Gerard Vroomen Interview: Inexplicable why the UCI didn’t target Armstrong over bio passport
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gerard Vroomen Interview: Inexplicable why the UCI didn’t target Armstrong over bio passport

by Shane Stokes at 5:22 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews, Doping
 
Dutchman speaks about UCI, biological passport, WADA politics and more

Gerard VroomenFor Part II of this interview, click here:

Gerard Vroomen has spoken out against the UCI’s recent disclosure that Lance Armstrong’s biological passport was not submitted to the expert panel for much of his comeback, saying that he finds it inexplicable that the rider could have slipped through the net.

The UCI stated earlier this month that the bio passport software didn’t throw up any red lights and because of that, his results after May 2009 were never given to the experts for analysis. The relevance of this is clear; the USADA Reasoned Decision stated that anti-doping experts believed his profile was highly suspicious during races such as the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France, yet he was able to race unhindered.

The disclosure that he was not assessed by the panel is at direct variance with the statement by UCI President Pat McQuaid in a VeloNews interview, when he said that all of Armstrong’s blood test results were assessed and passed by those experts.

“I think their reaction just means that they are grasping at straws,” said Vroomen in a long interview with VeloNation, part one of which appears below. “They get attacked about something, then they just blurt out an excuse [blaming the software – ed.] which is now something that threatens the whole basis of the passport.

“They are perhaps unwitting, but nonetheless willing to throw the whole biological passport system under the bus to save their skin.”

Vroomen was involved in cycling for many years as the Cervélo co-founder and the general manager of the Cervélo Test Team. He’s now one of two founders of the Open Cycle company and the publisher of a new iPad magazine called 2r.

He’s gained a reputation as someone who doesn’t hold back from speaking out about difficult aspects of the sport, and on his Gerard.cc blog he’s made intelligent observations and asked questions which have stirred up debate.

Vroomen continues to call out what he sees as illogical behaviour, and raises questions about Armstrong’s biological passport.

When the Texan was first placed under federal investigation, former UCI President Hein Verbruggen told AD.nl that he was certain that the rider ‘never, never, never doped’ and defended him against the allegations. But when Armstrong finally admitted to doping, the Dutchman changed his tune and said that he always had doubts. He has also confirmed that Armstrong had a suspicious EPO test during the 2001 Tour de Suisse.

The volte-face in stance was jarring to anyone who had followed the situation over the past few years. Verbruggen previously described Armstrong as a friend, but is now seeking to distance himself. However as Vroomen points out, the new position doesn’t sync logically with the lack of bio passport panel assessment of the rider.

“Mr Verbruggen, he now says that he was very suspicious of Mr Armstrong since 2001,” he said. “Well, if you are suspicious about somebody since 2001, then maybe you should want to look at their profile. I think the UCI would call that targeting, and I can’t think that targeting means not testing someone or not looking at his profile – that doesn’t sound like targeting to me.

“If you follow through on Mr Verbruggen’s line of thought, you would, for example, not allow somebody who you are suspicious of to come back less than six months after entering the testing pool. You would not allow just a simple computer to miss such a rider, you would target him by giving his profile to the experts. It is pretty common sense, I would think.”

VeloNation: This month the UCI confirmed that despite what its president Pat McQuaid has stated in media interviews, that the majority of the readings in Lance Armstrong’s biological passport were never assessed by the experts.

The only values that were assessed were those up to March 2009; those experts said that these initial results were clear, but the fact remains that no tests were assessed after that point. However those later values were deemed highly suspicious by USADA in its Reasoned Decision and an anti-doping expert has said that there was only a one in a million chance that he was racing clean in the 2009 and 2010 Tours.

What’s your reaction to this news?

Gerard Vroomen: Well, what can you say about that? As I wrote in my blog, those early tests don’t mean anything. They were still establishing his profile at that point, so you have to a real idiot to be caught that early on.

I think my biggest problem is the UCI’s argument that the software didn’t pick up anything suspicious, so the experts didn’t get to see it after that.

The experts now say that it is almost beyond reasonable doubt that his is the profile of a doper, so if the software doesn’t pick that up, how many other dopers does the software not pinpoint? Does this then explain why the passport doesn’t really catch anybody?

I would say there are two possible conclusions. The first is that the software picked it up but somebody decided not to send it to the experts, in which case it is the UCI’s fault. Or, the software didn’t pick anything up…in which case, that’s also the UCI’s fault for deploying software that is useless.

The common theme seems to be that it is the UCI’s fault, which of course we have also seen before.

But I think their reaction just means that they are grasping at straws. They get attacked about something, then they just blurt out an excuse [blaming the software – ed.] which now is something that threatens the whole basis of the passport. They are perhaps unwitting, but nonetheless willing to throw the whole biological passport system under the bus to save their skin.

The biological passport was the only thing which left them with any credibility. I think it is about time that the people in the management committee in the UCI considered things fully. Instead of saying what we need now is unity, they need to say what we need now is to save cycling. Unity is often a good thing, I’m sure – quarrelling all the time doesn’t help, but if they maintain that they have the full confidence in the current people who run the UCI and that unity is more important than competence, then we have to seriously question what they are doing in their positions.

I think that is the point where we are. There is a time for unity, but I didn’t hear anybody in Tahrir square yell ‘what we need now is unity! Come Mr Mubarack, come join us.’

So there is a time for everything. I don’t think that this the time for unity if there is clear mismanagement going on at the top of the sport.

VN: The UCI has said that the software didn’t pick up any anomalies in Armstrong’s passport. Do you think that there should be a point where an expert should still see the passports anyway regardless – for example, with perhaps the podium finishers in the Grand Tours?

