Recently there seems to be a spate of riders like Alex Rasmussen, Gregory Bauge and Yoann Offredo getting sectioned for ‘missing drugs tests’, while riders such Mark Cavendish have admitted to having ‘strikes’ against them. So what’s going on? Are cheating riders finally getting caught? Are the UCI and WADA winning the fight against doping? Or are innocent riders getting accused of things they haven’t done?
I honestly have no idea if the riders involved have been taking drugs, I doubt the UCI knows either. Only the riders themselves know what they are been doing, but whether innocent or not, they have found themselves in trouble. To the casual sports fan, reading the sensationalist headlines it only goes to confirm their suspicions that cycling is a dirty sport. Even genuine cyclist fans must be doubting how a professional rider at the top of their sport can be stupid enough to mess up filling in their whereabouts information?
The reality is it’s not so simple, and it’s not a problem restricted to cycling.
To understand the situation, first you must understand the ADAMS whereabouts system. The idea is pretty simple. An athlete must log onto the ADAMS website and give a location and a one hour time slot each day where/when they will be available for testing. The time slot is entirely up to the athlete, and the location can be anywhere in the world.
The way the system works, the year is split into quarters. The athlete must fill in their time and location for the next 3 months before the block commences. So that means filling in your time slots for 1st April to 30th June, by 11.59pm on the 31st March at the latest.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that there’s no way you can accurately say where you are going to be 3 months in advance. A person in a normal job would struggle to do it, but for an international sports star it’s impossible. Even so the rules say it has to be done, so what’s the solution? Well assuming most people do it like I did, you pick the location you are in most, which is generally your home address. You then pick a time you should be in the house. Most athletes pick 6-7am as they should be in bed at this time, and if a tester comes round it’s not going to ruin their training plans for the day.
The whole thing does seem a bit ridiculous as the athletes know the information they are giving isn't likely to be correct but you get a strike if you don’t do it, so there’s not much choice.
So after announcing you are going to be somewhere you probably won’t be for the next 3 months, the next step is to work out where you are going to be. You can change your information up to a minute before the time slot you have given. This can be done via the website, via text or a phone call to a certain number allowing the athlete to give up to date information.
It’s up to the athlete to work out where they are going to be the next day, often in a hotel if at a race, and enter the address so that the doping authorities know where to find them. This works ok as long as you check every day, your whereabouts information for the next day and make sure it is accurate. As one person suggested to me, the athletes should set a reminder on their phone every day telling them to check their information.
While this is certainly a good idea for the more forgetful riders, it does still rely on an internet connection or a phone signal which isn’t always certain if you are living in the mountains or in certain less advanced countries. The situation isn't helped by the ADAMS webite being one of the slowest opening web pages known to man, coupled with amount of information they make you give.
One thing that needs to be made clear is that many of the so called ‘missed drugs tests’ are nothing of the sort. Cycling Weekly ran the tabloid style headline on their website that Yoann Offredo had missed 3 drugs test. The trouble is if the rider is to believed, that’s not true. He claims to have missed 1 test and incurred 2 filling offences. You might think, that’s the same, he messed up 3 times. I don’t agree. A headline saying a rider missed 3 tests makes him look like he’s been evading testing. On the other hand a rider with filling offences, looks disorganised and unprofessional rather than a cheat. And in this day and age with social media allowing false rumours to be spread very quick, public perception is very important.
So the big question is, apart from catching out some of the less organised athletes, does the system actually catch drug cheats?
The answer is to a certain extent, yes. Some people will get caught, but for the most part it’s not particularly effective. When I was taken off the system, after it was decided my chances of being a world beater were over, I asked a well respected cycling doctor if I should be worried about people having questions about me now I wasn’t on the system. The answer was pretty simply ‘No, it’s only a urine test. If you were cheating seriously you would be blood doping, so blood profiles would be a better indication of if you were clean’.
This did slightly make me wonder what the point of the whole system was if it wasn’t going to show up blood doping. In endurance sports, that’s pretty much the only doping that counts. This of course is why the ‘Biological Passports’ were introduced to look at blood profiles and try and stop manipulation by athletes. And there have been a few cases of riders being sanctioned through this, although the cases seem to have dried up recently.
The other big problem with the whereabouts system is that the testing is done by national drugs testing agencies. For the UK it’s UK sport. Now there’s no doubt that UK sport is one of the most rigorous testers in the word, with lots of money being used to catch out the cheats. So any UK athlete can expect to be tested on a regular basis. What UK sport don’t have is an unlimited budget, so unless you are a world class superstar, if you say you’re on a training camp in Mongolia I can’t see UK sport footing the bill to send a tester out to find you.
Likewise, I doubt some of the other national anti-doping agencies are quite so rigorous, so the chances of a rider from a smaller nation getting caught out of completion is close to zero. It isn’t a coincidence that most whereabouts sanctioned athletes, and athletes caught in out of completion tests are either from or live in major western nations.
Why Michael Rassmussen wasn’t in Mexico when he should have been, I have no idea, but if he was trying to cheat the system pretending to be in Mexico was probably the best way to do it. If he hadn't been spotted in Italy, that is.
So my warning to cycling fans is don’t assume riders sanctioned for ‘whereabouts offences’ are guilty of anything other than honest mistakes unless it’s proven otherwise. And likewise don’t assume that riders who haven't been caught out by the whereabouts system are clean.
Thanks for reading.