The Explainer: Say it ain’t so, Alberto

News of Alberto Contador's positive test for clenbuterol triggered a flood of reader questions.

Dear readers,
As this column gets into the swing of things after a long absence during the Vuelta, I thought I’d use today’s as an opportunity to answer a number of brief questions on what is now a timely subject – Alberto Contador’s brush with the Dope-O-Meter ®. (No, the Dope-O-Meter ® is not really a registered trademark, it’s a creation of the warped and tangled neurons of my good friend and colleague, Patrick O’Grady. I just like to steal it now and then.)

The bovine defense

Dear Explainer,
First off, let me say how damn depressing it is that we have three positive doping tests among elite riders in less than 24 hours. Mosquera aside, what’s the deal with a Spanish beef defense? Sure there’s bull involved, but come on. Isn’t that an old line? Didn’t I hear that one before?
Jen Floret
Des Moines, Iowa

Dear Jen,
Well, I think what you heard before was the “Belgian Beef” defense raised by former mountain bike world champion Paola Pezzo, when she tested positive for the metabolites of nandrolone (19-nortestosterone), at World Cup race in Annecy, France, in 1997.

Like Contador, Pezzo said that the nandrolone positive was a result of her ingestion of beef that had been injected with the steroid. Unlike Contador, her levels were actually quite high – 12 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). Nonetheless, she was actually cleared of the charge by the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI), but we’re not sure how that defense would have fared in the post-WADA environment of aggressive prosecutions these days.

Anyway, the beef reference aside, there is now a fairly well-structured argument from Dutch anti-doping specialist Douwe de Boer, supporting Contador’s claim that he could merely be the victim of unfortunate circumstances. Do remember that Contador’s A sample came back on August 24, so De Boer has had a month to prepare this report.

One thing to keep in mind while reading De Boer’s paper. One, he was hired by Contador to support the argument, so it’s clearly a one-sided presentation. It should be interesting to see what counter-arguments are offered in refutation of Dr. De Boer’s position. Nonetheless, it is a compelling argument and one you should consider carefully before dismissing it outright. In other words, read it, think about it … and then dismiss it outright, if you so choose.

Key in that argument is that the July 21st sample, in which the WADA-certified lab in Cologne found very low levels of clenbuterol – just fifty trillionths of a gram per milliliter – was the only sample to have tested at any level. Recall that Contador had been in yellow for two days prior to the rest day in Pau, so he had been subjected to mandatory controls before and all the way to Paris since then. None of those samples showed a glimmer of a positive. Fifty picograms per milliliter is not anywhere close to offering a performance enhancement and a substance whose half life is 30+ hours would show higher traces for days before it dwindled to such a low level. But it did not.

Now, comes the one counter argument that is not addressed in the De Boer paper. That’s the lingering thought that trace indications of a banned drug appearing so suddenly could also be indicative of a far more serious offense, namely autologous blood doping.

It’s a theory that popped up on more than one occasion during that long, painful soap opera we’ve all come to know and love as the Landis affair. Landis, too, had no traces of the banned substance in question – in his case exogenous testosterone – until that fateful ride on Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France. Was it the result of late-night injection or application? Landis, despite having admitted to doping in other circumstances, continues to insist that was not the case. Other have theorized that Landis – and now Contador – were caught because of a less-than-sophisticated reliance on their own stored blood that had been contaminated by earlier undetected doping.

Fortunately, there are blood samples available and they, too, will be subjected to intense scrutiny as this case unfolds.

Guilt by urination, right?

Dear Explainer,
So what if it’s beef? Isn’t the WADA code blind to questions about where a drug came from? So what if started out as beef? If it ends up in a rider’s urine sample, isn’t that violation?
Robert Toye
Rochester, New York

Dear Robert,
When originally written the WADA code was pretty much a purely “strict liability” legal code. In other words, dope in rider? Rider out of sport! No debate. Period. End of discussion.

For the most part, that is still the case; however, since its full adoption in 2004, the Code has evolved a little and the question of intent is allowed to be raised as a defense now and then. After the revisions adopted at the Madrid Conference of 2007, accidental doping — by means of a contaminated supplement or tainted food — can be raised as a defense or at least considered as a mitigating factor when it comes to handing down a penalty.

Again, it does have its limitations. The Code, for example, would never allow you to argue that you had “no idea how that CERA got into my system. I was actually, wondering myself, officer, why I was feeling so good in the hills.”

Contador, however, is raising a defense that might just result in his being completely cleared of the charge. He also faces a possibility that he could get a reduced penalty, something less than the usual two-year suspension handed out to most first-time offenders in doping cases.

Contador’s problem is that even a minimal penalty – say a three-month suspension in the off-season – would almost inevitably mean that his results from the time of the offense (and that includes the last week of the Tour) would be negated. For Contador, at this point, the only way he can win is to be completely cleared and that could be fight tougher than trying to stay with Andy Schleck on the slopes of the Tourmalet.

What about the standard?

Dear Explainer,
If the UCI is right and Contador’s levels were way, way lower than the standard, why is he in trouble?
Alan Nelson
Rockford, Illinois

Dear Alan,
First off, the standard to which you refer is not a minimum required to trip a doping test. It is what the World Anti-Doping Agency sets as a minimum standard of sensitivity for the analytical equipment in a certified anti-doping lab. That standard, known as the Minimum Required Performance Level is the point at which a laboratory must be able to detect the presence of a certain substance. In the case of clenbuterol, the MRPL is two nanograms (10−9) per milliliter. That’s two billionths of a gram in a milliliter of a given liquid (like blood or urine).

In testament to the wonders of German efficiency, the lab in Cologne was able to detect a level of 50 picograms (10−12) per milliliter. That’s fifty trillionths of a gram in a milliliter of a given liquid. Not to belabor the point, but that’s 0.00000000005 grams per milliliter.

Since clenbuterol is not a substance naturally produced by the human body, there is no level below which you get a pass. It’s essentially a “binary” test: If detected, it’s a positive; if not, no violation. That’s unlike the more subjective “ratio” tests, used to distinguish naturally occurring substances – like erythropoietin and testosterone – from their exogenous counterparts.

Anyway, the case is bound to take some time and we can expect a protracted scientific and legal war of words. I guess watching doping cases is sadly becoming our off-season pastime these days. Pass the popcorn.

Follow-up on racing with a visa

Finally, here’s a quick follow-up on last week’s column.
Last week’s question involved a Mexican national attending an American university on a student visa. I got a call from the reader who submitted the original question and he reports that the rider has investigated his options, including applying for a “P visa,” but then took an offer from a team back in Mexico. Armed with an engineering degree, the young man said he wanted to build his professional career back home and expects to just “dabble” in cycling until he gets down “to my real job.”

Either way, we wish him the best in both pursuits.


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.