GV: There aren’t that many people in the passport…there are only 1000 riders. I think many should be looked at seriously. Okay, the Grand Tour podium – you could say that is important. It is easy to say now because Lance was third and if you had done the podium, you would have noticed it. But if you had asked a month ago who you should test, somebody could have made a reasonable argument to say all the winners of all the World Cup races. The guys on the highest spot in the podium. And if that person fails, maybe you look at the number two.

That would have been a reasonable argument as well. I think it is too easy to say ‘well, yes, if you had looked at the podium, you would have found Armstrong.’ If you just do every single rider, which is what the passport is for, then you would maybe have found every rider who has done something wrong with that method.

There are only 1000 riders so you either have to look at a bunch of them, a couple of hundred that really matter, or else you need to have software that works, that can accurately see which ones would be good to look at further.

According to Mr Verbruggen, he now says that he was very suspicious of Mr Armstrong since 2001. That’s what he says – I don’t know anything about it, but he is the expert [said perhaps tongue in cheek – ed.]. He has ‘always known more than he can say, it was very difficult for him, he was always torn by it and all that stuff.’

Anyway, let’s say that if you are suspicious about somebody since 2001, then maybe you should want to look at the profile. I think the UCI would call that targeting, and I can’t think that targeting means not testing someone or not looking at his profile – that doesn’t sound like targeting to me.

If you follow through on Mr Verbruggen’s line of thought, you would, for example, not allow somebody who you are suspicious of to come back less than six months after entering the testing pool. You would not allow just a simple computer to miss such a rider, you would target him by giving his profile to the experts. It is pretty common sense, I would think.

VN: Michael Ashenden recently released the minutes of the UCI’s Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation meeting in June 2010, which showed that due to budget constraints, that the biological passport testing was cut back.

That ties in with something you wrote on your blog at the time, questioning how many tests were being done. This earned you criticism from the UCI. How do you feel now in light of the newly-released documentation?

GV: Well, it is not news for me. I think what Michael Ashenden wrote only shows part of the problem – if you look at that whole document, you see that the budget was cut in half, basically. From spending eight and a half million euro in 2009 to budgeting 4.2 million in 2010. That is more than a little tweak.

VN: After you published that blog post, what sort of feedback did you get from the readers and the teams?

GV: Nothing, because in the end, it is also an indictment of the teams. It is the teams who say ‘look at what we are doing’ and then when the UCI decides to do only half the number of tests, none of the teams speak up. It is also an indictment of the races. You can see right there in the documents…the race organisers have demanded a reduction of their payment.

So here you have the Tour de France which makes roughly 40 million a year, the Giro that makes 10 million per year…and they want a reduction in their fee of something like 129,000 euros. In the end, it is an indictment for everybody. It is nice for the teams and the races that the UCI takes the fall by being their belligerent self. But what do the teams have to say for themselves? They have known this obviously for two years. They kept parroting about ‘everything being better now, we have this great biological passport, Lance is the past, this is the future, blah blah blah.’ So how about it?

VN: The teams pay a lot of cash each year. Do you feel that they get the statistics about the amount of testing being done and thus would be aware of any drop in testing?

GV: They certainly can if they are interested. But if I am not mistaken, they employ the person being tested. If the rider gives you permission - and riders do - you can obtain the biological passport test results.

That is quite helpful – if teams test internally anyway, then adding the UCI testing data to that gives you a bigger pool of data. Therefore you have more precise results.

At least in those days, I think there were a lot of teams who were doing that, especially those who have an internal programme. Now it means that you don’t have to double up on testing. You could have your 20 tests a year and add them to the ten of the UCI, and then you have a pool of thirty tests to compare.

The teams that were serious about that would have known that, would have seen that the number of tests were dropping.

I would say that the teams who have less than noble goals would also know because they would also love to see this biological passport data, just to make sure whatever they don’t want to come out doesn’t come out.

So I would say that most teams are aware of that, just anecdotally. They should be talking to their employees, being the riders.

The riders are another element, of course. Some riders have spoken out and said they are being tested less now than in the past. But then again, there is not a great groundswell of indignation. Here we have races, federations, teams and riders all telling us things are different now, but at the same time none of them show a real interest in the fact that biological passport testing has dropped by half. It makes it hard for the public to believe that anything has really changed.

VN: Have you any indication that the testing is still reduced from when you wrote your blog post?

GV: I don’t know that for a fact. But I would think the economics haven’t greatly changed, so… You would have to ask, as I did back then, ask a dozen riders and see if they all say the same.

VN: Is there a possibility that some teams are happy enough with things as they are, that they can point to the biological passport and claim that the sport is clean, even if the number of tests has dropped?

GV: Well, I don’t know if it is consciously used that way, but of course you have to wonder. The vast majority of money comes from the teams. So as a team you are putting a ton of money into a programme that is supposed to catch dopers. If it's catching virtually nobody and you notice that fewer tests are being performed than used to be the case for the same amount of money that is being put it, it raises questions about the motivation for it.

If you are putting that money in because you want the anti-doping process to work, you would be upset. If you put the money in because it is buying you a nice story for the outside world, you don’t care.

So you have to wonder why nobody is speaking up. They might have reasons for that, they might speak up behind closed doors, who knows, but you have seen that I have raised this point several times on why teams are not speaking up, and it has never led to any team deciding to speak up. It is a mystery.

Part II of this interview can be read here. In it, Vroomen give his thoughts on the notion of a completely independent anti-doping body, questions statements WADA have made about cycling and also weighs up the cancelled UCI Independent Commission and the question of Pat McQuaid’s stated intention to run again for president.

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