If what Floyd Landis says is true, cyclists have been able to skirt both anti-doping controls and the UCI's biological passport system through a complicated scheme of mixing tiny doses of EPO and transfusions of their own blood to boost performance and avoid detection.
But does that now mean the UCI's nascent effort to stamp out blood boosting by measuring the effects of EPO use rather than the drug directly is already obsolete?
Not so, says Oliver Catlin, son of noted anti-doping researcher Dr. Don Catlin, and the CFO and Vice President of Anti-Doping Research and President of the Anti-Doping Sciences Institute (ADSI).
He noted that each test ADR carries out includes blood and urine screening, and even though the 'microdosing' described by Landis would only be caught in a brief window after injection, Catlin thinks his program has enough latitude to catch even this practice since they have the permission of both teams to call at any hour during or out of competition.
CN: The last few days have been overshadowed by talk of microdosing with EPO, the UCI’s apparent lack of testing against it and riders admitting to it. What are your thoughts on the subject?
OC: It’s a little unfortunate that this discussion is coming out. Many people in the sport of cycling were hoping the days had passed when we were constantly discussing doping. To have this microdosing talk come out and raise new questions about the sport is frustrating.
The sport has come a long, long way in part due to how it applies it’s anti-doping system with the onset of the biological passport system and a system like our own, where teams and in fact the riders themselves pay to go above and beyond to try to detect this stuff and ultimately protect the sport.
I think we’re in a new era and the issues with microdosing are certainly complex. We look at statistics today and as you well know it’s difficult to create a statistical analysis system that deals with every single nuance, so I think that’s where we sit today. I believe that our programme has some elements to it that would make the likelihood of detecting microdosing high.
We’re able to collect in our programme at any point in time, we’re not restricted on when we can come or to any time frame. I think there’s predictability about the system in the international realm that could potentially make it easier for riders to figure out when they could microdose and expect to have the traces to go away within a certain number of hours.
Out team managers give us the ability to collect beyond the time frames of the international system and I think that gives us an advantage. Also, in our programme we collect both blood and urine every time we do a collection for a rider. If you’re collecting only blood or only urine that reduces the likelihood of detecting microdosing, or any complex form of doping. Our program combines longitudinal review of biomarkers with direct detection at each point in time.
CN: I spoke to Pat McQuaid, head of the UCI earlier today and he told me that, “I don’t think it’s possible to microdose and get away with it,” but that there’s no real advantage to it anyway. Would you agree with that statement?
OC: For a sport that is decided by seconds it may be of some advantage. Obviously you’re not going to get the same results from microdosing than if you were to use a full dose, but there are other reasons to microdose.
CN: What about the timing aspect? McQuaid also told me that “there are also questions about Ashenden’s procedures but consensus now is that riders can microdose in the evening and be clear to race the next day if they combine the dose with a blood transfusion."
OC: That’s what people are saying and I know that Dr. Ashenden has done a lot of work on it himself. The combined practice is a concern. We try to vary our collection schedule all the time to reduce the chances that a rider could create a programme to cheat the system.
With all those different things in place, with the passport system, with the regular national anti-doping programme and the independent programme that we have, we are cutting down on the options. There are probably still ways to get through and there are probably going to be holes in the anti-doping system forever as athletes continue to find new and more advanced ways to thwart the system.
Every time you have something where you write down the programme and it can be understood by the world, people can create a work-around strategy. That’s the constant challenge that we face in anti-doping.
CN: Is the UCI at a disadvantage, when compared with you in the fact it can’t knock on doors at 2am at the Tour de France?
OC: It does create a theoretical disadvantage. If you take the assumption that the drug is out of the system after six hours and you can only test up to a certain point at night you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out when they might be microdosing. In our programme if we have the ability to show up any time it creates more of a deterrent. The nice thing now is that there is also a strong deterrent coming from within the teams. Garmin and Columbia - it’s the team and the riders who are paying for the additional testing and that shows an amazing cultural shift.
We’ve got to make the sport clean and we’ve got to give them, the riders, hope. There will always be people who are trying to get around the system but it’s a case of creating less and less desire in the folks that are out there coming up the ranks.
CN: But is the biological passport flawed due to the microdosing issue?
OC: No I believe the passport is very useful. It curtails a lot of doping and will continue to evolve as the mechanisms of doping do. I believe that microdosing can and will be detected. Afterall, there have been other seemingly undetectable forms of doping that we as a community have conquered. Just look at THG and the fall of Marion Jones.
As for the passport system you’re talking about statistics and trying to identify things through statistical analysis and I think that is the inherent limitation. When you try to apply a statistical approach to analysing a system that’s as complex as the human body and account for the blood variations that come from the normal training, altitude, diet, you name it. There are elements in a rider’s life that can affect their blood levels. So when you talk about a system that can deal with all of that, that is the inherent difficulty.
I greatly applaud the UCI for the passport and making it as strong as it is. It’s a great tool that’s been added to the arsenal of drug testers and it is essential in the environment we have today where there are enhanced doping options. It has proven already that it can detect doping.
CN: How many times have you carried out night time tests since working with Garmin and Columbia?
OC: I don’t want to get into the full specifics but we have done after hours collections in competition. The riders complain, and rightfully so as it does impact their normal routine, but the team managers are very supportive. We’ve done late night collections perhaps 5-10 times per year, it is all about varying the predictability.
CN: How many have been in-competition tests?
OC: We test in competition, out of competition and pre-competition. We’re not limited on when we can turn up. We can come before or during a race, even at the Grand Tours and we’ve done all that. We vary our programme as much as possible.
CN: If the UCI started doing that, for example turning up in the night at Grand Tours, it would cause a huge reaction from a lot of people with the sport.
OC: The UCI faces a great number of challenges dealing with international forces and various different groups all of whom have varying views on how things should be done. Thankfully, we only have to deal with the teams and to have the kind of access that the teams allow us to have certainly provides a benefit to the program we run.
The UCI has other challenges when it comes to collections and whereabouts. They’re dealing with the same difficulties as the entire international sporting community. It’s not easy to track thousands of athletes around the globe. It is also difficult to be an athlete and have to constantly update and report your whereabouts and it’s not just the sport of cycling that’s fighting those issues. There are athletes from other sports that have joined the party like Raphael Nadal. I know there are people within cycling that are outspoken on the subject, it’s a very difficult topic.
I know the riders understand why the drug testers need to know where they are, but some of the things I’ve heard in the past about collectors showing up at funerals to collect from people, wow. It’s hard to run an anti-doping system that’s going to be applauded in all of its elements, especially the collection side.
CN: Do you think it’s going to become more important for independent testing, like yourselves, to run alongside the passport?
OC: Look, the passport program costs millions of dollars and we are here today discussing whether it can detect microdosing and obviously an additional programme like ours requires even more money from a team and faces similar challenges.
The reality is that modern forms of doping are quite complex and I think the more ways you have of detecting them the more likely you are to turn the tables. It takes a combined effort to win the day and it takes a lot of testing. I certainly think our programme has some advantages over the passport program as I described earlier, but we also operate under very different conditions.
It is quite expensive to apply our program and if you were to do the same in the passport system the costs would grow exponentially. We do share our data openly with the UCI and we use the passport data as additional points of data in our program. Our goal was to create synergy with the UCI program. Anne Gripper was very supportive of our programme and constructive in opening doors. The general consensus was the more ways there are to thwart doping and protect this sport the better.
From talking to the teams we’ve worked with there’s been a great response from the sponsors. Sponsors were running from the sport years ago and now they’re coming back in good order and it’s because of the stance that the teams and the sport has taken on the issue. The recovery has been wonderful to see.
CN: Gripper is no long with the UCI. Do you think their stance has changed in any sense?
OC: Anne Gripper was one of the most outspoken, supportive and forward looking people that our industry has seen. People like that are needed to push forward things like the passport in a very challenging environment and certainly the UCI will have to make the adjustment from working through her to the next generation, but it’s not just her who has been pushing these programs. I fully expect them carry on down the path. It’s hard to find people like Anne and she will be hard to replace but I am sure they will move beyond that.
CN: Back to microdosing. How disappointing is it to hear that Floyd Landis was able to get away with it for so long?
OC: Sure it’s disappointing but it’s not the first time. The Marion Jones case was perhaps equally if not more disappointing and also went on for many years. What this exposes is the reality of anti-doping and how difficult it is to do the job we do. I don’t think people understand the kind of resources and research that are required to constantly make progress in the world of drug detection.
People expect that urine goes into a bottle, bottle goes to lab and they can detect anything. That’s not the case. It’s hard work to develop new tests and approaches, especially for the modern forms of doping such as microdosing.
CN: Landis wasn’t just taking EPO though. He was looking at his values to make sure he wasn’t detected.
OC: It’s not like that’s been unknown. Cyclists and other athletes can do a good job of monitoring the levels and adjusting them to be in prime condition for competition. The BALCO investigation is all you have to look at to see the level that people will go to go to get around it. You can buy a hand held blood detection machine for $2,000 and do a good job of monitoring your own levels. It’s not unknown.
I do know that we will keep fighting on and will continue to find new and creative ways to deal with these types of issues and thankfully we will not be alone.