Varying responses to questions raised about biological passport by Gerard Vroomen
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Friday, August 12, 2011

Varying responses to questions raised about biological passport by Gerard Vroomen

by Shane Stokes at 8:58 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Doping, Opinion
 
UCI goes on the attack, but riders’ agent states large gaps in testing did exist

One day after Cervélo co-founder Gerard Vroomen voiced concerns that he felt the biological passport programme might not be testing riders with anything like the same frequency as in the past, the UCI responded yesterday with a strongly-worded communiqué, rejecting the suggestions. Yet at the same time, an agent representing many prominent riders, including Carlos Barredo, highlighted for extra testing during the 2010 Tour de France, reiterated an earlier statement about a lack of bio-passport tests up to May of this year.

The governing body released figures yesterday which it said showed that a considerable number of tests had been carried out. It stated that 1074 blood passport tests (excluding tests at the Tour de France) were carried out between July 1st and the end of 2010, and 1577 between January 1st and April 30th.

It added that these referred to ‘out-of-competition controls, pre-competition and in-competition controls on all major events during this period and team training camps.’ The UCI also stated that two teams Vroomen was linked to – Cervélo and Garmin-Cervélo – received 45 (1 July 2010 – 31 December 2010) and 68 (1 July 2010 to 30 April 2011) of these tests.

“The assertions made by Gerard Vroomen’s are misleading, irresponsible, mischievous and clearly show a very weak understanding of this complex subject, an area which goes well beyond financial questions alone,” blasted the governing body. “The UCI considers Mr Vroomen’s comments particularly unacceptable given the years of research and investments in this area. The result of UCI’s anti-doping work has been unanimously recognized by international experts and its program has become a worldwide reference in the fight against doping.”

It further referred to ‘the exceptional quality of competition at the recent Tour de France 2011,’ and said that race reflected a cleaner era in cycling.

In order to ascertain if Vroomen had got the picture wrong, VeloNation sought the opinion of several people involved in the sport. These ranged from riders to anti-doping experts to lawyers. Some of these responses are still pending but of those who have given feedback, a mixed message emerges.

Three UCI ProTeam competitors said that they had been tested in the past year. One, who didn’t wish to be named, said that he had received ‘about’ six tests in 2011. Another said that he had been examined twice in the past couple of months, one test out of competition and the other at a race, while the third said that he had not been tested during the winter months, but was examined in the run up to the Giro d’Italia, his targeted event.

These are a tiny representation of the peloton, but what is also emerging is that there have been notable gaps in testing. In May the so-called Index of Suspicion from last year’s Tour de France was leaked to L’Equipe. It was a scale between zero and ten detailing the urgency of testing required, and determined by what the UCI believed was the likelihood riders were potentially using banned substances and methods.

Cross referencing that Index of Suspicion with the Independent Observers' Report from the race revealed some very worrying oversights, with several of the riders deemed most ‘at risk’ of doping not being tested as recommended.

One of two riders who was given a ranking of ten, the Spaniard Carlos Barredo, is represented by the Belgian agency Celio Sport. In a press release issued in mid May, it disputed his ranking and the leak of the list, and said that there was a clear infrequency of testing for its clients. It represents riders such as Niels Albert (Bel), Carlos Barredo (Spa), Tom Boonen (Bel), Gerald Ciolek (Ger), Stijn Devolder (Bel), Tyler Farrar (USA), Karsten Kroon (Ned), Levi Leipheimer (USA), Robbie McEwen (Aus), Michael Rogers (Aus), Gert Steegmans (Bel) and Greg Van Avermaet (Bel).

Referring to the list, it stated that “most of these riders have even not yet been tested once in the year 2011.”

Carlos BarredoIt also commented specifically on Barredo. “Carlos Barredo, who received the maximum ranking of 10/10 and as such could be considered 'public enemy number 1' for the UCI, has not been tested at all for the biological passport since October 2nd, 2010! Therefore we think that the problem of credibility lies largely with the UCI and its system, rather than with the riders.”

VeloNation contacted Celio Sport yesterday and spoke with rider agent Paul de Geyter, who was involved with issuing that May press release. “I stay with what I said at that time, in relation to the number of tests,” he said. “I stand by that statement. I haven’t checked it since, but I know that there was not so much testing, that is for sure. That was one of the frustrations of Carlos, who said ‘if they rank me number ten, then test me.’”

