Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Crossing the Line to Success


By now you’ve heard that Team Katusha’s Antonio Colom is the second rider from the Russian team to test positive for EPO. Christian Pfannberger tested positive earlier this year. The situation reminds me of the fine backwoods-residing gentlemen from southeastern United States who try to outrun the cops in their pickup trucks after running across a spike strip. Escape is really only an option when you are smarter than those in pursuit of you.

For as long as I’ve covered pro cycling the Union Cycliste Internationale has found ever-evolving ways to come up with decisions and procedures that seem arbitrary, illogical and just wrong-headed. And I’ve been critical of those decisions whenever I’ve had the chance to speak up.

For instance, it doesn’t sound like the UCI informed Colom’s team through the proper channels or in a timely manner. We must take it on faith that the lab that did the testing performed to standard as Colom is unlikely to have the Euro to mount a real challenge of the result. He will probably ask that his B result be tested, but confirmation is no assurance that the first result is correct. Ultimately, it is unfortunate that not everyone has unwavering faith in the UCI’s ability to act in a logical and unbiased manner.

At its heart, the UCI is a bureaucracy and for all that Europe does well, their bureaucracies suck harder than a Hoover powered by a V8 on aircraft fuel. While I detest rule-following for rule-following’s sake, that organization needs a measure of discipline to bolster our faith in its best initiatives. That said, I need to offer the same measure of praise for this catch.

Colom didn’t just happen to test positive. He was caught precisely because his biological passport showed some irregularities. The UCI calculated when he would be likely to dose with EPO by examining his racing schedule. Working back from his next appointment, the UCI elected to target the Paris-Nice stage winner on April 2, 2009.

Bingo!

I decided to check in with Jonathan Vaughters to see what he would have to say about the UCI’s methods. Here’s his response:

“There are 2 ways the passport can work:

1. The blood values are irregular enough to cause a positive on their own right. This hasn't happened yet, but will, soon.

2. Even when the values don't bounce around enough to cause a proprietary positive, they can bounce enough to cause suspicion and LOTS of extra out-of-comp and surpise urine analysis. This is how Colom got caught.

Either one is a magnificent use of the passport system. We're just now seeing the fruits of this massive effort, as it takes awhile to have enough data points to be able to see 'irregular'...

I'm happy to be in a sport willing to take it on the chin for true and fair competition. Glad to see the progress and I'm sure there is more to come.”

The biological passport has been criticized by many, among the critics have been scientists who say it is only as good as the first test; if the baseline is doped, more dope just looks normal. The challenge is that because it is imperfect, the longitudinal testing is pointless. It’s the same sort of criticism that has been leveled at the Toyota Prius. The argument goes that because it is not perfectly green it is a failure. The batteries contain nasty chemicals, it still uses gas, most of its materials can’t be recycled, blah, blah, blah. But the real world isn’t binary like football where you either win or lose. High school exit exams aren’t given to third-graders for a reason: a 10-year-old is a work in progress. And so is the biological passport. The UCI could do nothing worse in the name of clean sport than to throw up its collective hands and cry out, “We can’t catch them all so we give up! Uncle!”

I don’t like the idea of the UCI finding suspicious any rider who wins. Such a cynicism poisons the person who holds the view, not those viewed. I’ve seen it in plenty of fans who have turned away from the sport because they suspect all the riders are doped up. However, using objective methods to target riders for further attention is exactly the step the sport has needed.

Highly is the likelihood that some riders are doping and still evading detection. If we are to enjoy professional cycling as spectators, then we need the assurance that someone competent is on the case. If the record books get corrected six months, a year down the line with an asterisk, so be it. What the sport doesn’t need is to see a guy raise his arms at the line and have the TV audience suspect immediately he will test positive.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

13 comments:

bikesgonewild said...

...interesting story about 'tonio colom, especially in light of the fact that three of his teammates including robbie mc-ewen, recently refused to sign the new writer in their contracts which allowed for team katusha to extract 6X their yearly salary should anyone test positive for a doping violation...
...(almost surprised you didn't bring that fact up in an otherwise excellent & provocative article, sir)...

...extremely revealing were the recent admissions by the suspended & newly retired bernhard kohl, the ex-gerolsteiner & 3rd place 'tour' finisher...

..."blood transfusions were the only "safe" way to cheat during the race without risk of getting caught. Other doping products were used in the weeks and months before the Tour to avoid detection"...

..."Never a testosterone patch," he said. "Apart from the caffeine, pseudo-ephedrine, painkillers, EPO, human growth hormones, insulin, I took all that before, not during (the Tour).
"...

...kohl also suggested that authorities from the French anti-doping agency (AFLD), which conducted the anti-doping controls in last year’s Tour, haven’t fully been transparent...

..."What were the French authorities going to do? Withdraw the complete GC of the Tour? I knew they wouldn’t dare. Bizarrely, only three of us took the fall. I am convinced that the top 10 would be positive."...

...take it w/ a grain of salt or call it sour grapes, if you will...but research the full article & then ponder both the revelations & the consequences were they true...

Bandobras said...

One of the real questions here is why anyone cares if an athlete uses "drugs". At one point athletes merely worked hard at their sport, now there is not a top athlete in any sport that leads what anyone in their right mind could call a healthy lifestyle.
Supplements vitamin protein whatever, chiropractors, massage, hyperbaric chambers, none of that is normal or healthy. Then someone comes along and says drug a is okay in massive doses but drug b is not.
WHo can possibly care anymore.

brent said...

