By Kirsten Robbins
Organizers of the 2008 Tour of California professional cycling road race assembled late Tuesday to unveil and discuss a new anti-doping protocol which will be introduced and administered during the upcoming race beginning February 17. Presenters of the Amgen Tour of California, AEG Sports president, Andrew Messick along with USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson spoke candidly about the new anti-doping program as being the most comprehensive anti-doping program in cycling history.
The program is said to exceed a cost of more than one hundred thousand [US] dollars and is funded by the organizers. It will include a summary of blood samples taken from every rider entered in the event prior to the start of the race and tested for blood manipulations and EPO along with urine samples of thirty percent of the riders. The samples will be tested for banned substances like steroids, hormones, diuretics and various masking agents.
Daily, each stage winner, current general classification leader and three additional riders will be earmarked for post-race screening for steroids, hormones, stimulants and various masking agents. In addition, there will be three riders selected for testing during each morning and evening, totalling eight riders tested per day or three more than the normally required in standard competition testing protocol.
Furthermore, all participating teams will be required to be clear of any doping investigations. A roster of riders will be submitted to the UCI and USA Cycling to confirm that none have an outstanding open investigation. Should any be found, the rider's team will be asked to withdraw or replace him.
Results of the blood tests will be incorporated into the newly introduced UCI biological passport program, an individual electronic file for each rider in which all of the results of blood doping tests are accumulated over time. The samples will be analyzed by two accredited WADA labs, blood samples will be taken to the Sports Medicine Research and Testing laboratory at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Urine samples will be analyzed in Los Angeles at the UCLA Olympic Analytical laboratory.
"AEG believes in fair and honest competition and we have a responsibility to do what is necessary to ensure that the Amgen Tour of California is clean and that the best rider wins," said Messick. "The sad truth is that we can't talk about elite cycling without addressing incidences of performance enhancing substances. We are here to talk about what we intend to do to ensure the athletic integrity of our race. We are pleased to say that the program that we have developed is a collaborative effort between all of the stakeholders in elite cycling: UCI, USA Cycling, USADA and our European friends at the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, riders, teams, race owners, sponsors, drug testing agencies, national and international governing bodies for our sport. As a group we are unanimous that this is a powerful step to a clean sport."
17 teams have been invited to compete in the Tour of California including ten European and six domestic squads. USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson said the American national governing body feels a profound challenge ahead with regard to cleaning up doping problems to ensure a fair playing field. "Cycling is committed to zero tolerance," said Johnson. "It's critical to ensure that up and coming riders can realize their dreams without the obligation of confronting the temptation to cheat."
Johnson cited greater risks and lower benefits as incentives for riders not to cheat. "The UCI and USA cycling are one hundred percent committed to this program. We want to move aggressively in that direction so that the opportunities to cheat are less. This is a higher standard than even the Tour de France...with the extra blood sample and the use of the blood passports. We can assure that no rider who is cheating will start this race."
Dr. Steve Elliot spoke on behalf of the event's title sponsor Amgen, one of the largest biomedical manufacturers. He noted that while his company manufactures medicines like EPO for people with debilitating diseases, it does not promote the inappropriate use of the substances. "It's unethical and we need to teach our young athletes that sport is fun, exciting and competitive without doping," said Dr. Elliot, who added that his company was excited to be part of what it believes to be the "cleanest and most excited race ever".
Team High Road owner Bob Stapleton has been at the forefront of anti-doping program with his former T-Mobile squad and will continue his effort into the coming season. He called the new anti-doping programs a progressive step forward for all sport for three reasons. "This shows unity and purpose to make progressive change in the sport where the stakeholders have come together to create what I think is a unique protocol that makes the sport better and is an example to sports overall in terms of acting together to make change."
"Secondly, it's a bit of a new paradigm and with the profiles and tests that will be created that will make future events better because the tests that are done here will be saved in profiles and stored," added Stapleton. "Lastly, it's important to have a level playing field. Every athlete wants to win, and we are proud to participate in a race where everyone has a fair chance."