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Friday, July 18, 2008

le Tour de France 2008: Third doping shock

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.



Anonymous said...

I don't know about anyone else, but I think "only" 3 busts so far is an improvement.

Anonymous said...

"WADA is beginning to work with drug companies to detect potential doping agents prior to those substances becoming available."

I hate to be cynical (well, that's not always true), but does anyone else suspect the drug companies of Machiavellianism?

Unknown said...

A group of us triathletes are following the tour from Lake Placid, NY where Ironman in the Adirondack's will take place in 2 days. We were all amazed at Ricco's abilities in the mountains, boosted by the thoughts that this was a clean tour. It was a shock to us that he was caught doping and good riddance to him. We often wonder about the amazing age group performances of ironman athletes and wish that testing were done on some of the athletes going for Kona slots. Unfortunately, people will look for the edge and do what they can get away with until they are caught and this will continue.

Andrew said...

According to VeloNews (in their stage 13 live update) all three riders tested positive for CERA; VN wrote:

AFLD director Pierre Bordry confirmed that Ricardo Ricco was not the first rider to test positive for the new drug, Micera. In fact, all three riders who turned up positive at the Tour this year were caught using this new "third generation" version of EPO. Apparently, the rumor that AFLD and WADA didn't have a test for the new drug were wrong. Surprise gentlemen!

I read elsewhere (I forget where) that the maker of CERA provided samples to WADA months ago, but WADA kept it a secret.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jen,

Thanks for commenting here. I suspect there is more abuse at that level than any of us would like to believe. The drugs are pretty easy to get via the internet, tests are few and between, and triathletes tend to have enough disposable income to fork out a few hundred bucks (or more?) per month.

It seems even more pitiful than doping at the elite level, because what are you really racing for? To be sure these people are good athletes, but they are most certainly sub-elite and will never have a professional contract.

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

Doping will never be eradicated. I just think it is part of human nature to want to "gain an advantage". That being said, I am optimistic about the effectiveness of the anti-doping programs being put into place and I think the majority of pro cyclists are racing clean.

I think cycling has done more than just about any other sport to reduce doping and I think it is beginning to work. Riders are starting to understand that sponsors will stop supporting teams if doping continues. No sponsors, no contracts.

Let's hope that the progress continues.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Andrew,

Correct! I also read that after doing the post. The funny thing is that the doping expert Michel Audran was quoted as saying there was not yet a test for CERA. But it is possible that WADA did develop one and he did not know about it yet.

The fact that WADA kept this secret is a sly move by them and a repeat of the BALCO scandal and THG. At that time they knew they had a designer steroid, and Don Caitlin had cracked the code prior to the USATF Champs that year. They with held this info and bagged a few athletes, thrower Kevin Toth among them.

Even more, I seem to recall a similar incident at the winter Olympic games in Salt Lake City (2002). They developed a test for Darbepoetin and did not release this news. The result was three positive tests amongst the cross country skiers.

This shows that WADA has learned to be a bit savvy and realizes that they must be at least slightly cunning to catch these guys.

Kind Regards,

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mark,

I hear what you are saying about the flight of sponsors from the sport. I think many share your view especially after T-Mobile left and The Discovery Channel team could not find a replacement sponsor.

Yet this year, just before the tour, we saw to big names step up and infuse some cash into the sport: the clothing manufacturer Columbia and GPS leader Garmin. In addition, Saxo Bank went in with CSC, and Quickstep agreed to a renewal for that team even though Tom Boonen had just tested positive for cocaine.

Have sponsors left? Yes. However, I really think that there will always be another company for whom the circumstances are right to sponsor a cycling team. Somehow there is just too much money out there in the world!

Kind Regards,

Jeff and Debi said...

Won't the Bio passport (assuming it is off and running for the next tour) make the game of "new drugs vs. tests for the new drugs" moot?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jeff, and thanks for the question.

The biological passport promises to help in the fight against doping, but is still very much in its trial period.

