Friday, January 8, 2010

How Cycling Pro's Defeat Anti-Doping Control

There is doping in cycling, no doubt. However, as we have it, there's a fine line between talking about it and not talking about it. If you don't talk about it, like they say, ignorance is bliss and you have a million happy cycling fans who know little of the real going on's of cycling. If you talk about it, suddenly you're a hater of professional athletes and you are giving the business of cycling a bad name.

As the author of this blog, I cannot live with ignorance and naivety. Inaction is worse than silence. If we don't understand what is really going on in our sport, we will not have the power to help clean it up
as fans. The best way to understanding the doping issue is through education.

This Guest Post by none other than ex-racer Joe Papp (also a blogger) describes at length how racers subvert and escape doping control. Joe needs no special introduction. He's been there, done that and I think he's a fine candidate to tell us how slippery the pro's can get from the system. How are athletes tricking our intelligence into believing illegitimate sporting performances? Well, find out by reading the following eye-opening article.

When Ron asked if I would be willing to write a guest post for Cozy Beehive, I readily accepted, thinking I’d be able to oblige within a few days. It’s funny how life throws curve-balls, because it’s been a lot longer than that since I promised the piece, and several more drug scandals have hit cycling during the interim. The topic is but a general overview of some of the ways by which riders attempt to defeat anti-doping controls – a course of study that should have been read by Tom Zirbel and Nicklas Axelsson (at least according to their A-sample results).

The counter-measures an athlete will deploy in hopes of beating a doping control are all drawn from the same bag of dirty tricks, though the specific tactic ultimately depends on which doping product the athlete has ingested and where he can find a possible weakness in the testing protocol.


Axelsson is accused of taking EPO, which is detectable via urinalysis. About the time of Operation Puerto, however, riders were defeating the urine-based EPO test by spiking their samples with small doses of enzymes like protease, which break down proteins — including EPO — in urine in the space of a few minutes.

Typically an athlete would conceal a supply of protease powder in his jersey before a test, transfer it to his fingers with a quick movement and then urinate over his hand into the sample bottle to ensure that the test is meaningless. Alternatively, once doping control officers (DCO’s) began to insist that the athletes wash their hands first, male athletes switched to secreting the powder under their foreskin and transferred it that way.


A more sophisticated method was used in Spain, where, according to an acquaintance of mine who rode for Kelme during the Fuentes years, the procedure that Jesus Manzano described was their preferred tactic.
Manzano : "There is a red powder that's made in an illegal lab just for them outside of any controls which destroys the urine sample. This powder comes in the form of a grain of rice that we put into our penis before we pee…”


Given that the UCI is now wise to this subterfuge and has instructed its DCO’s to be on the lookout for it, the best bet that a rider has for beating an EPO control is to micro-dose. EPO, typically produced from cultured animal cells, is detectable in urine for less than a week. A decade ago, before the development of the urine test, riders would gorge themselves on large quantities of EPO during the inter-race periods to raise their hematocrit levels, and re-dose prior to competition.

Now, there is a growing trend towards micro-dosing, where athletes take small, barely detectable amounts of EPO to maintain the slightly elevated levels with which they enter competitions. The UCI Biological Passport will make it difficult for dopers to manipulate blood parameters sufficiently to enhance performance without tripping a reporting threshold, and even with micro-dosing there is now no guarantee that minute changes in a rider’s hematological profile will go unnoticed. And if changes are noticed, watch out! The hematological profile itself can be used to open a doping case against a rider.

The UCI explains:

“The haematological [sic] profile opens new doors in the detection of riders who choose to manipulate their blood to unfairly enhance their performance. The scientific assessment of a rider’s profile applies similar principles to those used in forensic medical science to determine the likelihood of guilt. Once sufficient evidence is gathered which determines guilt at an agreed level of certainty, scientific experts will recommend that the UCI open disciplinary proceedings for an anti-doping rule violation. It is expected that a profile of six tests will enable the detection of blood manipulation. In some cases, a fewer number of tests may be needed to detect doping.

Such a violation will be based on Article 21.2 of the UCI Anti-Doping Rules – “The use or attempted use of a prohibited method". To support this rule, the List of Prohibited Substances and Prohibited Methods maintained by WADA is incorporated into the UCI Anti-Doping Rules. Section M1 of the Prohibited List prescribes the “enhancement of oxygen transfer through blood doping” as a prohibited method.

The expected sanction for a first offence under this rule is a suspension from competition for 2 years. In addition, the detection of abnormal levels will cause a rider to be declared unfit and to be suspended from racing for an agreed period of time."


Not nearly as glamorous as spiking urine samples or manipulating blood profiles to thwart a doping control is the process of urine substitution, whereby an athlete’s dirty sample is substituted with that of another person (who presumably hasn’t consumed banned substances) or a synthetic sample.

While the Italian team I rode for never switched one flask of human urine for another, they did keep cartridges of synthetic urine in the team car in case of a random control. The powder within the cartridge would be poured into a small Mylar bag, and then, with the addition of lukewarm water, a “safe” sample would be ready. At that point, it was up to the rider and his team attendant to distract the DCO or otherwise subvert the sample collection process in order to deliver the synthetic urine in place of the rider’s own “hot” pee.

That same team was the one who gave me dose of synthetic urine after the final stage of the UCI’s Tour of Turkey in 2006 and told me to catheterize myself prior to reporting to doping control. I’d won the final stage, and obviously understood that the team believed I had something in my body that would produce a positive result, and they didn’t want to take the risk of even sending me to doping control without some kind of countermeasure. I couldn’t do it, however. There was no way I could self-catheterize myself, and so my career approached its end. Had I catheterized myself I would have committed a doping violation just as serious as if I’d been caught with EPO in my pee. For the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Code clearly prohibits the following (quote) :


1. Tampering, or attempting to tamper, in order to alter the integrity and validity of Samples collected during Doping Controls is prohibited. These include but are not limited to catheterization [sic], urine substitution and/or alteration.

2. Intravenous infusions are prohibited except in the management of surgical procedures, medical emergencies or clinical investigations."


Lacking the sophistication of a blood doper like Ferrari are the brute force cleaners who are called in to the sample collection site near the end of the session. When the guilty athlete can’t suppress his hot urine anymore, an agreement must be reached between all the stakeholders, like the Doping Control Officer, Lab Director, Race Director, rider, Team and Assorted Flunkies.

Quite simply put, cash changes hands based on the guarantee of someone in a position of power to ensure the outcome and the positive test is never declared, or, more likely, flushed before it is ever analyzed. The upside for the cheater is that were sample collectors to visit that same race the following season, he would probably be able to prepay to avoid any doping hassles.


Of course, a rider might attempt to subvert a control before he was ever called to the collection station at a race. Providing inaccurate whereabouts and information so as to avoid out-of-competition testers (Michael Rasmussen), evading sample collection (Riccardo Riccò) or refusing it after having been notified of selection would probably not save the guilty, but would certainly provide fodder for the media and blogosphere.

* * *

I hope Joe's article convinced you that although difficult, there are multitudes of elaborate schemes dopers follow to defeat the system and lead us to believing in fantastic myths. As an inset, there is bribery taking place to twist outcomes bad to a racer's reputation as Joe mentioned above.

Cycling has now grown to be a sport where its definitely tough to make it to the cream of the crop, but once you slip in, the rewards for high performance promise to be high, involving millions of dollars of direct payouts and endorsement deals. There is no doubt in my mind that cheating at races and then collecting such prizes is akin to fraud and embezzlement, no different than that in any other aspect of human endeavor. Perhaps at this time, it would do the dopers good if they would study what exactly happened to Bernie Madoff at the end of an incredible fairytale. A fairytale setup in such a way that it would inevitably spiral into a mega catastrophe for a nation.

Do you have any additional insights to share? What else do you think dopers are doing to subvert doping control measures? You're all welcome to chime in.

No comments: