Gripper: Cycling is leading the world in the fight against doping

Former head of UCI anti-doping says CIRC report burst final bubble

Anne Gripper – the head of anti-doping at the UCI between 2006 and 2010 – has hailed the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) for bursting the final bubble needed in order for cycling to move forward.

The Australian, who now works in the world of professional triathlon, gave evidence as part of CIRC during the Commission’s investigation and added that cycling, despite its long ties and history with doping, was leading where all other sports should follow.

“I’ve always said that there were two bubbles that needed to be exposed and then burst before cycling could move on,” Gripper told Cyclingnews.

“One was the Lance bubble and the second was the UCI’s potential cover-up and corruption [charges]. Now with what’s been revealed I just hope that they’re the last of the skeletons from the past so that cycling can move into a different future.”

Gripper, who was praised at several points in the commission’s 228-page report for her efforts in anti-doping, played a pivotal role in the creation and early implementation of the athlete biological passport. She ushered the UCI through the first raft of passport cases before leaving her role in 2010.

While her time at the UCI saw progress the CIRC findings also make for uncomfortable reading for the governing body. Although no proof of direct corruption were found to have taken places, the report is littered with examples of poor and often compromised and inappropriate governance.

One such instance relates to how the UCI, under Pat McQuaid’s leadership, broke their own rules in order to allow Lance Armstrong to compete in the 2009 Tour Down Under. Strict guidelines over an athlete’s testing mean they cannot compete unless they have been in a testing pool for six months. Armstrong should have been ruled out of the Tour Down Under by a 13-day margin.

“That’s the one thing I feel disappointed about because I feel like I succumbed to the pressure of Adelaide and the race organisers who said they’d already announced that Armstrong was going to ride and that I was, as they described, a petty bureaucrat for not allowing Armstrong to ride even though he was only 13 days short of his six month window.

“From a practical point of view it made no difference. We’d already tested Lance pretty thoroughly so the 13 days on a practical level didn’t make a big difference but once again we were bending the rules for a particular person.”

The CIRC report extensively looked at the relationship between Armstrong and the UCI through the period of 1999 until he was banned for life by USADA. Gripper, admits that when she joined the UCI she “didn’t know what happened in the past and I certainly didn’t go looking for it [trouble].” But she adds that when Armstrong did enter the testing pool in the latter stages of 2008, “we were relentless on him though. He had a lot, far more test than any other rider.”

Hein Verbruggen passed the UCI baton to Pat McQuaid in 2005

Hein Verbruggen passed the UCI baton to Pat McQuaid in 2005. (AFP Photo) 

McQuaid’s governance and stance on anti-doping

McQuaid was the president of the UCI during the implementation of the biological passport and CIRC credit this period as a time of improvement and strides forward in the war on performance enhancing drugs.

The Irishman brought Gripper to the UCI and under his presidency she was given the chance to develop and improve cycling’s methods and anti-doping protocols.

“My working relationship with Pat was actually excellent and I’ve said this before. I strongly believe that Pat was really committed to eliminating doping from cycling. There were several occasions where he could have taken a much softer approach but he encouraged me to do what I needed to do to make sure that the anti-doping programme remained strong,” Gripper told Cyclingnews.

Gripper, when asked for an example of this, points to around the time of the 2007 Tour de France when the UCI pursued who they believed and understood to be a drug cheat, Andrej Kashechkin.

“So after the 2007 Tour de France when Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for two different blood populations we knew that from a follow up test that Kashechkin would also have a positive test. There was a two-week window and we knew that he was on holiday down in Turkey.

“I went to Pat and said that ‘I think we can get a positive test’ but we’d had a really traumatic Tour with four positives. I said that ‘if we get someone down to the coast of Turkey, locate him, and test him the results would be positive’. Pat just said to me ‘go get him’. That, to me, was a really good indication that he would take every opportunity to do what we needed to do.”

I remember saying to everyone in early 2008 that if we go down this path it would be really painful for us as a sport. I said that we needed to get through the next five years and take the short-term pain. It’s taken more than five years but I’m hoping that this is the end of that really difficult period and there’s some settled water where the anti-doping programme can have calm and get on with things because the two big ones are out now, Lance is out, and the UCI is out.”

Gripper may have respect for McQuaid’s position on anti-doping but in the CIRC report the Commission describe him – in the words of other UCI staff as a “weak president” with instances where his ties to former President Hein Verbruggen are exposed.

“I didn’t think that,” Gripper said when asked if she thought he was a weak leader. 

“I think anti-doping was actually the one thing that Pat stood apart from the others on. That’s from private conversations where he was really strong on it. I know that’s uncomfortable for people to hear because people want to dislike Pat but on this particular issue he was really strong and committed.”

