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Thursday, July 26, 2007

"You can trust me" - Michael Rasmussen, former Maillot Jaune of the 2007 Tour de France

These are radical times for the Tour de France and professional cycling. Michael Rasmussen, the wearer of the yellow jersey, celebrated yesterday for a great ride that saw him fend off Discovery's attacks on the Col d'Aubisque, has been dumped off his team and the Tour after it was revealed that he had lied to the team management after his whereabouts during the month leading up to the race. "Trust me", were his words, spoken two days ago at a press conference when questioned about a growing perception and discontent among cycling experts about his doping-status. First it had been revealed that four warnings had been issued by the UCI and Danish Cycling Federation after he failed to inform them of his location. Then a former mountain-biking pro came forward with allegations of how Rasmussen tricked him into carrying an illegal doping product in Europe in 2002. You can see this article and a great commentary on it here and here.

So Rabobank made the decision to sack Rasmussen and expel him from the Tour based on the fact that he had lied to them about his whereabouts. Think about this for a moment...This is the same cyclist who the Tour organizers have tested 14 times during the course of the race. Not one test was positive. The message being delivered by Rabobank is that the testing is insufficient, and the sponsors are now beginning to take executive decisions to kick out riders, based on allegations and suspect behaviour.

There was a time, not long ago, when a sponsor would stand by its lead cyclist, supporting their claims that they were clean, had never been tested positive, and so on. How the sport has changed! Some will decry this as a witch-hunt, and rider's rights will be thrust into the forefront in a debate that is sure to have far-reaching ramifications. Personally, I say more speed to this attitude, because it's clear that the sport is in serious trouble, and drastic times call for drastic measures. And if the riders and the sport will not clean up, then the sponsors can.

And more than this, the testing procedures are weak, let's face it. In the case of the Rasmussen-Richards doping allegation, the product that Richards was alleged to have transported into Europe was Hemopure, a member of an exotic class of medicines known as hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers, or HBOCs, for short. Hemopure is legal in South Africa ONLY. It was only commercially available in SA beginning in January 2006 and it is still not approved for human use in any other country, although an analog, called Oxyglobin, is approved in several countries, including the United States, for veterinary use. Do tests even exist for this? How do athletes get hold of products that are not commercially available and not even passed for human use? And what is the tester to do? In athletics, the BALCO scandal and the discovery of a designer steroid (THG) showed that laboratories all over the world, given enough incentive, can produce drugs that are undetectable. Had it not been for a feud between coaches, athletes would still be using THG and we'd be none the wiser. The reality is that a negative test is more likely to mean that the athlete has outsmarted the tester than it is to mean a genuine negative test. The overused defence "My tests are negative" is more of a taunt than it is a valid argument to pacify the defrauded cycling enthusiast.

We are in the age where an athlete can (and does) look you in the eye, and say in front of millions of people "I'm clean. I've never tested postitive. Trust me". And when they do test positive, they throw out excuses that can only be described as laughable. Vinokourov reckons his positive test was caused by "blood in his thighs" after an accident. Never mind the fact that the test actually picks up different TYPES of blood. You don't need to be scientist to spot BS from the other side of the world when it's this obvious.

So where to for cycling. Since 1996, not a single winner of the Tour has been without suspicion. Riis (1996) recently admitted to doping, Ullrich (1997) has been implicated in the Puerto affair, Pantani (1998) was all banned and exposed for his doping practices. Yet he, like others, have continued to deny that he was ever guilty, despite court documents detailing his hematocrit levels on a state-run doping programme. Jump ahead to 2006, and Floyd Landis tests positive in a situation that is similar to that of Vino - bad day followed by heroic day. He is still fighting that test result, basing a defence on 'dodgy' processess carried out by the testing lab.

And then of course, in between, from 1999 to 2005, we have Lance Armstrong, who has carried more rumours and allegations than any other sportsman. The oft-used quote "I've been tested more than any other athlete, and my test results have always been negative" has become something of a mantra for Armstrong, who must surely be relieved to have escaped the sport as it is now. Because if he was riding now, or if the current atmosphere in cycling was present in 1999, he'd have gone the way of Rasmussen by about 2000, and a "7-time champion" would still be a fictitious event. Yet he won 7 tours in a row at a time when all those around where using drugs that improve performance drastically. How much? Just ask Vino.

So well done Rabobank, for making a stand. Let's hope the athletes you pay so handsomely discover their moral conscience and the truth continues to come out. Forget Paris, bring on the next doping affair.

See also:

Vino tests positive: Will the last clean rider please stand up?
Marco Pantani's hematocrit levels - evidence of doping
The shadow of drugs over the Tour de France
The culture of drug use in cycling


Anonymous said...

Hi, I have heard Phil Liggit state and read authors from other cycling sites write that riders can use doping substances such as EPO while they are training and end injections a few weeks the start of an event, but still receive the benefits of the doping without popping on a test. How does that work?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi there,

Thanks for your interest in our site, and for the question.

EPO that a cyclist takes in the weeks before the tour will produce an effect, namely, the body makes more red blood cells. It takes time to make these cells, and they remain in the body for a number of days to weeks. Therefore you can benefit by taking EPO *before* the tour.

Also, with the current preferred method being blood doping, an athlete can remove blood for later transfusion, then take EPO to get his blood volume back up in a shorter period of time than he would otherwise need.

Good question, and please keep coming back with more!

Kind Regards,
The Sports Scientists