After a last-minute change of heart, prompted by a spirited Kazakh intervention, reports suggested, the organizers of this year’s Giro invited the Astana team to join the field.
As is well known, the season was looking a little sparse for the team, having been very roundly and decisively snubbed by the ASO, owners of the Tour de France. The team will now have the chance to show its colours in Italy, and perhaps last year’s Tour winner will be able to show his capabilities at the highest level.
This year’s Tour will, though, be the second in a row where the defending champion has been excluded. For the ASO, it seems like Alberto Contador ran afoul of an informal ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule. First, he was linked to the Operacion Puerto Spanish doping scandal and had been part of the Liberty Seguros team under Manolo Saiz, who was central to the doping network; second, his new team for 2008 was Astana, disgraced by Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive doping tests (with other teammates also implicated); thirdly, the manager of the team for the season would be Johan Bruyneel, who presided over – it the eyes of the ASO, it must be assumed – Le Mensonge Armstrong.
It did not help Contador’s case that he rode to victory in the 2007 Tour so strongly, joining a select group of riders who have won the Tour whilst still classed as a young rider. Not even compatriot Miguel Indurain, the last Spanish winner (on the road), could manage it.
Contador proved to be untouchable in the mountains, and more than capable of defending his position in the time trial. His ride at Paris-Nice had already shown what he could do when the road turned upward.
He only serious rival appeared to be Michael Rasmussen, ejected from the Tour for his shady out-of-competition test record, in a major embarrassment for the ASO who felt misled by the UCI. Later reports suggested that Rasmussen had even tested positive for a new form of EPO, Dynepo, when tests were done on samples from during the Tour. Little seems to have been heard about this after the initial reports, and subsequent retraction by the lab official, but serious suspicions remain.
Cantador’s (and Rasmussen’s) climbing in the Tour strike right to the heart of the difficulty of reaching any clear conclusion about doping and climbing in current races. Doping options remain open to the riders: autologous blood transfusions, HGH, and possibly even Dynepo. Engaging in such practices is virtually undetectable, except by longitudinal testing.
Observers are left to monitor what they can – times on the climbs and wattage produced by riders. As we shall see, this approach is problematic. A substantial degree of subjectivity has crept into the analysis, particularly on the climbs. Riders now need to look like they’re suffering – otherwise suspicions are raised.
It seems that riders, better trained and prepared than even only a decade or so ago, must suffer like the riders have done recently – a collapse like Stephen Roche at La Plagne, or Eddy Merckx on Mont Ventoux. After defeating Rasmussen in an incredible duel at Plateau de Beille, with repeated accelerations out of the saddle, Contador did not collapse into the arms of his team support, or require resuscitation, but instead paused to take a cellphone call.
Such subjectivity is dangerous. Ultimately, it is impossible to judge a rider’s efforts as evidence of doping one way or the other. For those raised on televised cycling since the early 1990s, climbing was so heavily distorted by EPO that benchmarks are difficult to establish. Prior to the 1990s, riders had their own tonics – not as effective but still used nonetheless.
What then of the numbers – the times and the wattages? On Plateau de Beille, commentators were quick to point out that Contador’s ascent was faster than that of Lance Armstrong (“One and a half minutes faster than Lance Armstrong at his very strongest,” a doubting Jorg Jaksche, Contador’s former teammate, was reported saying) and Ivan Basso in 2004 and only 47″ slower than Marco Pantani’s effort in 1998. For critics, therefore, given their assumption that Armstrong, Basso and Pantani were all likely doped, only a similarly prepared rider could put in a similar performance.
For critics, like Antoine Veyer, former coach of Festina, such numbers were “beyond human limits”, according to his reported comments in French media, and suggested that Contador’s accelerations on the climb should have led to more visible exertion.
And there was more. French ‘physiological expert’ Frederic Grappe told L’Equipe that Contador’s performance was exceptional: “What he and Rasmussen did in the mountains…is the equivalent of what some riders who have been caught doping managed to do.”
Grappe went on to comment on Contador’s record-breaking ride of the Col d’Eze in that year’s Paris-Nice: “I’ve rarely seen a 24-year-old rider produce such a high level performance.”
But others have argued that the comparisons, even on the same climb, are difficult to make, given that race conditions vary from year to year, and that the riders arrive at the bottom of the climb having made different efforts.
Also, Rasmussen, Mauricio Soler, Carlos Sastre, and Levi Leipheimer all beat the Armstrong/Basso times. Dopers too?
French website Cyclismag.com made an extensive analysis of the wattages produced on this climb and others in the 2007 Tour. Equalizing the rider’s weights, they found that Contador and Rasmussen averaged 431 watts for the duration of the climb. Soler produced 424 watts, Leipheimer 423 watts, Sastre 421 watts, and Cadel Evans 410 watts. Cantador therefore produced only 2% more power than Sastre, widely considered to be a clean rider under CSC’s internal doping controls, and 5% more than Evans, apparently another likely clean rider.
As Cyclismag noted, somewhat cryptically, Contador’s ride was “a quite exceptional athletic performance, unachievable before 1994” but then went on to say that Contador’s build as a pure climber gives him certain advantages. Also, his wattage did not come close to the output of Indurain in 1995: 448 watts for the climb.
On the Col de Peyresourde, Contador and Rasmussen produced 436 watts over the climb, 3.5% more than the chasers at 421 watts including Leipheimer, Sastre, and Evans. Contador’s performance was less than the 447 watts averaged by Vinokourov and Iban Mayo in 2003 – a 2.5% difference.
Overall, Cyclismag said that Contador’s riding in the mountains was of a “very high” level and that his accelerations were “amazing”. Their analysis put him at the same level as the best climbers in the 2007 Giro – a taste of things to come this year, perhaps – Danilo Di Luca, Leonardo Piepoli, Gilberto Simoni, and Damiano Cunego. But they concluded that Contador was still not at the same level as Armstrong and Basso.
At such a young age, Contador has shown remarkable talent in the mountains, at a level at the very pinnacle of professional cycling. Clean? Maybe, or maybe not – take your pick. Did Contador combine his natural talents with the perfect training regime and a good dose of careful, intelligent riding to secure his win. Or did he take all the above and add a dose of blood doping to avoid a jour sans, allowing him to stay ‘fresh’ across the course of the Tour? Or was there other foul play involved, and how could a clean rider keep pace with a climber of Rasmussen’s record, who may have been juiced up himself?
For those looking to accuse Contador, all the evidence presented above will be used to build the case against him, justifying his exclusion from this year’s Tour. Some will argue that Contador’s wattages were simply too high to be believable.
Others, though, will argue that Contador’s impressive performances were only a few percentage points better than other top riders in the race, many of whom are assumed to be, or widely regarded as, clean. Without benchmarks, subjectivity inevitably creeps into the analysis, a gut feeling based not just on the numbers, but what constitutes believable climbing in today’s racing.
But where does that leave us? Last year saw a number of confusing doping cases – Di Luca and Rasmussen being the obvious ones. Without test results, though, can Contador be added to that list? Would viewing his longitudinal results over the course of the Tour be evidence? Conclusions are difficult, if not impossible. For now, we can watch and wait for this year’s Tour, and a comparison of the climbing efforts, for what it is worth, in a race that is widely expected to be cleaner.
But the question will never be clearly answered. Does Contador’s exclusion mean that a rider with a truly good climbing talent was unjustly left out, or that his talent is simply too good to be true?