Bio passport expert raises concerns about Horner’s published biological passport values
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Friday, October 18, 2013

Bio passport expert raises concerns about Horner’s published biological passport values

by Shane Stokes at 6:27 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Vuelta a España, Doping
 
Parisotto: ‘As far as I am concerned, there are very valid questions to be asked’

Chris HornerAnti-doping expert Robin Parisotto has said that he has questions about the biological passport released last month by Vuelta a España winner Chris Horner, explaining that he believes that some of the values in the blood profile justify further scrutiny and testing.

“While it is not 100 percent clear that there is anything untoward happening, there’s certainly unusual patterns there,” Parisotto told VeloNation on Friday. “If this was something that came across my desk for evaluation [as part of cycling’s biological passport panel – ed], I would certainly be putting a question mark on it. I’d at least request that further samples to be taken, particularly just before and during competitions, in order to see if the pattern was a one-off or if it persists.

“I don’t want to give too much away in the sense that if I reveal what I am looking for in such a pattern, that someone could just go away and use that information to avoid being identified and possibly sanctioned. However I would certainly have a question mark over some of those results.”

Horner clocked up the best result of his career last month when he won the Vuelta a España, netting two stage wins and dominating the climbs. In taking the victory at 41 years of age, he became the oldest Grand Tour winner ever, beating the previous record holder Firmin Lambot, who won the 1922 Tour de France at the age of 36.

Horner’s age, his superb form and his winning return from a season plagued with injury led to questions from some about his victory. Previous statements expressing support for Lance Armstrong also raised some eyebrows, particularly when he said that he considered the Texan the rightful winner of his Tours if he passed the tests at the time.

In response to the doubt, Horner – who insists that he is, and always has been, a clean rider – released his biological passport on September 25th. He has been searching hard for a team for 2014 and believed that publishing his passport was a show of transparency that would earn him public trust and also help to secure a contract.

Given the data release was public and thus open to verification, VeloNation contacted Parisotto for his opinion. He is part of the nine-member anti-doping expert panel which previously worked with the UCI – and now works with the Athlete Passport Management Unit [APMU] in Lausanne – to examine the blood profiles of riders.

His response was in an individual capacity rather than as a member of that panel. “My position is that if this data is on the public record, then as a member of the public I think I have a right to comment on it,” he said.

Expected haemoglobin decrease not seen during 2013 Vuelta:


Chris HornerWeighting up Horner’s data, Parisotto is clear that further analysis is needed using additional samples.

“Although we do get given normal profiles as well in order to remind ourselves what those normal profiles look like, most of those that come across to us are suspicious. Most are there for a reason. What I have seen with this particular profile is similar to those other profiles. In this case, as in others, I would request further sampling.”

Horner’s passport records span the past six years, starting in 2008. Parisotto made clear that he didn’t want to give too many specifics as he prefers not to educate athletes as to what it is that the biological passport experts are looking for, but he gave a general overview of the issues that raised question marks for him.

“Obviously the most suspicious thing about this profile is that during a long Grand Tour race like the Vuelta or the Tour or the Giro, it is quite normal and it is almost expected that your haemoglobin is going to decrease over the course of the race, and to generally stay decreased,” he explained. “Your reticulocytes may increase slightly, and then they should stabilise over the course of the Grand Tour.”

“In this case, the haemoglobin has done what you would expect it to do in the first part of the Vuelta, but what is unusual is that the last two samples, the haemoglobin has actually, while not quite returning to baseline, has certainly gone up. However what you would expect in such a late stage of the race is that the haemoglobin would actually keep decreasing, particularly when you are getting into the third week.

“You would expect that if the hemogloblin is going up, that the young red blood cells that are coming into the circulation would reflect that. In this case, the haemoglobin has gone up, albeit slightly, but those young red blood cells, the reticulocytes, don’t seem to match that response.”

Horner’s passport for 2013 can be seen here:

In it, he had haemoglobin readings of 15.8 g/dL on June 27th, then 15.2 g/dL on August 22nd, two days before the start of the Vuelta. His values in the race were 14.4 g/dL on August 29th, 13.5 g/dL on September 3rd, 14.3 g/dL on September 7th and 14.6 g/dL on September 14th, one day before the race finished.

Those values show the upward trend in the second half of the race that Parisotto mentioned.

