Another dark day for cycling as it fights to clean up
In one of our pre-tour posts this year we mentioned that we would focus on the racing, and how last year the doping took center stage. We hoped this year would prove different, but that hope vanished somewhere on the road to Narbonne yesterday, and here we are in the middle of July discussing yet another tour doping scandal.
Tour hits strike three with Riccò
First it started with Team Liquigas's Manuel Beltrán, and then Moisés Dueñas of Team Barloworld. Both tested positive for EPO, and Dueñas was caught with, shall we say, a plethora of doping products in his room including blood bags and other items. Yet in some ways, people did not seem to mind these infractions. Beltrán (37) was of the "old guard" and raced in the EPO-rife 1990's when that drug was (ab)used with wreckless abandon. Duenas, although only 27 this year, was not a contender by any stretch---he finished barely in the top third in the last two tours. So although disappointed by these two positives, they were dismissed as the inevitable consequence of having 188 riders in the Tour - some would cheat, surely?
Ricardo Riccò, however, is a big name. At only 24, Riccò was hailed as a member of a new generation of riders who were fed up with the dopers. Even more, he was quickly becoming a contender and real threat as he attacked the field on the Col d'Aspin and destroyed the bunch, putting 1:15 into them by the summit. He won that stage, and the earlier finish at Super-Besse, but now he has left the tour in shame for alleged use of what he surely thought was an undetectable drug---else why would he be taking it?
The Science behind "Micera" and EPO: EPO makes a comeback
The first question we asked ourselves when Beltrán and Dueñas tested positive for EPO was, "Don't they know that we have had a test for EPO for several years now?" It is a bit like a shot putter taking the old steroid deca that stays in your body for many months and is easy to detect. But the real story is that in the beginning EPO was synthesized from animal cells. The DNA was taken from human cells and injected into the animal cells, which then produce the hormone. The use of the animal cells made it (relatively) easy to detect this type of EPO, otherwise known as the first generation EPO. Then came the second generation EPO, which was made in human cell cultures. It was this form of EPO for which Beltrán and Dueñas were caught, and we can only suspect that they thought this second generation was impossible to detect.
Currently we are on the (you guessed it!) third generation EPO, of which "Micera" is a member. Micera is the commercial name, and the drug is also known as CERA----Continuous Erythropoietin Receptor Activator. It is brand new, and has been available in Europe only from the start of this year. Its advantage is that it is a delayed-action EPO, which allows the athlete to take it less frequently yet receive the same physiological benefits associated with EPO. It was also reportedly undetectable, because the presence of a molecule called polyethylene glycol increases its size so much that it is supposedly blocked from entry into the kidney. Therefore, it would not be picked up in urine tests. Apparently, that's not true...
The initial reports from the tour suggest he tested positive for this drug, but according to Michel Audran, a blood doping expert, WADA does not yet have a validated test for CERA, and Audran suspects that perhaps they caught Riccò with this drug in his possession.
Surprising or predictable?
It is definitely no surprise to us that this new and "undetectable" drug has turned up at the tour. All we have to do is recall last year and Rasmussen's suspected use of Dynepo, a similar and undetectable drug. In fact this is precisely why guys will take things like CERA: the prospect of being able to evade the testers.
Other reactions to the postives in this year's race have been that we are in fact losing the anti-doping battle. That's a difficult question to answer. However, to suggest that the battle is being lost because of positive tests is missing the bigger picture, and in fact this argument suffers from a fatal flaw. To buy into this logic, one must believe that the reason for doping controls and anti-doping organizations such as WADA is to eradicate doping in sport. Yet to believe this is also to believe that speed traps eradicate speeding. Like it or not, athletes will continue to dope until the benefits of riding clean outweigh the benefits of doping.
A better approach to the current situation is to begin with the assumption that some athletes will cheat. There is a long history of this, not only in cycling but in many sports, and nothing to indicate that it will stop any time soon. Therefore the reason to have doping controls and anti-doping organizations is not to eradicate doping, but rather to catch the cheaters. It would be naiive even for these agencies to believe they can stamp out doping. Instead, as long as we are catching the cheaters, then these controls are in fact doing their job and the "war" is being won.
The problem of course (and forgive our cynicism here) is that WADA and world cycling are celebrating their efforts in catching riders who thought they were using an undetectable drug - they figure this is a sign that they are gaining ground, keeping up with the dopers. The problem is, it's just as likely that for every 3rd generation EPO they now claim to have a test for, there may be 10 drugs that they don't! So the question of the war is not as simple as "Look, we're catching guys" so we must be winning it. The battle perhaps, but the war has a long course still to run.
The Agency for Cycling Ethics
David Millar, previously of Saunier Duval, has said that before the end of the year that team will have an internal doping control program much like his current squad Garmin-Chipotle has. Apparently they were close last year, but this he thinks will be the tipping point. That approach uses private entities such as the Agency for Cycling Ethics to collect and analyze samples to "protect your investment in professional cycling." Their "product" is outlined here, and it is a tremendous step forward in the battle against cheating as for once the teams have taken some responsibility.
However currently there is still an "out" for the cycling teams because the results are not widely available to the public. This means that the teams still hold the trump card, and can decide to withhold or manipulate results at their discretion. And we can guarantee that given enough time, this is inevitable. Eventually the circumstances will arise when a team's management decides to do this for a short or long-term benefit. Publishing the data anonymously would protect the cyclists' individual rights yet add a thick layer of transparency to this process.
WADA + Pharma companies
Finally, to end on a positive note (pun intended!), another breakthrough is that WADA is beginning to work with drug companies to detect potential doping agents prior to those substances becoming available. This is the case for CERA. This indicates that perhaps the testers are beginning to think like the cheaters. We will not go so far as to say they are catching up, but this represents some proactivity on the testing side of the equation.
More importantly, race organizers like ASO are willing to toss out athletes when they are caught with things like CERA, which is not on the banned list but obviously has potential for abuse in sports.
"We will catch more this year, next year and the year after."
That coming from David Millar, a confessed EPO user, on Riccò's ejection. We agree David, and hope that we continue to catch them.
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Friday, July 18, 2008
Another dark day for cycling as it fights to clean up