Alberto Contador relieved to avoid ban


ALBUFEIRA, Portugal -- Alberto Contador relished getting back on his bike a day after he was cleared of doping, and the reigning Tour de France champion finished 28th on Wednesday in the first stage of the Tour of Algarve.

"Today was a great day for me," Contador said. "The truth is it's a day I enjoyed more than any other in recent times. I enjoyed being on the bike today like no other in a long time."

Contador, the two-time defending champion of the five-stage race through southern Portugal, wasted no time returning to competition after the Spanish cycling federation reversed a proposed one-year ban on Tuesday. Contador had tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol at last year's Tour, which he has claimed came from eating tainted meat.

"I'm totally focused on this race, like I would be any other," said Contador, who is now a part of team Saxo Bank-SunGard. "I think today is a very important day for the team and I can [race] with total calm."

Team owner Bjarne Riis agreed.

"I think it's the right thing to let him ride," Riis said. "There are no grounds that Alberto cheated, and this is vital for us."

The Spanish cyclist was greeted with applause by spectators ahead of the 98-mile first stage. He finished in the main peloton, 15 seconds behind stage winner Philippe Gilbert of Belgium, who completed the stage in 4 hours, 36 minutes, 36 seconds.

Contador has been cleared to race pending any appeal rulings from the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The International Cycling Union has 30 days from the date of the decision to appeal to CAS, while the World Anti-Doping Agency has an extra 21 days after that.

"I can't say at the moment what we are going to do until we study what is there in the full dossier," UCI president Pat McQuaid said from Oman. "What the reasoning was or what the motivation was for the decision was made -- [if] we feel the decision is justified, we leave it [at] that. If we feel it's not justified then we appeal to CAS."

If Contador is banned upon appeal, all results incurred over the time he competes would be wiped out. Any possible appeals process could drag until June, with the Tour starting July 2.

Contador said the decision was based on legal, scientific evidence and not patriotism after several authorities in Spain -- including prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero -- came out in his defense.

"They didn't clear me because I'm Spanish," he said. "It's not a question of being Spanish or Contador. It's a question of sport and justice."

Contador said Tuesday he planned to race for his second Giro d'Italia title this year. The 28-year-old Spaniard also plans to race in the Tour of Murcia, Vuelta de Catalunya, Vuelta Castilla Leon and another classic before the Giro in May.

Contador hasn't raced since winning his third Tour title last July.