Pro-cycling is still a drug-riddled mess

Date: March 11, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Armstrong 2A three-man independent panel, 13 months and a 227-page report has told us that the sport of cycling is still riddled with drugs.

Up until yesterday, when the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) was released, many involved in, and close to, the sport spoke proudly of a new unsullied era.

We have heard of so many false dawns.

Yesterday the sport was taken back to a moonless midnight.

The report, commissioned by current UCI President Brian Cookson, was published in its entirety – something that the likes of FIFA could learn from.

The Commission, headed by former Swiss state prosecutor Dick Marty, presented findings that will do little, or should that be nothing, to assuage those who believe the sport was still a hotbed of banned performance enhancement.

The review into the sport was in reaction to the Lance Armstrong saga which went from vehement denial to an eventual mea culpa in which he admitted to a highly methodical, systematic and arrogant program that artificially fuelled his seven Tours de France victories.

Not surprisingly, the two immediate past-presidents of the UCI, Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid, have not been painted in a good light.

The report chronicles serious acts of collusion between Armstrong and the two men who ruled the sport during his time in the saddle including cover ups with respect to positive tests returned by the Texan.

All of this has been previously mooted and reported with both Verbruggen and McQuaid denying such activities in the strongest of terms – reminiscent of Armstrong himself before he fell on his own sword after more than a decade of strident denials and law suits.

Whilst much of the report chronicles the blight that was the Armstrong Era it also throws a spotlight on the sport nowadays.

Those pages do not cast the sport in a favourable light.

In fact, some of the paragraphs are incendiary for a sport that has, in recent years, stated that it has cleaned up its act.

“One respected cycling professional felt even today, 90 per cent of the peloton was doping”, it stated. “Another put it at around 20 per cent”.

In the end the CIRC states that as a result of the 174 face-to-face interviews conducted during the inquiry, “Probably three or four were clean, three or four were doping and the rest were a don’t know”.

In terms of a standard 21-team, 189-rider Tour de France peloton that would amount to approximately 60-85 starters, excluding those in the ‘don’t know’ category, racing with the aid of banned substances – cleaner than the ‘bad old days’ but hardly numbers that the sport can gloat over.

Alarmingly, the report also questions the effectiveness of the biological passport, a program that was seen as a magic bullet in the fight against doping when introduced by the UCI in 1997.

The passport is an electronic record that profiles an athlete’s doping test results.

Collated over a period of time it is used to detect notable changes in the athlete’s established permissible levels.

As a result, the system can identify drug use without having to specifically identify the actual substance being used.

The report states that the levels recorded in the biological passport can be effectively manipulated by one of the more recent practices in cycling, micro-dosing – a practice whereby regularly administered small doses of banned substances prevent a spike in the testing results.

The practice of micro-dosing can provide the same benefits as the traditional practice of administering single larger doses.

The report says riders are utilising the rule that precludes drug testing at night, saying many of them are “confident that they can take a micro-dose of EPO in the evening because it will not show up by the time the doping control officers could arrive to test at 6am.”

Getting around that problem is not an easy one given that athletes clearly need sufficient sleep during something as arduous as the Tour de France.

Armstrong infamously avoided a suspension during his career when he tested positive to a banned corticoid.

After flying to Switzerland to speak to Verbruggen he was able to present a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) form to say that he had been administered the drug in a way of easing a saddle sore.

On that occasion the TUE was fraudulently backdated.

All TUEs are supposed to be filed in advance, prior to an athlete being administered the drug in question.

While Armstrong was able to dodge a bullet, one current cyclist interviewed by the Commission stated that 90 per cent of TUEs were presently used for performance-enhancing purposes.

The report also speaks of new practices such as the use of a drug called GW 1516 which has the ability to provide greater oxygen to the muscles and induces greater fat burning although, according to the report, has not been “given clinical approval because it is thought to cause cancer”.

Another drug, AICAR, said to be popular within the professional pelotons provides benefits akin to the previous staple, EPO.

Yet another technique employed nowadays is ‘ozone therapy’, which involves withdrawing blood, mixed with ozone, and reinjected into the athlete to create a performance enhancement that is currently undetectable.

No doubt those at the UCI who commissioned this arm’s length investigation into doping in their sport were hoping for a far rosier outcome than found in the final report.

Sadly, for all the talk of a sport having changed its spots, it appears that the use of doping is still a major everyday occurrence.

Just how the UCI reacts to the latest revelations will once again be a major test for the sport’s hierarchy.

Sadly, in the past, successive UCI leaders have done little to truly clean up the sport.

As for whether the Cookson era will bring about positive change, only time will tell.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 10 March 2015