The new-look WorldTour

Brian Cookson UCI CORVOS

Tuesday saw the UCI announce the races that will make up the 2017 WorldTour calendar. All the regular names are there, including races run by the ASO, which resolved its conflict with the sport’s governing body earlier this year.

As part of the WorldTour reforms the current group of races will be joined by an influx of varied new ones, ten of them in fact, which range from the sandy, windswept Tour of Qatar to the muddy, windswept Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, among others.

UCI WorldTour 2017 additions

Judging by the events involved it seems there are a myriad of reasons involved in their selection.

  • The Cadel Evans Road Race attracted nine WorldTeams this season and looks a logical enough addition given its proximity to the Tour Down Under
  • The money grabs – the Tour of Qatar and the 1-year-old Abu Dhabi Tour fill an empty slot in the WorldTour calendar between January’s Tour Down Under and March’s Paris-Nice but the racing is hardly vintage.
  • Spring classics Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche and Dwars door Vlaanderen provide great racing, though perhaps just the first two would have done.
  • Turkey has been linked for a while, though its inclusion is less sensible than ever given the political situation in the country and the fact that the new organisers oversaw what was hardly a success this season, with only two WorldTeams showing up.
  • Finally, Eschborn-Frankfurt, California and RideLondon all hit important markets, with American long overdue a top-level race. The Tour of Britain would perhaps have been a better choice than RideLondon, though that likely would’ve caused a similar problem for local teams as California’s inclusion could.

All races have been awarded with three-year licenses, in accordance with a new application process, something which the UCI claim was “was met with significant interest from race organisers”.

This new-look WorldTour is a far cry from the unpopular reforms originally proposed way back in 2014, which featured shortened races and a confusing B-team system. While these additions certainly seem a better idea than those reforms, there are – as ever – a number of problems and questions that arise as a result of this expansion.

The increased number of calendar clashes is the first problem that springs to mind. With 37 events spread over 176 days there will now be a further 14 racedays during which WorldTour events clash with each other, with seven already on the calendar. The 2014 reforms called for fewer clashes, a plan which has obviously been abandoned.

Many of these clashes are easy enough to deal with – for instance, teams already send squads to the Ardennes and the Tour of Turkey with no problems. A bigger problem will be the weekend of July 30th, which sees three events crammed in. Clásica San Sebastián is held on Saturday, the same day the Tour de Pologne starts and a day before the RideLondon-Surrey Classic.

Marc Madiot FDJ CORVOS

It’s a calendar that FDJ boss Marc Madiot has described as making “no sense”, adding that his squad wouldn’t miss out on French races to meet the WorldTour’s requirements: “it’s part of our duty to support local races as well.” This sentiment is likely to be echoed by other teams, while his thoughts about the UCI’s proposed participation rules (a minimum of ten WorldTeams at new WorldTour events) have already been stated by the AIGCP (the association of pro teams).

At the time of writing the AIGCP has yet to release a statement on the newly-announced reforms, though it’s easy to get a sense of what it would be, given their response to the UCI’s June 23rd press release, which first brought up the subject of participation rules.

“The AIGCP maintains that it is not the case that the PCC approved the principle of setting up for newly-promoted WorldTour events… nor is it the case that the PCC agreed to examine such a proposal at the next meeting of the PCC. On the contrary, it was confirmed, as was approved by the Management Committee and the PCC in 2015, that newly-promoted WorldTour events bear the full responsibility for securing participation of at least 10 WorldTeams with no coercive mechanisms.”

Right now it is unclear how this rule would be enforced. Would the UCI strongarm teams into turning up in Turkey? How would they pick who goes and who doesn’t? The other races (with the exception of Frankfurt at 4) already attract between 7 and 12 WorldTeams, and there probably wouldn’t be too much trouble getting to 10.

One final point can be made about the balance of the calendar. With the new additions the calendar looks even more front-heavy. Nine of the new additions take place before July, in addition to 17 of the 27 current races.

Personally I would’ve liked to see the Arctic Race of Norway, Paris-Tours and Milano-Torino promoted to give the August and September calendar a boost. The latter two races certainly strike me as more deserving from a racing standpoint than some of the UCI’s chosen ten.

Conclusion

Ultimately it looks as though little will change from our point of view – these races will outwardly remain largely the same, though the additional WorldTour points will make a difference for teams, whether or not they choose to attend.

But it does seem like the UCI have inadvertently created another class of races, not quite WorldTour and not Continental-level either. The races are presumably paying similar fees to the current WorldTour races, only to see 7 less top tier teams competing.

The question of cycling’s top tier and how to organise it fairly and positively for all has yet to be solved, and this latest move from the UCI isn’t going to be the final fix. Indeed, it’s probable that the WorldTour problem will never be solved to the satisfaction of everybody involved. One thing is for sure – I certainly don’t think this is the answer.

 

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The Yates Case: Turmoil with Terbutaline and TUEs

simon yates dauphine 2015 orica greenedge COR VOS
Yates in action at the 2015 Critérium du Dauphiné

Thursday’s news of Simon Yates’ positive test for asthma drug Terbutaline capped a horrific week for British Cycling, with the various Shane Sutton-related scandals that also exploded this week still ongoing. Combined, the scandals have made for a disastrous run-in to the Tour de Yorkshire, one of the flagship events of the British racing calendar..

Others with more interest in track cycling and more knowledge of women’s cycling than I have analysed and picked apart the Sutton scandals better than I ever could (Anne-Marije Rook, Sarah Connolly, Helen Pidd), but the focus here will be on the Yates case.

The Basics

On Thursday British newspaper The Daily Mail teased the positive test of a British ‘track star’ who was gunning for an Olympic road race spot, adding that the test was recorded at a French race in March. Twitter detectives (me included) swiftly concluded that it was likely Simon Yates, an assumption which was soon confirmed by the paper.