Likethe way you singled out the southeast...as if there aren't idiots where you live.weak...as usual.

Padraig said...

Bikesgonewild: McEwen and the others who refused to sign the rider to their contracts really don't have a bearing on Colom's case. It's curious, but unrelated. If we had any reason to believe the team was involved in organized doping the actions of a few might have more bearing on our perception of the team.

Kohl is another matter entirely.

Bandobras: The notion of clean sport is important to the great majority because it helps them connect with the athletes. Drugged up and unrecognizable, there ceases to be a sympathetic connection--that could be me. And while you might find vitamins and massage something other than healthy, most of the world thinks otherwise.

Brent: You're right, there are idiots everywhere, but my favorite examples on "Cops" hail from my neck of the woods. Didn't mean to offend.

brent said...

no problem. it got compounded by the fact that i'm just sick and tired of doping discussions.the doping really doesn't bother me, it's just people beating it in the ground that just wears me out. everything that needs to be said has been.doping will never end, let it be. it makes for great viewing,no?

Da Robot said...

I've thought a lot about doping. I've read the books, the articles, discussed it at length with fellow bike-obsessed folk.

In the end, I understand why they dope. I really do. They want to ride, and to get paid for it. They dope to earn a contract. Once they have the contract, they dope because they're afraid they can't win without it. They dope to stay on the team.

Like any addict, they start out using cause it works, then they keep using, because they don't think they can cope without it.

I get that on a very personal level, and I feel sorry for them.

Love the doper. Hate the dope.

ifpeloton said...

Personally I could give a rat's ass about doping. I think, like most things in this world, we take (unimportant in the grand scheme of)things too seriously. I watch races to see races. Sure I have some favorite riders but they are based on nothing that has to do with results or whether or not they dope. I like Erik Zabel simply because he always has a smile on his face. He confessed to doping. Is he tainted now? Who of us does not have a bunch of skeletons in our closet?

Here is an example of how taking things too serious sucks. I competed in my first road race this year. It may have been my first race but I am not new to cycling. I'm a smart guy, I read, I pay attention. That being the case, I formulated a plan and raced in a race that played to my strengths. I stuck to my tactics and the result was a first place finish. But because people are to serious about things there was crying about how much I didn't pull, "You cut me off in the sprint." etc. So because of this fall out from my win I've basically said to hell with cycling. The race was a month ago and I've ridden three times since then.

If a 50 year old man takes a Citizen's race so serious that a friendship is lost then something is amiss.

If you're serious, you lose.

jza said...

It's encouraging IF the UCI nets some big fish.

Until now, they've been content to only go after the 2nd tier riders. Maybe it's because the best riders really are just the best dopers. Maybe the UCI just sees the top guys as too valuable to the sport.

If the UCI didn't appear to be so crooked, maybe doping wouldn't be the main story going into every big race. The way the UCI is run, conspiracy theories make better drama than the racing.

Steven said...

@ ifpeloton

dude congrats, tell them to go to hell and be to the guy that complained about the sprint be glad that you did not end up on the pavement

i am 50 too and just started racing this year, why, for fun, that's it and also to have a another fun sport I can share with my kids who are 9 and 4 and 2

there will always be people who will take shit too seriously, you showed up with a plan, executed and won there will always be somebody who gets their feelings hurt, waaah!

bikesgonewild said...

...padraig...understandably colom tested positive for epo in a separate incident but the question the whole situation brings up in my mind is:- are mc-ewen, et al., afraid of the huge team fine because of the possibility that they too could get popped by the uci for "blood value variations" because nothing has really changed ???...

...this, in light of the bernhard kohl revelations...seems like the opportunity to cheat is still readily there if one has the knowledge & is deliberate & nefarious...

...hard to imagine there would organized 'team' doping at this point in time but the old "don't ask, don't tell" policy allows for denial should a rider &/or his personal doctor get out of sync...

...non sequitor...personally sad to see the uci has cleared boonen to ride "le tour"...& i guaranteed someone he would not make this years edition...pas bon pour moi...

Bandobras said...

I may not have said it very well. Years ago the Olympics had a rule that said no one could train for more than 90 days as I remember it. The result was that every country had their trials within the time zone therefore you could train for a year for the trials but only 90 days for the Olympics.
It has always been the same. A rule is made to try and keep the sports equal and someone looks for a way to get around it.
You need a medical degree now to stay clean if you really want to.
Some drugs such as caffeine are banned at a certain level but acceptable under that. Wrestlers now cut so much water weight to get into their classes that they require intravenous re hydration afterward yet that is considered ok.
My point was that the training methods of any international athlete are now so extreme that they require not a healthy lifestyle but an almost total obsession with the sport.
That they do or don't take drugs which are or are not considered "illegal" is pretty much beside the point.
No one can currently star in any top line competition with hard training and a healthy diet. They all need medical treatment to get through and that is a perversion of what sport is supposed to be.

Tom Purcell said...

However the UCI or national organizations work out their programs, the results should be handled better. The UCI and WADA are more like direct feeds to tabloids. If athletes in general are willing to dope, despite the risk of as much as a life ban, this level of "zero tolerance" enforcement is clearly not the answer.

Da Robot said...

@ Tom Purcell

I think the problem with the bans as punishment is that, most dopers believe they have no career without doping (this is my theory anyway), so a ban as deterrent doesn't mean much. Not doping, to the doper, is a de facto ban.

In other words, what have they got to lose?