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PINTO, Spain (AP) — Three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador blamed contaminated steak Thursday for his positive doping test, vowing to clear his name and not let cycling's latest drug scandal "destroy everything that I have done."
The Spanish rider was provisionally suspended after a World Anti-Doping Agency lab in Germany found a "very small concentration" of the banned substance clenbuterol in his urine sample on July 21 at the Tour, according to a statement from cycling governing body UCI.
"It is a clear case of food contamination," Contador told a news conference in his hometown near Madrid, during which several times he appeared close to tears. "I am sad and disappointed but hold my head high."
"I think this is going to be resolved in a clear way," he added. "With the truth behind you, you can speak loud and clear, and I am confident justice will prevail."
Contador said the beef was brought across the border from Spain to France during a rest day during the Tour at the request of the team's cook.
Contador said the beef was brought by a Spanish cycling organizer, Jose Luis Lopez Cerron. Cerron said earlier Thursday on Spanish radio that he was a friend of the team chef, who had complained of poor quality meat at the hotel where the team was staying.
Lopez Cerron said he bought filet mignon for the team in the Spanish border town of Irun on his way to Pau, France, to watch a few stages of the tour.
Contador said he ate the meat on July 20 and again on July 21. He called the UCI's suspension of him "a true mistake."
Clenbuterol is sometimes given to cows, pigs and other animals to increase their growth rate.
Contador said he learned of the positive test on Aug. 24 and met with UCI doctors two days later.
"On the 26th we talked at length about how all this had happened. The UCI itself told me to my face that it was a case of food contamination," Contador said.
He said he has been in conversations with the UCI ever since "to handle this the most appropriate way possible and analyze it and see clearly that it is a case of food contamination in which I am the victim."
Contador said it would have been better for cycling's image if the case had not been made public.
"It's almost normal for people to doubt this sport now," he said.
But he added: "The idea of anyone questioning my Tour victory does not worry me. I am not going to let something like this destroy everything I have done."
Contador beat Andy Schleck of Luxembourg by 39 seconds in winning his third Tour in four years.
"What a crazy day in cycling with the news about Contador," Schleck said on Twitter. "I only heard about it in the press. I hope he is innocent and I think he deserves the right to defend himself now."
The allegations are the latest to a hit a sport whose credibility has been battered by doping scandals. Within hours of Contador's case becoming public, the UCI announced that two Spanish riders failed drug tests during the Spanish Vuelta in September — runner-up Ezequiel Mosquera and David Garcia. The UCI said they tested positive for hydroxyethyl starch, which increases blood volume.
The UCI said the amount of clenbuterol in Contador's sample was "400 time(s) less than what the antidoping laboratories accredited by WADA must be able to detect."
Both Contador's A and B samples tested positive, and the cyclist has been "formally and provisionally suspended," the UCI said.
With seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong now back in retirement, Contador is cycling's biggest star, so it could be devastating for the sport if the Spanish rider is found to have cheated.
The UCI's statement gave no indication of whether Contador will be stripped of his latest Tour title or be banned.
"The UCI continues working with the scientific support of WADA to analyze all the elements that are relevant to the case. This further investigation may take some more time," the statement said.
The company that runs the Tour said race organizers were awaiting the UCI's definitive decision and offered no further comment in a short statement.
If Tour officials strip Contador of his title, he would be just the second cyclist so punished. The first was American Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title after a positive test. For years, Landis denied doping but admitted this spring that he used performance-enhancing drugs.
Contador said he and four other Astana teammates ate the beef that was brought in from Spain but that he was only one that underwent a doping test on July 21.
Contador said that since he was the Tour leader at that point, he underwent three doping controls before the July 21 test that was positive. He said nothing awry turned up in the earlier tests.
"This is something strongly in my favor," Contador said.
He said that in tests over the two days after his positive result, the clenbuterol level first went down drastically, then was virtually negligible.
Contador insisted the amount of the drug found in his urine was so small it could not have been administered and had to come from food, and that in any case was so tiny it would be useless as a performance-enhancer.
Contador said the UCI knows where the meat was purchased in Spain, but he would not name it so as to protect its reputation.
Having invested millions of dollars in recent years in what is widely regarded as the one of the most stringent anti-doping regimes anywhere, cycling authorities hoped to be turning the corner on widespread doping by riders that had long made a mockery of the sport and repeatedly sullied the Tour, its showpiece race. Although just 27, Contador is already the greatest rider of his generation. His victories at the Tour starting in 2007 and at other major races were seen as a possible break from cycling's dirty past.
"This is serious and this case needs to be clarified," Pierre Bordry, the outgoing leader of France's anti-doping agency, told RTL radio. "Clenbuterol is a forbidden substance, whatever the amount which is detected. If they really found it, it's forbidden."
WADA director general David Howman told The Associated Press that testing positive for even the most minute amounts of clenbuterol could be enough to sanction an athlete, although he declined to discuss the specifics of Contador's case.
"The issue is the lab has detected this. They have the responsibility for pursuing. There is no such thing as a limit where you don't have to prosecute cases. This is not a substance that has a threshold," said Howman, reached by telephone as he was changing planes in Dubai on his way to the Commonwealth Games in India.
"Once the lab records an adverse finding, it's an adverse finding and it has to be followed up."
"Clenbuterol is a substance that has been used for over 20 to 30 years," he added. "It is not anything new. Nobody has ever suggested it is something you can take inadvertently."
Douwe de Boer, a Dutch anti-doping expert hired by Contador to study his test, said the rider told him that smaller traces of clenbuterol also were found in his urine in the two days after the positive result but were so minute that the UCI classed them as negative.
All of Contador's tests before July 21 were negative, De Boer said. The July 21 test was conducted on a rest day at the Tour, when the race was near France's border with Spain.
"My conclusion is that it is very likely that this extra-low concentration (of clenbuterol) entered his body without him knowing it and one of the scenarios is contaminated meat," de Boer said in a telephone interview. He said the UCI's "lack of speed" in deciding whether to sanction Contador suggests the cycling body is "seriously" considering the contaminated food argument.
Clenbuterol has anabolic properties that build muscle while burning fat. It is commonly given to horses to treat breathing problems. In medicine, it is used to treat asthma. In similar ways to stimulant drugs such as amphetamine or ephedrine, it can increase the heart rate and body temperature.
Athletes and body builders are thought to use it in combination with other performance-enhancers such as growth hormone and steroids to build and define muscles. It is listed by WADA as an anabolic agent that is prohibited for use by athletes at all times, both in and out of competition.
Contador's positive test distracted attention from cycling's world championships in Australia. Some riders there were not yet ready to condemn Contador.
"I 100 percent give Alberto fully the benefit of the doubt," said British rider David Millar, himself banned for two years in 2004 after admitting to using the banned blood-booster EPO. "It doesn't make much sense in that it was a rest-day control and it's a micro-dose ... Alberto gets controlled every day when he's in the yellow jersey and that would have come up the day before or after the race."