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Victory for UCI as WADA bans glucocorticoids

UCI president David Lappartient attended the 2020 Tour Down Under in Adelaide, Australia
UCI president David Lappartient (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

The UCI announced on Wednesday it will welcome an in-competition ban under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code on all forms of injectable glucocorticosteroids which will come into effect in 2022.

The drugs, described by retired professional David Millar as the "most potent" drug he used during his career, have been abused in pro cycling for decades but allowed with medical justification. Lance Armstrong famously avoided punishment for a Triamcinolone positive with a backdated Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) during the 1999 Tour de France.

Bradley Wiggins came under fire for obtaining a TUE for intramuscular injections of Triamcinolone in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for allergies – information leaked by Russian hackers in retribution for the country's Rio Olympics ban, while Chris Froome's 2014 fast-tracked TUE for an oral corticosteroid forced the UCI to revise its rules for TUEs.

After he was elected in 2017, UCI President David Lappartient pledged to prohibit TUEs for corticosteroids and wrote to WADA director general Olivier Niggli calling for the ban, asking repeatedly 'what are you waiting for?'.

The WADA code currently prohibits all glucocorticosteroids in competition when given orally, intravenously, intramuscularly or rectally, but from 2022, it will ban the remaining injectable forms used to treat joint and tendon injuries and reduce inflammation.

The UCI has had a no-needle policy that prohibited injections of drugs "without a clear and recognised medical indication" since 2011 but allowed for certain types of glucocorticoid injections without need for a TUE, including injections into joints or around tendons.

The Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC) has been calling for a ban on the use of these injections since 2013 and MPCC teams have agreed to undergo voluntary controls to measure cortisol levels – low cortisol can indicate the recent use of steroids. The policy was met with backlash from some teams who claimed the cortisol measurement was inaccurate and improperly excluded some riders from competition under a mandatory rest for low cortisol.

The WADA ban will come into effect on January 1, 2022, giving the UCI time to educate riders, teams and doctors on the 'appropriate' use of glucocorticoids.

"The decision to generalise the ban on glucocorticoids in competition regardless of the type of injection is a new step forward in the protection of the health of athletes, especially of cyclists, which was among my campaign commitments in 2017," Lappartient said in a press release on Wednesday.

"After the banning of tramadol in competition since 2019 and the introduction of a protocol for managing concussion in 2021, this is new and important progress for the health of high-level athletes, a central theme of the Agenda 2022, our sport's strategic roadmap. I am pleased that the banning of glucocorticoids comes under the authority of WADA, which I would like to thank for this decision that represents progress for sport in general and cycling in particular."

Current anti-doping rules allow for the use of corticosteroids with a TUE for oral and injectable routes, while inhaled asthma medication and nasal sprays are allowed with limits on the amount allowed to accumulate in the body.