The drug that the 23-year-old had tested positive for was Terbutaline, one of the few not yet familiar to cycling fans, doing so on stage six of Paris-Nice. His team, Orica-GreenEdge confirmed this via press release, noting that use of the substance was declared on the Doping Control Form when Yates took the test. The team goes on to say that they were informed on April 22nd and adding that the reason for the positive test was that “a team doctor made an administrative error by failing to apply for the TUE required.”

At the time of writing, there is much to unpack and Yates’ status is up in the air as he waits for the UCI to review his documentation before they rule on the case. As Terbutaline is not a specified substance (a substance more susceptible to a non-doping explanation), Yates is not provisionally suspended per the UCI’s Anti-doping rules, section 7.9.1.

The drug, and its legality

Before getting to the ins and outs of the case, what is Terbutaline? Put simply, it’s a bronchodilator, a substance which dilates bronchial passages, opening the airways and increasing airflow to the lungs.

When inhaled, it’s fast-acting and the effects can last for six hours – that’s slightly longer than the more common Salbutamol. Basically it’s an asthma medication, also used to delay preterm labour in pregnant women.

A beta2-agonist, the drug is prohibited for use in sports, per WADA’s Prohibited List. As opposed to similar asthma drugs Salbutamol, Formoterol and Salmeterol, which are allowed in some doses without a TUE, Terbutaline use is only allowed if the user has a TUE.

wada prohibited list beta2 agonists

The effects of this group of drugs on athletic performance are much debated, with a number of medical studies contradicting one another. For example, this 1996 study concludes that beta2-agonist do not increase physical performance in top athletes, and this 2011 study found no significant effects on healthy athletes from the drugs.

On the other hand, this 2000 study tells us that Salbutamol increases muscle strength and endurance in non-asthmatics, while this study from the same year notes that Salbutamol improves performance during sub-maximal exercise. Meanwhile, this 2004 study suggests benefits for endurance athletes. It should be noted though, that these studies used far greater quantities of the drug than a regular asthmatic would inhale.

However, those studies did not include Terbutaline. A 2013 study specifically dealing with the drug found that the substance aids anaerobic ability and muscle strength while endurance suffered due to the drug’s side-effects.

I spoke to Dr John Dickinson from the University of Kent, an expert on asthma in sport, and he confirmed this.

More recent studies suggested that Terbutaline can improve strength and power performance. Even to get those you’d need to take quite high doses of it. Linking back to the guy who is in the news today – it’s not really likely to improve endurance performance, as far as we know.

simon yates orica greenedge dauphine 2015 COR VOS
Yates donning the best young rider’s jersey at last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné

Asthma in pro cyclists – really?

Whenever a case related to asthma medication comes up, many people react with shock – how could so many athletes, these peak physical specimens, suffer from asthma?

Dr Dickinson, who conducted a study on this subject in 2014, says that this is not so strange after all. He found that 70% of swimmers from the British swim squad have some form of asthma, while a third of Team Sky riders were found to suffer from it. That’s against a national rate in the UK of 8-10%.

Rather than suffering from classic asthma (caused by genetics or environmental factors) though, this is exercise-induced asthma. The symptoms are similar but the condition is instead caused by the heavy, fast breathing induced by exercise. This form of asthma is what Team Sky’s Chris Froome claims to suffer from.

Dickinson reaffirmed his findings when I talked to him.

Exercise-induced asthma, on the spectrum of asthma, is on the milder end of it. Most elite athletes who do have it purely have exercise-induced asthma – they only get it when they’re at the top end of their high intensity exercise, which is increasing their exposure to things that trigger an asthma attack.

The majority of them would be mild to moderate cases. When they’re not training or competing they’re unlikely to suffer.

TUEs

Chris Froome claimed not to have one, the CIRC Report said they were abused, and Orica-GreenEdge forgot to apply for one at Paris-Nice. Therapeutic use exemptions have been in the news a lot over the years. They are, in effect, special permissions for athletes to use an otherwise prohibited substance in order to treat a legitimate medical condition.

In order to obtain a TUE for Terbutaline, WADA specifies that along with the request itself, an athlete must submit their full medical file (see below for what that entails).

medical information required for asthma tue - wada

After the CIRC Report found that the UCI’s TUE process was deficient, noting that Froome’s TUE at the 2014 Tour de Suisse was processed by one person. Since then, the UCI has put into place a TUE Committee, a six-person panel, three of which look at each TUE request before a final decision is made about the request.

There are several conditions that must be met before a TUE can be granted, and as a result of the introduction of these measures and the introduction of the TUE Committee, the number of TUEs granted annually by the UCI has decreased year on year (see below for both).

conditions for granting tue, tues annually granted - uci

So it’s pretty thorough, right? Seemingly so, but the system can still be gamed as we have seen in athletics with the coach of the Nike Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar.

After a doctor declined her medication in 2004 for the exercise-induced asthma she was experiencing, Salazar set up an appointment at the Nike Oregon Project with a doctor who had an established protocol. The athlete must go to the local track, run around it, work herself up to having an asthma attack, run down the street and up 12 flights of stairs to the office where the doctor “would be waiting to test you”. Fleshman did this, failed her health test, and was duly prescribed the Advair brand for the duration of the racing season when the pollen count was highest, as well as rescue inhaler Albuterol.

There have been no cases like that in cycling (that we know of anyway), but given the history of the sport it would hardly be a surprise.

With this in mind it seems inevitable that we will see questions arise in relation to Yates’ forgotten TUE (and presumed past TUEs). Is his need for Terbutaline legitimate? