One of the biggest doping scandals in recent years goes to court next week in a case that could hang on a slice of prime beef that was eaten 16 months ago.
Did Alberto Contador's positive test for clenbuterol during his 2010 Tour de France victory stem from eating contaminated steak bought in Spain?
The three-time Tour winner's legacy and the integrity of world anti-doping rules will hang in the balance during a trial beginning Monday at the court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. Given the case's legal and scientific complexity, a verdict is not expected until January.
Contador's large, and expensive, legal team will argue that he should be exonerated because he was not at fault for eating meat that was either illegally fattened up with the banned drug in his native Spain or imported already containing it.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will try to prove over the four-day hearing that the red meat is a legal red herring.
They will argue that contamination is the least likely explanation for Contador having a tiny amount of the anabolic agent in his urine; perhaps, that a banned blood transfusion reintroduced the doping substance to his body on July 20-21, 2010, when he was just four stages from victory in Paris.
If found guilty of doping, Contador can expect to receive a two-year ban and be stripped of his 2010 Tour title and his 2011 Giro d'Italia victory.
Contador has said he calmly awaits his time in court, and prepared by marrying longtime girlfriend Macarena Pescado in November and going on honeymoon to the Caribbean and Rome.
The 28-year-old rider was cleared by a Spanish cycling federation tribunal last February, and the court of public opinion in his home country where he is a sports icon.
Another victory for Contador could force parts of the World Anti-Doping Code - the basis for policing drug cheats in sports - to be rewritten.
The code says that athletes testing positive for substances such as clenbuterol are guilty of a doping offense because of strict liability, unless they can specifically show how it entered their body.
Yet the contents of Contador's dinner plate on a Tour de France rest day in Pau are long since gone.
Leading American sports lawyer Howard Jacobs believes that evidence is the crux of the case.
"It's going to be Contador's burden to prove," Jacobs said. "He has to prove where the clenbuterol came from. That's what the code says."
WADA is bringing the butcher who sold the beef to a Contador friend as a witness at the hearing, according to Spanish media reports.
A representative of Spain's cattle farmers - whose integrity also is at stake - also has reportedly been summoned.
CAS secretary general Matthieu Reeb said he expected "around 20" expert witnesses will be called in a case that has amassed documents totaling nearly 4,000 pages.
Former Contador teammates, who also ate the beef but were not tested at the Tour, will testify.
"Alberto is a friend and he asked me to testify, so I'll go there and give my version of what happened," Italian rider Paolo Tiralongo said. "Alberto told us that afternoon that his friend was coming with (the meat)," Tiralongo said, adding that the Astana team cook prepared the dinner.
Contador's legal team also includes English anti-doping expert Vivian James; Paul Scott, an American who has run testing programs for cycling teams; Italian blood analyst Giuseppe Banfi; and a statistician to challenge readings from the UCI's biological passport - the main weapon in cycling's fight against the doping that has so often discredited the sport.
The Spaniard's legal team has also reportedly lined up American lie detector expert Louis Rovner, in an echo of past high-profile doping cases.
In 2004, lawyers for Marion Jones presented US anti-doping officials with results from a polygraph test in which she denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs. The disgraced sprinter later confessed to doping in the notorious BALCO case and served jail time for perjury.
Contador is expected to give evidence on Tuesday and be cross-examined.
The quality of questioning could be decisive if, as Spanish cycling federation president Juan Carlos Castano said, "there's no indication of how the case will go."
Castano's federation first handled the case and its independent anti-doping tribunal was advised to ban Contador for one year.
Two weeks later, and after Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said on Twitter that there was no reason for sanctions, Contador was cleared.
WADA and the UCI appealed that decision in March and appeared to be backed by sports law.
However, their case has since been complicated by the contaminated meat defense succeeding for athletes who tested positive after competing in countries where many farmers feed clenbuterol to livestock.
WADA accepted this defense last month when it abandoned an appeal in a case involving five Mexican soccer players. It had little choice after FIFA demonstrated that more than 100 players at the recent Under-17 World Cup hosted by Mexico also were contaminated.
The low levels of clenbuterol found in some of the FIFA cases were similar to those recorded in Contador's sample - 50 picograms - by the same lab in Cologne, Germany. The small amount also makes it difficult to differentiate between contamination and doping.
"As far as the numbers go, both hypotheses hold up and you need to determine which one is right," said Francesco Botre, director of the WADA-accredited Rome laboratory, which is not involved in the Contador case.
Jacobs, a highly sought defense lawyer for sports doping cases, sees one distinguishing factor.
"Just because there's all these positives in Mexico and China doesn't mean that he tested positive for the same reason in France," Jacobs said.
WADA officials declined to comment on the case and the agency's legal strategy is unclear.
One option could be to allege that Contador used an illegal blood transfusion after stage 16 stage as a boost for the grueling 17th leg that finished atop the Tourmalet peak. Contador led by just 8 seconds over eventual runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg on the rest day; he would extend the lead to 39 seconds in the stage 19 time trial, the day before taking victory in Paris.
WADA, which reportedly will use its scientific director Olivier Rabin as a witness, also could challenge Contador regarding elevated levels of plastic allegedly traced in his urine sample. Researchers believe measuring plasticizers can indicate use of blood stored in certain types of blood bags, though no test has been formally recognized.
UCI President Pat McQuaid said all sides agreed that the case, twice delayed at CAS after being scheduled for June, had "gone on too long."
"This has been driven by lawyers. There are several major legal firms working on Contador's case," McQuaid said, adding that that he was "satisfied" with his governing body's management of the case.
"We are recognized as pioneer in the fight against doping and we do our job well," he said.
The hearing is scheduled to finish Thursday afternoon.
Contador will be offered a final chance to address the three-man panel - one arbitrator chosen by each side of the appeal, and a chairman appointed by CAS.
"That is the custom - the athlete normally has the last word," Reeb said.
The panel is expected to deliver its verdict and detailed ruling after eight weeks of deliberation.
Swiss lawyer Rocco Taminelli, previously part of Contador's defense team, said he expects Contador will either be absolved or banned for two years, with no middle ground judgment.
"It's going to be a controversial decision in any case," he said.