When Gripper is asked where McQuaid did have shortcomings she points to his working relationship with the UCI’s external lawyer Philippe Verbiest, who was let go by Brian Cookson almost as soon as he arrived in Aigle in 2013.

“Pat could have been a much better communicator if he didn’t listen to Verbiest so much. If he didn’t have to go through Verbiest’s checking process I think he could have come across as a much stronger leader.”

“Verbiest wasn’t into communication at all, even on the anti-doping side, and we could have engaged people and stakeholders much more effectively if we were able to talk more openly about what we were doing.”

Gripper acknowledges that the stance at the UCI began to change after she left in 2010. There was less communication on the anti-doping front and the number of passport cases brought forward also dropped, although the latter is not an indication that standards slipped.

However McQuaid did attack critics such as Floyd Landis and Paul Kimmage, going through the courts in order to pursue them with legal action. He also fought USADA for control in the Armstrong investigation and when these instances were put to Gripper she admitted that her departure may have seen a change in behaviour at the UCI: “A lot of that came after I left. I think while I was there the conversations we had kept things focused on the right things to do. I was disappointed by some of the things that were said after [I left] but I had no influence over that.”

Change of culture with cycling?

One of the most picked up, salacious even, sound-bites with the CIRC’s report is that a culture of doping still remains in cycling. While the report states that progress has been made by the teams, the riders, and the governing body, the Commission also paints a picture that suggests doping has gone from mass-organisation to rogue and underground, and where micro-dosing, TUE abuse, and corticoid steroids are serious threats. Another key point made in the report is that riders could be using the Biological Passport to maintain their doping and stay within certain levels in order to bypass suspicion.

“That’s really ineffective way of doping. At most we, when I was at the UCI, would do ten tests on a rider. Any rider can go to a lab and have their blood tested every week. That’s a much better way of keeping a handle on their blood parameters. They’re stupid if they rely on our erratic six to ten tests a year from us.”

As for micro-dosing, Gripper admits that it could certainly be happening with the peloton and several of the passport experts have raised this concern in the past.

“Micro-dosing could be happening but it certainly reduces the performance value, significantly but the culture within cycling has definitely changed.

“For me there was a moment in 2008 when I felt that things were turning. It was when Bob Stapleton came to the UCI. He asked what was needed in order to create a team that doesn’t dope, how much would it cost and how would other teams come on board. It was about getting a couple of teams to go clean and then market themselves as clean teams and when their riders started winning, that provided a real shift.

“I think that the 2011 Tour de France was a watershed moment. The fact that Cadel won it was the icing on the cake but there were other factors that showed change. The fact that the French got their heroes back with Voeckler in yellow and Rolland won a stage, that was all inconceivable a number of years early. It looked real and times were slower."

The country of origin of a rider should not be the barometer of whether an individual is cheating or not, despite what nationalistic press might have their readers believe but Gripper points to the often-heard notion that the French teams were regarded as the first to slowly move away from hardcore doping.

“I think you can draw some inferences from that to some extent. I always really believed that the French teams went pretty clean in the early 2000s but they didn’t do a Garmin or a Highroad and market themselves as clean teams. The French teams just didn’t make a song and dance about it like the Anglo teams did around 2007.”

The biggest challenge

For Gripper the biggest hurdle cycling now faces is over funding and the allocation of cost and effort to anti-doping. In cycling the teams stump up a percentage of the cost for the biological passport but Gripper believes that not only will there need to be long-term solution that’s more cost-effective, but that testing itself shouldn’t be seen as the biggest deterrent or fix.

“I think the biggest challenge is about having an effective programme but at a far lower cost. As a sport I don’t think you can sustain the costs for anti-doping, certainly in the years that I was there. That was just ridiculous. The amount of money would have sustained ten small federations for a year. So I think at some point there’s got to be a rationalisation of the parts of the programme that are effective and put it more onto a maintenance footing.

“Testing is not the most effective measure, it’s just not. The most effective is to move up the food chain, intercepting the supply of performance enhancing drugs but it’s harder for international federations to get involved in that because they don’t have the legislative powers that the NADOs have.

“USADA and ASADA, they’re becoming more effective because testing is a very blunt instrument. There’s so much that can compromise the ability of a test. It will improve, testing, so the fact that we’ve got the steroidal profiling that I suggested was just around the corner in 2008, is now in place and will be of huge benefit.”

As for cycling as a sport and the UCI’s effort in setting up and finally releasing CIRC to the wider community, Gripper stands by her belief that no other sport can match cycling’s commitment to at least address the problems of doping.

“They’re definitely putting in the biggest effort compared to any other sport. When you compare them to sports that have big, big doping problems like football and athletics, cycling is streets ahead when it comes to being genuinely interested when it comes to looking at what’s happening.”

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