By Ian Ransom
GEELONG, Australia (Reuters) - Tour de France champion Alberto Contador has been provisionally suspended for returning an "adverse analytical finding" of clenbuterol from a urine sample taken during the race, the International Cycling Union (UCI) said on Thursday.
The Spaniard, who won his third Tour this year, was tested during the second rest day of the race and the second B test had confirmed the presence of clenbuterol, a banned anabolic agent, the UCI said in a statement.
"The rider, who had already put an end to his cycling season before the result was known, was nevertheless formally and provisionally suspended as is prescribed by the World Anti-Doping Code," the statement said.
Contador blamed food contamination for the finding.
"It's possible to put your hand in the fire and not burn yourself. If it had been a clear case of doping it would have come out a week later. The food poisoning came from a cut of meat from Spain," Contador told Spanish radio station Cadena Cope.
Clenbuterol can be abused by athletes to strip fat and enhance muscle size and can have short-term stimulant effects including increasing aerobic capacity, blood pressure and alertness. It has led to bans for cyclists in the past.
China's first professional cyclist Li Fuyu, a former RadioShack team mate of Lance Armstrong, was provisionally banned by the UCI in April after returning a positive test for agent.
The concentration in Contador's A test was "400 time(s) less than what the antidoping laboratories accredited by WADA must be able to detect," the UCI said in a statement.
"In view of this very small concentration and in consultation with WADA, the UCI immediately had the proper results management proceedings conducted including the analysis of B sample that confirmed the first result."
"FURTHER SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION"
The case would require "further scientific investigation" before any conclusion could be drawn and could take some time, the statement added, providing no further comment.
Tour organizers Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) said in a statement: "The Tour de France management awaits the results of these further investigation and the UCI's final decision (before making a comment)."
The finding puts 27-year-old Contador's Tour de France victory with Kazakh-funded Astana in July under a cloud and threatens to leave an indelible stain on the Spaniard, who also won the 2007 and 2009 Tours and is regarded one of the greatest cyclists of the modern era.
Contador's personal press attache Jacinto Vidarte said food contamination was "the origin of the case."
"From the moment he was first informed by the UCI on August 24, Alberto Contador indicated that a contamination of food was the only possible explanation for what happened," his agent said in a statement.
"Since then, he has placed himself in the hands of the cycling authorities with the confidence that this extremely serious problem that has now come to light can be resolved.
"Experts consulted have also signaled that food contamination was the origin of the case, above all taking into account the quantity of (doping) tests Alberto Contador took during the Tour de France.
"(This) enabled the exact moment of the appearance of the substance to be determined as well as the very small amount detected, which rules out any other origin or intent."
Athletes have previously sought to blame food contamination for the elevated presence of clenbuterol in their blood.
In May, the coach of China's Olympic judo champion Tong Wen blamed a surfeit of contaminated pork chops for her positive test.
BLOW FOR ELITE CYCLING
The Contador finding is another blow for elite cycling, which has struggled to shake off its image as a sport riddled with drug cheats, and threatens to cast a pall over the road world championships being held in Australia's port city of Geelong this week.
The Spanish team at the world championships, where the men's time trial world title was being decided on Thursday, declined to comment.
"There is nothing to say about it at this stage," a spokesman said at the team's box in a marquee pitched under overcast skies.
Australia's road world champion Cadel Evans, who will bid to defend his title on Sunday, reserved judgment.
"I will wait until final analysis is completed before I form an opinion," he said in a statement through the Australian team.
(Additional reporting by Iain Rogers in Madrid and Julien Pretot in Paris)
(Editing by Ossian Shine and Justin Palmer)