A Snafu at the Amgen Tour of California?
By Kirsten Robbins in San Francisco, CA & additional reporting by Tim Maloney
This Saturday morning, an article entitled "Doping drug EPO left out of race test" by New York Times journalist Edward Wyatt hit newsstands nationwide, just before the start of the 2007 Tour of California. A few days earlier, Amgen officials had announced that they were surprised to find out that no EPO testing took place in the inaugural edition of the event. "Our understanding going into the race was that the test would be included," Amgen spokesperson Mary Klem told the NY Times. "And we were told afterward that no rider tested positive for EPO or for any banned substances."
Biotech giant Amgen is a key manufacturer of the synthetic versions of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), a substance banned in high-level sports. Amgen has always maintained that the rationale for their sponsorship of the Tour of California was a vehicle to educate the public of EPO intended and proper uses. But Amgen's position in sponsoring the largest bike race in the USA seems contradictory in light of the doping scandals that frequent cycling headlines.
Phyllis Piano, Amgen's VP of Corporate Communications and Philanthropy explained at the press conference on Saturday, "We see this race as an opportunity. Our mission is to serve patients and we have been around twenty-six years. Doping and using our drugs in the wrong way is wrong and if there is a way that we can point out that it is harmful and dangerous and if there is a way we can use this race to send this message forward we will do it."
However, after the press conference, it is still unclear why Amgen's request for EPO testing in the '06 Tour of California did not happen and furthermore, why claims were made after the race that no positive tests for any banned performance enhancing substances, including EPO occurred during after the 2006 race. The request from Amgen would have gone to event owner AEG and then to event technical contractor Medalist Sports, who manages the technical aspects of the Tour of California for AEG, including the relationship with the UCI and USA Cycling. Once USA Cycling received the written request from Medalist Sports to add EPO testing to the standard drug testing protocol per EPO maker Amgen's request, the UCI would have this testing handled by the on-site UCI Medical Control official at the race. Unfortunately, somewhere in the shuffle, the request was lost.
At Saturday's pre-race press conference (see separate feature), Race Director and part owner of Medalist Sports Jim Birrell made several comments during the pre-race press conference about the protocols followed requesting anti-doping from the UCI. "We applied for a sanction from USA Cycling and the UCI and that sanction appoints drug testing procedures appointed by UCI, USADA or WADA," Birrell said. "We as the race organizers, sponsors and promoters have no say in how those procedures are taken and administered. We are doing everything in our power to assure that we are producing a world class, safe and drug-free event."
Although EPO blood testing is part of UCI standard protocol in high-level European pro races, the anti-doping measure has seldom been implemented in North American UCI-sanctioned pro road racing, where race organizers would have to request it explicitly. However, USADA publishes a detailed handbook on testing policies and procedures, and the UCI has clear and specific anti-doping information in their rule book. Just as riders are expected to be aware of drug testing policies and procedures, so are race organizers and it may be seen as a major oversight for a race that hopes to become a ProTour race not to have implemented EPO testing as requested by sponsor and EPO manufacturer Amgen.
After Birrell commented, he handed off to USA Cycling's Sean Petty, who's "no comment" may fuel speculation that either Medalist Sports was not aware that they had to specifically request the EPO blood test from the UCI via USA Cycling, a blood test that adds $400 to the regular medical control urine analysis expenses of about $250 per test, to be paid for by the organizer. Or that Medalist Sports did request the additional EPO testing and USA Cycling failed to forward this request to the UCI.
Race owner AEG Sports's President and Chief Marketing Officer Shawn Hunter weighed in after Birrell and Petty, declaring that "As a race promoter we followed the protocol of the UCI and what we thought was right." However, AEG's contractor Medalist Sports may not have even requested the EPO test, leaving AEG's comments about how they had a drug-free race in 2006 seem inconsistent without testing for EPO.