News Feature, October 16, 2008
It's been a bleak couple of weeks for cycling, with three more Tour de France riders returning positive A samples for the new generation of EPO, CERA. Like ASO and many others in the sport, the UCI had hoped that this year's Tour would pass without major scandal, but it was not to be. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes spoke to its President Pat McQuaid about the latest test findings and the way forward.
"My first reactions are obviously shock, anger and dismay... that guys are still willing to cheat. After all that has been done, after all that has been said, after all the efforts that people have made to try to bring the credibility back to the sport over the past couple of years, individuals will still resort to cheating." said Pat McQuaid, describing his feelings about the recently-announced positive results for Leonardo Piepoli, Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl, who between them won three stages, wore the yellow jersey, finished third overall and triumphed in the mountains classification of this year's Tour de France.
Since taking office in September 2005, the UCI president has repeatedly said that fighting doping is one of his biggest priorities. This and the ProTour were high on his list, and he's had a big headache from both; the first aim became even more pressing when the Operación Puerto scandal broke and Floyd Landis tested positive during the 2006 Tour de France. Since then, there have been plenty of high profile positive cases in the sport, and while this year's Tour was supposed to be all about a new start, the seven positives from the race show that a scandal-free event is still some way off.
The prevalent, pessimistic view is that some riders will always try to find a way to cheat, to beat the system. To claim they are clean while hiding behind the latest 'super product'. Schumacher has stated many times that he is not involved with doping but, providing the B sample is confirmed as being positive, that denial will be exposed as a cynical untruth. In the past, Omerta reigned, with many in the peloton clamming up at any mention of doping. Nowadays, the cheaters are also speaking out against drug use, hiding behind a smokescreen by criticising those who do what they themselves do.
Yet McQuaid insists that the net is tightening. "This is a good thing for a couple of reasons," he stated. "As I said in relation to Ricco when he was caught, it is a wonderful message to those who might be offered anything in the future that the guy tells them is undetectable. The fact is that the authorities and the scientists are catching up with tests. The fact is - and this is proof of it - the pharmaceutical companies are working closely with WADA in the development of their products, working with the scientific community in assisting them in developing tests to find that product at a very early stage.
"What I would say is congratulations to the scientists I'd thank them for the work they have done in developing this test to find this product. Yet the bottom line is that guys are still prepared to cheat, to take a risk for the biggest event in the world, which is the Tour de France. So that is a concern as well."
The perception of the nineties era is that the proliferation of EPO meant that many riders some would say the majority of the peloton - had to take the blood booster simply to keep up. Attitudes do seem to be changing, though; anecdotally, it seems that the bunch is becoming somewhat cleaner, even if some top rank competitors continue to be exposed.
McQuaid certainly subscribes to this view. "I still do feel that cycling is winning the battle against the cheats," he said, insisting that a page has been turned. "I am heartened by reactions that I have seen in interviews such as that with Sebastian Lang, when he said how the Gerolsteiner team responded whey they heard that Ricco was caught. I also saw from Bradley Wiggins' comments that he sees the sport getting cleaner. And there was another one of the cyclists in the last week who likewise said that the sport is a lot cleaner than it was. I do feel we are winning the battle, that we will win out.
"But there always will be cheats; there always will be a small percentage of riders who will take that risk. The fact is that we will need to be prepared for them, catch them and thrown them out."
Bigger deterrent, better testing
If some riders are persisting in doping, what can be done to further pick up the fight? As is the case with any rules, the way to enforce them is to increase the likelihood of being caught while also ramping up the penalties. McQuaid told Cyclingnews on Tuesday that the governing body will increase the maximum possible ban to four years from 2009 onwards, thus fulfilling that second criteria.
"I have said before that I would like to see them [dopers] out of the sport for good. That is purely on a personal level," he stated. "However, we are obliged to follow the world anti-doping code, and that is what the UCI will do. Currently the world anti-doping code gives a maximum two-year sanction in the case of a positive test. From the first of January there is a bit more flexibility in it, and we can go up to a four-year ban in the cases of something regarded as wilful cheating.
"In these cases, considering that these guys were given the product and then went and took it for the Tour de France, it would be very much classified as wilful cheating. Next year a rider in that position would face up to a four-year ban."
As regards increasing the actually strike rate of dopers being caught, the work between WADA and companies such as Roche [the manufacturers of CERA] mean that it will be more difficult for some drugs to be adopted within the peloton. Not disclosing which products a new test has been found for is one important approach; getting the biological passport up to full speed is another.
UCI anti-doping manager Anne Gripper has been quoted recently as saying that the biological passport is still not fully operational. However, according to McQuaid, suspect riders could face both a short-term, no-start rule and, in the case of more proof, longer suspensions as early as the first part of 2009.
