Landis revelations do not nullify blood passport, anti-doping expert says

It's all about blood - performance-enhancing methods abound in pro cycling

It's all about blood - performance-enhancing methods abound in pro cycling (Image credit: Daniel Simms)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.