A member of the UCI's panel of experts that reviews the blood passport data of professional cyclists has come out in support of Floyd Landis and his confessions of past doping practices. Dr. Michael Ashenden, one of a nine-person panel that reviews passport data, supported Landis in his claims and said the information will help anti-doping authorities to crack down on doping.
"Floyd Landis has shown immense moral courage to take the stand he has, and one of the benefits from his disclosures is that we now have the missing piece of the puzzle," Ashenden told Cyclingnews.
The missing puzzle piece was how cyclists have continued to use man-made erythropoeitin (EPO), the synthetic version of our body's own red blood cell-inducing hormone that has haunted cycling since the Festina scandal of 1998 and before, even in the wake of improved testing for the drug itself.
Landis, in confessing to practices he used during his time with the US Postal Service and Phonak teams, not only detailed the techniques he used but also said the practice was condoned by team management and adopted by his fellow teammates. He revealed that riders combined small doses of the drug with undetectable transfusions of the rider's own blood to boost performance, giving anti-doping authorities important details on how cheaters continue to evade positive tests.
"Now that we know how they are evading the [UCI's Biological] Passport, we can take steps to counter their strategy. I don't expect we will suddenly become 100 percent successful, but I do anticipate we will be more successful than beforehand."
Part of the method was to inject small amounts of EPO at frequent intervals instead of one larger therapeutic dose at one time. That technique, called 'microdosing', ensured the drug was undetectable outside a short window of time following injection. In theory, if a rider administered the drug intravenously before bedtime, he would be negative in any controls taken the next morning.
The second half, Ashenden said, was adding a rider's own blood back into his body (autologous transfusion) in order to maintain a steady population of oxygen-delivering red blood cells.
"Of course we knew that autologous transfusions are undetectable, and we also knew that microdosing was probably being used. What I had never encountered before was the scenario that riders were using the two in tandem, during the major Tours. That was the missing piece of the puzzle."
The practice of combining EPO use with autologous transfusions is nothing new. Cyclingnews reported that microdosing was being used back in 2005, and the Operación Puerto case proved that riders were banking and then transfusing their own blood to boost performance.
EPO tests on some Operación Puerto evidence showed traces of the drug, so it came as no surprise that riders might use the drug in the off-season to make up for blood lost during the time they were banking it. What came as a surprise to Ashenden was that the practices continued during the Grand Tours.
"It came as a complete shock to me that a rider would continue to use EPO during a Tour - but again, now that we have that knowledge tests can be targeted accordingly, and I would suggest that better targeting will result in more riders being caught."
The end result of the technique, Ashenden explained, is that a rider's red blood cell population stays constant during a stage race such as the Tour de France, rather than dropping as would happen in a normal person.
"[Microdosing] keeps the percentage of reticulocytes close to normal - not exactly normal, but close enough that we would have difficulty excluding the possibility that some other reasonable explanation could account for the subtle change we had seen."
While the UCI's blood passport is tricky to prosecute since it is an indirect method to detect doping, the UCI has made a habit of singling out riders with suspect profiles for additional out-of-competition controls.
Ashenden expects the new information will help hone the timing of the additional tests. "It's a two-edged sword - yes its confronting to be told that your system is being biologically hacked, but it's also an opportunity for authorities to conceive of the next evolution of the Passport approach."