The cycling world was shocked today when it learned of the CAS verdict stripping Alberto Contador of two Grand Tour titles and issuing a two-year retroactive ban. Not only has the decision put cycling into disarray, but it also has potentially damaging effects to Bjarne Riis’ Saxo squad that was tightly built around Contador.
Ahead of the press conference coming Tuesday, Cyclismas reporter Frank Mercer was given a special exclusive interview with Contador, where no question was out of bounds. The interview was conducted in English, with one of Contador’s trusted inner circle providing translation.
Frank Mercer: Thank you for agreeing to the interview. We’re sorry that it’s under these difficult circumstances.
Alberto Contador: You’re welcome.
FM: How are you feeling at this very moment about the verdict?
AC: I’m very confused. I was told after spending all this money that I was protected like Armstrong was protected, and I was the new “anointed one,” I’m not sure how we ended up here.
FM: Do you think it had anything to do with the Spanish Federation getting involved?
AC: After meeting with Rossi and some man back a year and a half ago, and being told how the UCI handles these things, I’m surprised that I’m here. The mistake that I made though, was going public after that German TV reporter found out the story, and I held that press conference explaining what happened. Pat called me every name in the book on the phone with my brother after that press conference. But still, they assured me that everything was arranged. They even told me what lawyers to use. I was surprised that they appealed the case after the RFEC verdict, but other factors came into play.
FM: Other factors? Such as?
AC: WADA. My lawyers explained to me that WADA has always been the problem. A problem that Verbruggen has been trying to solve by using SportAccord. WADA doesn’t do what the UCI or the IOC want, as I’m told that they get funding from federations mostly. Usually UCI and WADA agree on appeals, but for some reason in my case WADA didn’t listen to the UCI and filed their own separate appeal. Uncle Pat wasn’t too happy about that, according to what Alain Rumpf told me. He also told me that WADA has been cooperating with Interpol on an investigation into sport governing body corruption, but I wasn’t supposed to talk about that yet.
FM: It sounds like to me like being a professional cyclist isn’t about the racing anymore. Do you agree?
AC: Yes. It’s tough to know where to go anymore. Team owners want something from you. Sponsors want something. UCI wants something. We riders have no one that looks after our interests. A team owner says, you’re going to get that vitamin shot, so you’d better take it now. How do I know it’s vitamins? Someone told me about a Swiss guy that was stuck with drugs by his own soigneur, and he didn’t even know it. That still happens today. We are supposed to “trust” the teams, team doctors, and the federation people, and then that thing happens to Kittel.
FM: So what is the answer? A union?
AC: We are the only team-type sport in the world where professional athletes do not have impartial representation to negotiate with competition organizers, team owners, and their sport’s governing body. If the UCI cared, they would want us to be safer and quit fighting about radios and technology. If the team owners cared, they wouldn’t demand so many racing days out of the non-stars on the teams. If the race organizers cared, they would do a better job with accommodations, transfers and course safety. So yes, I think a union run by the WorldTour riders would be beneficial.
FM: So do you think changes there would help the riders?
AC: I think the pressure on the peloton is immense. Based on the amount of money in the sport now, it is easier to come by doping products, and team people can’t be around all the riders all the time. It’s impossible. But the real problem is all the promises the UCI makes to the sponsors of the sport to keep them investing. It’s like me promising my wife to keep getting her a bigger house to make her happy, but how do I pay for it? I borrow, I borrow, I borrow, and start making bad decisions based on my debt. It makes it easy for the bad element to get mixed up in things.
FM: The bad element? Crime?
AC: Yes. It may not be as bad as some sports, but it’s there.
FM: Did you dope?
AC: I don’t know how the clenbuterol got in my system. I pride myself on racing clean.
FM: Are you aware of what happened to Greg LeMond in 1986?
AC: No. I was only four years old then.
FM: Oh, right. Well, he was told that there were partisan fanatics that didn’t want him to win, and he should be careful with his samples. He went so far as to take melted wax, seal his samples with his thumbprint, and take a picture of them.
AC: Wow, he was a smart man. There are many opportunities and many people with power and money who can make things happen in cycling. That doesn’t surprise me. But I would be really alarmed that something like tampering with samples is anything other than an extraordinarily rare situation.
FM: Have you read through the entire verdict yet?
AC: No, for me it is a done issue. I’m going to take my suspension, and come back to race the Vuelta in August. The decision really makes no sense as it was told to me, because everyone told me that it must have been the steak that caused my positive. But I’m taking so many different things by so many experts around the team, so maybe it could have been a mistake by one of the many doctors that support the team. I know that Riis’ pieces can be out of place at times, but they are all very serious people who know what they are doing, so I doubt it could have been a mistake.
FM: You have quite a bit of faith in Riis. Does it bother you that he confessed to doping and was involved with doping as a rider?
AC: You cannot be involved with cycling at the professional level without at least two people involved in team operations having a connection to some sort of doping event, or questionable performances, or a conviction, or something. There are many riders from Discovery and U.S. Postal, for example, who have moved into positions on other teams. Same with Festina. Or Once. Or T-Mobile.
FM: So are you saying that teams shouldn’t hire people who are suspected of being involved with doping?
AC: If that were the case, there wouldn’t be a sport at all! [much laughing from everyone in the room]
FM: In that case, do you think that doping should be legalized?
AC: Aye Carumba. I don’t know. That might put some of the poorer teams at a disadvantage, but I guess they already have a disadvantage now.
FM: Are you suggesting that money is causing problems in the sport?
AC: Money is causing many problems yes. But the UCI doesn’t seem interested in addressing this with salary limits, or team budget limits. Some days I wonder why they are involved with the professional side of the sport. Bjarne tells me the structure was proper before the IOC allowed professionals into the Olympics in the 90s, and that the UCI’s eyes were bigger than their stomach could manage and agreed to a combination of the amateur and professional association. When I was young, we all dreamed of the Olympics being a stone to step to the Tour de France. It wasn’t as important as the Tour. The UCI has tried to make it as big, but it really is no different than the world championships for me.
FM: Speaking of the Tour, who is your pick to win it this year?
AC: Well, since I won’t be there this year [weak smile], it could be anyone’s race. I think Nibali might be strong this year, but I don’t know. I do know that the English and their talk of Wiggins is ridiculous with the addition of Cavendish. Froome is a better talent, and a nicer guy. Evans is strong with a powerful support team, but I stand beside and behind my friend Andy. I’d like to see him win one, and not by UCI means.
FM: Thank you for your time, Alberto. We will see you in August.