rules. And when that next positive comes up, everyone will now wonder… will this guy get the Contador treatment or a swifter sense of justice?