Contador cleared off doping ban by federation

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Astana team rider and Tour de France winner Alberto Contador of Spain shows his yellow jersey to the crowd during an official welcoming ceremony in his hometown of Pinto, outside Madrid, July 26, 2010. Contador won the Tour de France for the third time on Sunday.

Three-time Tour de France winner relieved about local body's decision

MADRID - Three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador said he was "relieved and happy" after Spain's cycling federation reversed an earlier decision and cleared him of knowingly using a banned substance.

However, the International Cycling Union, the sport's world governing body, and the World Anti-Doping Agency have a month to appeal the ruling to the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, which would have the final word.

The 28-year-old's future has hung in the balance since he announced last August he had tested positive for minute traces of the banned substance clenbuterol during last July's Tour de France.

The Spaniard has repeatedly denied knowingly taking any banned substances, blaming the result on a steak he says was contaminated with traces of the muscle-building drug.

The rider's Team Saxo Bank said Spain's cycling federation, the RFEC, decided to clear Contador on Tuesday based on the evidence in the case and the explanation provided by the rider about unknowingly consuming a banned substance.

The decision means Contador is free to compete for the first time for his new team. He will ride in the Tour of Algarve which gets underway on Wednesday in southern Portugal.

The decision marked an about-turn for the federation, whose competition committee last month had recommended a one-year ban for Contador, a ruling that would have stripped him of his 2010 Tour de France title.

"I'm relieved and obviously happy about this ruling. It has been some very stressful months for me, but throughout the case I have been totally available for all inquiries," Contador said after the federation's final ruling was announced.

"All the way through I have spoken in accordance with the truth," he said in a statement distributed by Team Saxo Bank.

The president of the Spanish cycling federation, Juan Carlos Castano, said he was confident the decision would stand up even if there is an appeal.

"We believe the decision which the competition committee has taken is in keeping with the rules so there will be no problem to defend it here, in Switzerland or anywhere," he said.

The rider has drawn high-profile support, including from Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero who said last Thursday "there is no legal reason to sanction Contador".

But the federation head said this had not had any influence on its final decision.

"The competition committee has acted independently, it has acted outside of all these statements," Castano said when asked if the support expressed for Contador from top officials had influenced the federation.

The online edition of daily newspaper El Mundo said the federation "accepted the theory of food contamination and the absence of any blame or negligence, based on article 296" of the International Cycling Union's (UCI) anti-doping regulations.

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Spanish cyclist Albert Contador looks on before the start of the Algarve Tour in Faro Feb 16, 2011.

Article 296 effectively states that if a rider can establish that "he bears no fault or negligence, the otherwise applicable period of ineligibility shall be eliminated".

A statement released by the governing body acknowledged the decision, but said: "the UCI reserves the right to conduct an in-depth study of the reasons behind the decision before expressing its opinion".

Contador, who also won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, had threatened to quit the sport if he was slapped with a ban.

In an interview recorded for Spanish television before the announcement was made public, Contador said he had hoped the RFEC "would make a U-turn" and said he could never have accepted a suspension.

"When you have done nothing, and my conscience is completely clear, all that matters is that you recognize that you have done nothing, so to accept a year as was proposed was not something that I could accept because there was such a great injustice that I had to fight," he told the VEO7 channel.

Earlier this month, Contador blasted anti-doping regulations which he said were outdated.

Talking to reporters at Madrid airport before flying to Lisbon late on Tuesday, he said he hoped "standards will change" as a result of the case.

{Agence France-Presse}