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.
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.