You might have watched some of the coverage of the Tour de France in recent years, if only to see whether former seven-time champion Lance Armstrong could complete an improbable comeback at age 38.
He didn’t, and in fact, his short-lived return to professional cycling had about as much drama as Michael Jordan’s equally unremarkable comeback with the Washington Wizards basketball team a few years back.
And unless you’re a hardcore cycling fan, you probably haven’t even heard about the doping allegations swirling around the defending Tour de France champion, Spanish star Alberto Contador. But his story is worth reviewing because it puts meat-eating and livestock production back on the front burner, media-wise.
And not in a good way.
Contador, the world’s top cyclist and one of only five riders to win the sport’s premier stage races—the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta—is a three-time Tour titleist who’s no stranger to doping allegations. He was unable to defend his first title in 2008 after his entire Astana team was banned for doping.
Then last July, Contador tested positive for a minute amount of clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour. Clenbuterol, well-known to the beef industry as an anabolic—and illegal—steroid that stimulates lean carcass growth in cattle, is a banned substance in athletics. In cattle, it increases lean carcass weight. In humans, it adds muscle mass and burns off fat, two very valuable assets for professional cyclists, who generally tip the scales at a buck-fifty or so.
When the positive test was announced, Contador claimed that a Spanish butcher had personally supplied special steaks for he and his teammates to enjoy at a rest day meal during the Tour, and that the clenbuterol must have come from tainted beef. Since the World Anti-Doping Agency, the governing body for Olympic sports, has a zero tolerance policy for clenbuterol, any amount whatsoever—even the 50 trillionths of a gram found in Contador’s system—is considered a violation.
Pumped full of drugs
So is Contador’s story plausible? As sportswriter Jim Caple put it when the Spanish Cycling Federation cleared Contador of any blame yesterday, “Apparently, Alberto Contador was able to convince Spanish cycling authorities that clenbuterol is simply one of the ingredients in Heinz 57 steak sauce.”
That’s likely the attitude of many casual sports fans: Professional cycling is rife with all sorts of doping allegations, and several of the sport’s prominent stars in recent years have openly admitted to using various performance enhancing drugs. At the end of the day, cycling is but a minor blip on the American sports scene, so who cares if some Spanish guy gets banned or not?