Tinkoff Saxo general manager Stefano Feltrin has called for a swift resolution in the biological passport case involving Roman Kreuziger but voiced major concerns over the procedural steps in place that have seen the case last almost a year.
Kreuziger was first contacted by the UCI on the eve of last year’s Tour de France with anti-doping authorities raising concerns over fluctuations in the rider’s biological passport between March 2011 until August 2011 as well as from April 2012 until the end of the 2012 Giro d’Italia. At the time, Kreuziger rode for the Astana but made the switch to Tinkoff at the start of the 2013. He was due to start the Tour de France next week but with the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CAFD) opening a formal case against him, the team were obliged to pull the rider; however they have not formally suspended him.
“I’m frustrated with how the process has been handled, how something like this can sit on someone’s desk for nearly two years, how someone can sit on an expert opinion for seven months, and I’m frustrated that this has come out so close to the main event of the season,” Feltrin told Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview.
“I think that the passport is a very important tool. It’s a necessary tool, but like any tool it needs to be properly used. For an example, if you try and unscrew a screw with a hammer you’re not going to have much luck. That doesn’t mean that the hammer isn’t a good tool - it’s just being used in the wrong way. It seems to me that this is the case here. If you’ve detected some abnormalities the expert panel should do more to investigate the situation and in a more timely fashion.”
When Kreuziger was first notified by the CADF he quickly made his team aware of the situation. According to the rider he then sought out two independent scientific experts and commissioned them to look into his passport readings. The two experts would become the foundation for the rider’s defence, which he duly submitted in October of last year.
Neither suspended nor cleared, Kreuziger kept on racing, his team believing in his innocence. He finished fifth in last year’s Tour de France, third in San Sebastian and third in this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico.
“He didn’t hear anything until May 30 of this month,” Feltrin told Cyclingnews.
“At that point the UCI said that they didn’t accept those experts’ views so they asked him to basically confess to doping. Of course he didn’t do that and he was granted a 21-day extension in which he could find another expert opinion. That was submitted basically now, along with his denial of doping.”
The (CAFD), which now operates the UCI’s biological passport, rejected this and have now opened a formal case against the rider.
According to Feltrin, all riders at Tinkoff Saxo go through a set of checks before they’re signed to the squad. That means that they’re biological passport data is analysed internally by the medical staff. If there are fluctuations, as there were in the case of Kreuziger, then the rider is asked to explain them to the medical staff and team management. Kreuziger passed these checks when he signed for the team.
“This team has a really appropriate procedure for selecting new riders, which includes a full review of the full medical file and biological passport. We expect a prospective rider to give us access to all their data for our medical staff to review. In fact in the last few years, we’ve declined signing riders based on the fact that we believe that there were potential abnormalities,” Feltrin said.
“In the case of Roman, our medical staff indicated that there were no fluctuations in the passport that couldn’t be justified,” Feltrin said.
“We also talk to the riders and we ask question and evaluate the answers. If a rider gives you a reasonable explanation then it’s potential for a potential fluctuation to be explained.”
The Ferrari link
Having looked at a rider's data, the team also discuss any issues from the rider's past. In the case of Kreuziger, there was the shadow of Italian doctor Michele Ferrari. Kreuziger worked with the doctor as a young professional but stated that the relationship only involved training programmes and advice. The team and the rider's national federation accepted this last year and no sanction or suspension was handed down.
“Roman said that he was a neo-pro and said that he had a relationship with this person between the autumn of 2006 and the winter 2007. He regrets having gone in that direction and we believe that he explained that to us. He said it was a mistake and as long as someone is open about the past then we think there’s a place in our team. He was honest with us when it was brought up and we even encouraged him to talk to his federation, openly, which he did. For us, that was the end of the story.”
“I think it’s been well documented that he was looking for training advice.”
What do the UCI have to do?
Currently there has been no statement from the UCI or CADF. Typically, it’s the governing authorities that break the silence and announces the opening of a violation case, and for Feltrin the issues over speed is crucial, but he warned that the ruling authorities should study every ounce of evidence as well.
“We believe that Roman is innocent and we think that the best thing to do is for this to progress as quickly as possible. I think the UCI should study the final expert opinion that Roman provided. If it’s not accepted, then it needs to be brought to the appropriate court as soon as possible,” he said.
The Locke case
Tinkoff Saxo’s conduct and standing in this case has been at odds with how Team Sky reacted over the Jonathan Tiernan-Locke case in late 2013. The British rider was also notified by the anti-doping authorities over suspect readings his passport. Instead of allowing him to race until a final verdict was given, Team Sky put their rider on inactive duty. He’s remained there ever since with no visible end to his case.
“I’m not going to discuss what other teams do but for us, when we hired Roman, we went through all the checks and we did our homework. We believe that the rider is clean. Then in 2013, a year ago, this was drawn to our attention. Before that we didn’t even know that there was something that could have been considered an abnormality. We saw the fluctuations but we thought they were within reason. If we had taken the approach to immediately suspend him before allowing him to explain what it was, it would have been a very bold and unreasonable decision. We asked him to explain himself, which he did and it seemed actually, that the justifications to the UCI were sufficient. We now find out that’s not the case.”
“The UCI allowed him to race and we stand by our riders, our medical staff and the medical experts we have hired. So why do you want the team to do something, when the question should be to the UCI as to why they didn’t stop the rider in 2011 or 2012 or allow him to come to our team if you think there’s a problem with his passport? It’s unreasonable that a team can be jeopardised, like we are, because someone else is sitting on information.”
Teams have different medical experts as well as differing levels of conduct that stretch into legality and the greyest area of all in professional sport: morality. Should Tinkoff Saxo have carried on racing a rider for so long, or at all, given the fact that they knew the UCI were concerned with Kreuziger readings? It’s not inconceivable that he could have made the podium in last year’s Tour de France and he certainly made an impact on the race.
“We have done our process where we’re given sufficient explanation,” Feltin said when faced with the moral dilemma and question.
“We’re not talking about a rider with a positive test. There are some parameters in the passport that can be interpreted either way with experts in the UCI saying that there’s no other explanation other than doping or doping methods. And we have Roman’s experts and our medical staff there are other possible explanations.”
“We have done our research and we think we’re correct. In the meantime, the UCI tested him but they found nothing in the last three years. The situation can’t be that ‘okay maybe he’s done something but we’re going to punish him anyway.’ It’s tricky but you need concrete evidence before you destroy someone’s life and as a team we felt that we had enough justification to the contrary.”
That justification will be under further scrutiny in the weeks and months ahead.