"We will continue with the development of the programme right through the winter and into the spring and summer of next year," he said. "It will be very well established... I reckon by the beginning of next season we will be able to use data within the biological passport for sanctioning purposes. I would be confident that we could arrive at that stage by the start of the season, both with regard to the no-start rule and for tougher measures."
McQuaid then suggested that Piepoli, Kohl and Schumacher may have already been on the hot list. "I am probably giving away a big secret when I say that some of these riders who have been tested positive here in the last couple of days were already in the radar with the biological passport. Therefore they would have been eventually caught anyway, one way or another. The biological passport gives us a wonderful opportunity to target riders, which we have done. I do feel that there is a big future for the passport within the sport and that everybody should embrace it.
"I think the results that have happened over the last couple of days will prove to be very beneficial to the experts who are currently studying the profiles of certain riders as well."
Fortunately, it seems that the biological passport will have an increase in budget in 2009, thanks to the peace deal worked out between the UCI and ASO, the organiser of the Tour de France. "The Tour will contribute to it," he said. "It is only natural that they should contribute towards it." In 2008 the various race organisers were expected to contribute a total of €1.3 million, with ASO the largest of these. That money never arrived but if this proportion is indeed put into the pot next season, it will be a considerable enhancement to the project.
Rejection of rumours
But what of the AFLD's statement that up to 30 riders may be suspected of using transfusions during the Tour? Homologous blood doping using the blood of someone else has been detectable for four yers, with two sets of team-mates being snared for this form of doping. Tyler Hamilton and Santi Perez blackened the Phonak name in 2004, while Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin did the same for Astana last season. However using one's own blood autologous transfusion has not been traceable, thus giving riders a chance to try to beat the system.
The AFLD believes this method will soon be detectable, and will run tests then. "We already have serious evidence about cases of such autologous transfusions," AFLD chief Pierre Bordry said in an interview with German television broadcaster ZDF. "As to who might be involved, we will be able to say that later."
When asked if this news was significant, McQuaid appeared to cast doubt on the examinations. "I can't go along with that, because that the moment there is no test for [autologous] blood transfusion," he said. "So therefore I think it is wrong of the AFLD to make such statements without the ability to be able to prove it."
He's more upset about the speculation that followed the AFLD announcement that it was going to check unusual or inconclusive values at the Tour for CERA. "The other thing I am very annoyed about and I think everyone in cycling must be annoyed about is the way this story broke initially," he stated. "It mentioned 14 riders, mentioned many teams and many riders. Riders' reputation and image were badly damaged by what was stated by the media over the past couple of weeks. But now, at the end of the process, we find that we have [just] three riders positive, Schumacher, Kohl and Piepoli. That is a long way removed from the list of fourteen allegedly involved, which was listed in certain media sources and dramatised by television a couple of weeks ago. The media need to show some responsibility at some point in time as well."
Tour testing for CERA has now concluded. However the world of cycling and the world of sport in general may yet see more positives for the substance, following the news that the International Olympic Committee will check nearly 1000 blood tests from the Beijing Games. Cycling is but a small part of this pool, meaning that other sports could possibly return positives. If this happens it would help balance out the general perception that cycling is the only sport with such a problem. It would also answer the recent calls to exclude cycling from the Games, as voiced by IOC Vice-President Thomas Bach.
This was recently dismissed by the IOC chief, something which McQuaid appreciates. "I was very pleased to see a report from the president of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge, where he said that in his opinion, there is no way that cycling should be going out of the Olympics. Why kick a sport out that is doing its job, and doing it correctly?
"Cycling is doing the most, there is no other sport that does as much as cycling. There is no other sport that targets athletes and chases after them continuously until they catch them eventually. We are the only sport that does it. We have had to do it, I accept that we have had to do it. I said when I was elected president in 2005 that one of my main objectives was to get rid of doping in the sport.
"It is taking some time. It was never going to happen overnight. But I do think cycling is the strongest advocate in the fight against doping and, as such, any discussion or comment about cycling losing its place in the Olympic Games is completely out of order and ridiculous."
Even so, what McQuaid, the UCI and the various other stakeholders in cycling need to do is hammer the message home that widescale doping simply can't continue. Continued surprise tests for supposedly undetectable' products, full implementation of the biological passport, pronounced ramping-up of suspensions and fines, exclusion from major events and, perhaps even, civil proceedings against riders and/or teams for bringing the sport into disrepute are all avenues to pursue. Right now, a two-year ban is clearly not enough of a deterrent for the likes of cycling's CERA brigade.
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