As I understand the system, it is meant to track an athlete at least once a month and do two things. First, it is meant to establish the "normal" range for that athlete. For example, the high end of the normal range of hematocrit for men is 48%, yet some individuals fall outside of that (naturally) and have Hct values close to 50%.

Second, when an athlete with a normal value of 44% suddenly increases to 50% over one to two months, this is reason to sound an alarm and take some proactive steps such as removing him from the racing roster until the team can figure out what is happening.

So it is meant to pick up spikes in the profile that might suggest the use of doping products.

The Agency for Cycling Ethics that we mentioned in the post also tests for a wide range of banned substances as part of their approach profiling each athlete.

Will it make drug testing a moot point? I do not think so. The first problem is that as I mentioned, the teams still hold all the info. Second, the more oversight the better. The teams should be "protecting" their investments anyway, and that means doing everything they can to prevent doping or catch guys who are so they can remove them. So having WADA police the athletes at events is still a good thing as it helps cover the fact that some teams might not be as vigorous in monitoring their athletes as others.

Kind Regards,

Jonas said...

What you have to remember is that most doping is abuse of pharmaceuticals that are actually made for other purposes. For instance Micera is created to be used in the treatment of cancer and kidney diseases.

Of course the pharmaceutical companies could take the stance that it's more profit and boohoo to the losers, but increasingly it seems like they don't want their trademarks to be associated with doping and their medicine to be abused, thus the cooperation between WADA and Hoffman-LaRoche.

I'm looking forward to seeing more pharmaceutical companies take an active role in this work, thereby making life harder for the dopers.

Anonymous said...

Why am I the only one that feels the right to do what you want with your own body is fundamental and more valuable than sport? If dopers bring the end of a sport than good riddance to the sport. Why is the body you're born with so important and the only one you can compete with? Why can't people improve their physiology with medical science? Why can't they at least maintain a base performance with medicine? Where do you draw the lines with testing and surveillance of athletes? Why are they criminals by default that have to prove their innocence? Would you guys be happy if pro athletes were kept in concentration camps?

Anonymous said...

Hi there. I"m really sorry that this comment is redundant to this post. I'm an avid reader of this blog, but i have had a burning question for a long time, the answer to which could not be found on the web, and I thought that you would be able to answer it. The question is this: do flat-footers have a disadvantage when it comes to running long-distance, and why?

thank you, and once again, my sincere apologies for making a redundant comment.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous, and thanks for your comment here.

Your aim appears to be provocative in nature, but we'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume these are sincere questions and remarks.

To be sure, many people share this view with you. In fact an article was written in I think the British Journal of Sports Medicine in the last couple of years that argued that athletes should be permitted to take drugs.

Perhaps the most compelling reason beyond fairness not to allow drug use in professional sport is that of the health of the athletes. Part of the model we use to understand this subject says most of these drugs have acute and chronic debilitating or deadly side effects. Therefore to condone drug use and permit uncontrolled doping is seen by many as unethical as it would likely result in many untimely deaths.

In addition, most of the products athletes use are controlled substances in most countries, and possessing them without a prescription is prohibited and in some countries like France a serious criminal offense.

Your point about them being presumed guilty is valid, but this is the result of years of negligent administrators who turned a blind eye while doping escalated. This lead to events like the Festina scandal in 1998 and many subsequent doping violations that highlighted the problem's pervasiveness so that currently we are justified when expressing cynicism and doubt when cyclists turn in incredible performances in the tour. Ricardo Ricco is a case in point.

We would not be happy if professional athletes, or anyone for that matter, were kept in concentration camps. The current testing system does not, to my knowledge, restrict the movement of any athlete. Each individual is free to travel where they please and has complete freedom of movement. The only stipulation is that they must inform WADA and/or their national federation of their itinerary prior to departure, and if that is not (one of) the job(s) of an agent, then I don't know what is. Therefore the athlete should experience only minimal disruptions to their routines.

Thanks again for visiting the Science of Sport.

Kind Regards,