At the time Celio Sport said that it was considering legal action over the leaked list, saying that it harmed rider’s images. De Geyter said that still is an option, but that nothing had been decided as yet. “As far as the action is concerned, we received a letter from the UCI as we contacted them seeking explanation. They basically said that they would grant access for individual riders to look at their own file. What we are going to do now is to ask the UCI to explain the procedures the riders have to follow to have access to their individual file to see why they were listed low or high on that ranking.

“We will do it step by step. We are not only talking about Carlos, it is something that concerns every rider. Whether your have ten in this case – that was really extreme – or if you have four, or five or six or seven or eight and you are someone who is clean, it is damaging your reputation. It is not only Carlos, but every rider on that list who is concerned.

“We will first get a reaction from the UCI. It is important for us to have a look at the UCI. Of course, if the information we get itsn’t sufficient, the damage is still there….”

The UCI vowed in May to uncover the source of the leak, but has not commented since on the matter.

Lack of clarity on biological passport:

When the biological passport was launched in 2008, the UCI said that a total of 11,360 projected tests would be done. These would be formed mainly from blood tests, with 7400 out of competition examinations and 1320 in-competition assessments expected, with the remainder being from out of competition (1980) and in-competition (660) tests.

It was envisaged that an extra number of tests would initially be carried out in order to establish a baseline for riders, and then testing would continue for the remainder of their careers in order to detect any suspicious fluctuations. In addition, riders new to the peloton would undergo the same initial high frequency of testing in order to establish their own parameters.

A total of 850 riders were to be involved in the tests, namely UCI ProTeam riders, riders with UCI Pro Continental teams with Wild Card labels, and other riders selected by the UCI.

In that light, the July to December 2010 number of 1074 blood passport tests work out at an average of just over one per rider; the January 1st to April 30th figure of 1577 falls short of two per individual. And while the UCI was clear that targeted testing would take place once the baselines were established, with suspicious riders being targeted more than others, De Geyter’s comments suggest that riders deemed more ‘at risk’ were not necessarily given more tests. This is hard to understand.

Funding and transparency:

The funding for the biological passport programme was initially projected as costing €4.9 million. Contributions would come from teams, race organisers, riders, the UCI, WADA and the French government. Teams continue to pay a substantial amount each year for the passport.

Crucially, at the time the UCI announced that it would provide an ‘anonymous public release of results each quarter.’ (see presentation document). This has not occurred, and its absence makes it impossible to determine what is happening with the biological passport, how many tests are being carried out, and what value for money the teams and other contributors are getting for it. No new cases have been announced in over a year.

Indeed had the quarterly public release of results been carried out, the concerns expressed by Gerard Vroomen this week would have been avoided. While the wording of his blog may have suggested that no tests were carried out (something he later clarified, saying ‘I did not say there were zero tests, just that I’ve heard from riders and team managers that they haven’t seen tests being carried out’), he has explained that the lack of information is what concerns him.

Comment:

Following the Operacion Puerto and Landis affairs, there was a period of greater transparency within the UCI where the governing body discussed frankly the issue of doping and regularly released figures relating to testing and detection. It was acting out of necessity at the time, battling a public and media image of a sport with serious problems.

Over time this situation has changed somewhat. The UCI’s previous anti-doping manager Anne Gripper took up the position in 2006 and was initially available for comment, responding frankly to questions from the press. In late 2008 this changed, with the UCI requesting that all questions be referred directly to it rather than to Gripper, who became far less available as a result. This writer and others requested several interviews with her at and after that time, but she indicated that she was not able to speak without the UCI’s prior approval.

Since she left the governing body in March of last year, her replacement Francesca Rossi has had a much lower public profile. She has given very few interviews and the UCI indicated this week to other media that she would not be talking to the press.

The UCI’s somewhat aggressive response to Gerard Vroomen’s blog shows that it believes its efforts are not being fairly represented. VeloNation spoke to Vroomen yesterday and while he preferred not to respond to the UCI’s press release, it was clear that his position was due to what he perceived were gaps in testing rather than any desire to attack the UCI.

The biological passport has been groundbreaking and has prompted other governing bodies to follow a similar approach to anti-doping. The UCI should be congratulated for that. On the other hand, a declared undertaking to release anonymous results quarterly has not been followed and in some cases, riders identified as very high on the index of suspicion have not been tested. That undermines the confidence generated by the programme. A more open approach to the system would reduce doubts and could only benefit the anti-doping fight, confidence in the passport plus cycling’s own image at this point in time.

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