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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Danilo di Luca - positive for CERA

Di Luca caught for CERA - not Tour-related, but a big name in the net

The week has been dominated by Tour de France news - you can read my recap of the Alps in a post below, and don't forget to tune in later for the analysis of the Time-trial.

But, in what is important other news, Danilo Di Luca has tested positive for CERA during the Giro d'Italia this year. You can read about the positive test here. What I will say about this is that it has alarming implications for the testing processes . Pat McQuaid (who I am constantly reminded was denying that cycling had a doping problem in 2007, until sponsors started pulling out left and right) has claimed that catching Di Luca is "further proof that the system works and we are determined to get rid of the cheats"

And he is partly right. They caught a big name, second in the Giro this year. That is obviously a good sign. Not quite so positive, however, is the fact that a big name cyclist, who KNOWS he is going to be tested, and who KNOWS that the authorities are able to pick up CERA, is still using it. It says a lot about the attitude of Di Luca to the testers and the testing processes, and suggests that he knew that the chances of getting caught were relatively slim. Or perhaps they just gamble because the risk is perceived to be worth the potential reward. Bernard Kohl's testimony, his revelations of his own use, should be taken very seriously when combined with this latest indication that CERA, despite being detectable, lives on in the pro peloton during competition.

We as observers, and people involved in cycling, often look at testing as a means to deter doping. So, when in 2008, it was clearly evident that doping controls WOULD detect CERA, it should, according to our "model" have signified the end of CERA use during competition (use of drugs out of competition still presents a problem, of course). Yet here we have a cyclist, high profile, successful and thus guaranteed to be tested, and he is still using the substance. It is a worrying symptom of what is a deeper problem. How many others like Di Luca, like Bernard Kohl, are doping and getting away with it? I suspect many. Why did Di Luca get caught, and why now? Did he make a mistake, or was he targeted only recently? Perhaps he used CERA in the off-season and then re-infused blood that contained it? Or is the "strike rate" low enough that riders can get away with it?

So rather than agree entirely with Pat McQuaid, I think this latest positive is a flag that things are not as rosy as they appear - under some control, perhaps, for I do believe that the riders are being much more cautious and are more "afraid" now than ever, thanks to the blood passport and the like. But deterred? I don't think so.

Below is part of a post from the site Cycling Fans Anonymous. It is an excellent resource from a cynical (I would say realistic) cycling fan. It sums up the situation with Di Luca excellently, so I've copied a couple of paragraphs in below. Take some time and read the whole post, though, because it provides the realistic assessment of this year's Tour de France, and the cynicism with which the sport should probably be met. Many will feel it is overly negative. I tend to think it's closer to the truth than we'd like to believe, and it's well written, thought-provoking and more accurate than most of the "fed" coverage of cycling that the associated press and general media provide.

So Di Luca is finally caught, after doping for likely his entire career. About damn time. He actually publicly stated that notorious doping doctor Carlo Santuccione was his "family doctor" since he was child, so while it is a relief to see him fall at long last, it is also a sad indictment of the total inadequacy of the usual sort of anti-doping testing that it took so many long years to catch him. Like Kohl, who explained that he should have tested positive any number of times long before his CERA positive, I think that Di Luca has long been getting away with it with ease due to the help of Santuccione and his informers, who warned the doctor about upcoming "surprise" tests. The jury is still out on whether the bio-passport will really be able to end the dark days of obvious dopers being able to smugly say they never tested positive. In catching Di Luca, the UCI can now earnestly wave a big fish under our noses as "proof" of their sincerity in the anti-doping fight. With the UCI however, cycling fans have long since learned the hard way to question everything and temper our expectations. Putting your faith in the UCI's veracity is sort of like declaring the Tour to be clean. As much as you might want to believe it, you are just asking to look stupid a few months down the line. The UCI's history is nothing if not one big object lesson on the power of denial and the misuse of official authority. McQuaid will soon be reelected as head of the UCI, without any opposition candidates even running. Verbruggen, who has to be among the worst doping apologist ever, is still in a position of power at the UCI. The UCI is still suing Dick Pound. Is this an organization that you can believe in?

The other point made by this latest positive is that some cyclists are clearly not afraid of getting caught when taking CERA. Why is this? It seems that they must have info that the chances of getting caught are relatively slim. You have to wonder what percentage of CERA users the CERA test actually is able to catch? How many other cyclists have been using CERA and got away with it? There must be quite a few if there are still high-profile, frequently-tested cyclists who are willing to take the risk and face the odds of discovery. For cyclists who have been doping and not getting caught for their entire career, the sense of invincibility must be deeply ingrained, and their attitudes toward the acceptability of doping seem to be lagging behind the growing ability of the bio-passport to catch them. The idea of many long-time dopers in the cycling world seems to be that they are simply not doing anything wrong, and that tacit acceptance of doping is and ought to be the unwritten law of the sport. Riders who have lived this reality for years will have a hard time coming to grips with the idea that the UCI might actually be serious about anti-doping this time...maybe.

Source: Cycling Fans Anonymous


Anonymous said...

I'm slightly confused - if Di Luca failed TWO tests at the Giro, how come he was allowed to complete the event?! Surely a failed control would lead to suspension from the race?

If the attitude of Di Luca for continuing to take CERA knowing he would be tested and give a positive sample is confusing, then so, too, is how this has been handled by the UCI.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I believe that the problem is that there is a delay between the collection of samples and the release of results due to the time taken to transport, test and analyse the samples. Theoretically,then the athlete is confidentially told of a problematic test result and can ask for a counter-analysis of his "B" sample, somtimes even at another lab...

Ideally, the process would be faster, meaning cheats would be out on the spot and would no longer be able to influence the result of events they are in.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi runningrupert and Anonymous, and thanks for your comments.

runningrupert is pretty much spot on. Samples are collected daily, but one has to realize that the sample analysis, which includes testing for a number of different substances, must be done remotely. Recall also that the race is completed in mostly rural areas, and so as runningrupert mentioned transportation is also an issue.

I am not 100% sure of the logistics, but if I had to guess it looks something like this:

1) Collect sample at finish
2) Store sample for transport
3) Transport to appropriate lab
(Perhaps these steps are completed on the same day)
4) Sample analysis, but for how many substances? One analysis per substance, perhaps 30-60 min for each analysis, therefore at least one day for just one cyclist's sample---and all the jerseys are tested plus a few random samples each day, so 6-7 per day.

And unfortunately the lab will not exist to test only samples from the tour. . .so the lab techs are not sitting their twiddling their thumbs until the tour samples arrive in their hands.

Even given all that, though, it seems like a two month turnaround is kind of slow, but probably until ASO, the UCI, or WADA fork out the money and pay for exclusivity, we are likely to see this kind of time frame for sample results.

If we have any techs or graduate students reading (come on, we know you are out there!), they can attest to the time and effort required to perform any kind of biochemical assay. It is not just a matter of placing a drop of urine on a test strip and seeing that it is positive for EPO/steroids/testosterone/etc.

Thanks again for commenting!

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

Thank you both for your replies. Top blog, by the way, makes for really interesting reading.