“The sample just prior to the Vuelta was in the realms of normal, so there is nothing untoward there,” he continued. “But the area that I would be concerned about is where the haemoglobin starts to begin to rise again and the reticulocytes are basically remaining quite stable, and lower than the pre-race level,” he said. “I would be concerned with that.”

Human eye analysis versus biological passport software:

Chris HornerWhen USADA’s reasoned decision was handed down, it contained an analysis by another Australian bio passport expert, Christopher Gore. Looking at the biological passport data that Lance Armstrong had released, he concluded that there was a one in a million chance that the Texan had competed clean in the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France.

Armstrong continues to insist that he didn’t use banned substances during that period, but Parisotto and another anti-doping expert Michael Ashenden both previously said that they did not agree.

The-then UCI president Pat McQuaid dismissed this, saying that the bio passport panel had the opportunity to check all of Armstrong’s results and that no red flags had been raised.

Ashenden subsequently acquired and released the American’s bio passport code, then requested the other bio passport members to consult their records and to see if they did indeed get the chance to assess Armstrong; that forced the UCI to admit that none of his samples after March 2009 were handed over for their analysis.

The UCI tried to explain this away by saying that bio passport software was used as a first screening point, and that no alarms had been triggered by this.

Parisotto has an issue with this approach, pointing out that even if the thresholds are not crossed, that manipulation of blood can still take place. Because of this, he says it is vital that the APMU allows human assessment before it is ruled that it is not necessary that samples are passed on to the bio passport panel.

“In talking about Armstrong, Pat McQuaid said that the programme didn’t flag any abnormal results. That is right, in a sense, but subsequent to that there were quite a few abnormal results. They may not have necessarily been flagged by the software, but the problem with this approach is that it is not always about crossing these lower and higher thresholds…it is about someone looking and seeing a pattern,” he said.

“I for one hope that all of that has changed and that the people who are reviewing which profiles need to be evaluated by the panel are actually looking at the data rather than just running it through the programme.

“The reason is that a lot of suspect profiles might not actually trigger those thresholds. However if you look at them, you think, ‘there is something not quite right here.’ I have seen quite a few.”

Explaining things further, he said that as the passport became more sophisticated and had sufficient data for each rider to chart a clear pattern, that any abuse which is taking place has become more subtle. He said that athletes taking out and putting in smaller amounts of blood are able to avoid clear variations in blood values, while microdosing EPO or similar substances helps limit any suspect reticulocyte patterns.

“However,” he said, “you can see signs of that, as there will be a flat line when in fact that line should be tracking what happens with the haemoglobin.

“Something like that doesn’t trigger the threshold in the programme, so someone has to physically eyeball that profile and say, ‘mmm, something appears suspicious, off it goes to the panel for assessment.’”

In other words, if this human screening isn’t done in the first instance, profiles might never get to the experts like Parisotto for their analysis.

“There are very valid questions to be asked”

Chris HornerHorner indicated on Thursday that he would not be moving from the folding RadioShack Leopard squad to the Trek Factory Racing team in 2014. He had been negotiating for a long time but he and the team appear not to have been able to agree on what salary he should be given.

He will instead seek – or may already have secured – a place on another team in order to be able to compete in 2014.

In the meantime, the issues raised by Parisotto remain. “Firstly, I am speaking as an individual, not in the capacity of a member of the UCI panel. As far as I am concerned, there are very valid questions to be asked,” he told VeloNation.

“However if I was looking at this while on the panel, what I would be doing is certainly requesting more samples for evaluation. For me, there is no point in taking out of competition samples only...they would have to be tests just before competition, and also in-competition samples.”

Parisotto’s questions may raise concerns at a time when Horner is trying to conclude a contract. It’s a sensitive time in negotiations. However in releasing his data publicly, in saying that he has nothing to hide and is willing to be fully transparent, it is inevitable that experts will be asked their thoughts and that they may decide to give their opinions.

Given those fluctuations and the concerns raised, VeloNation asked Parisotto if he was surprised that Horner had taken the step to release the data in the first place.

He said that the arguments for and against it could go both ways.

“I don’t know what his thinking is, why anyone would do that, but obviously he is quite confident in the results that he has got that there is nothing untoward there. And that may well be something that Joe Blow and the public might look at and go, ‘well, there is nothing really suspicious here.’ But someone with a more keen or more trained eye can sort of pull things apart and work out what is natural and what is unnatural.

“What may seem normal to someone else might actually indicate to someone else that something is not quite right.”

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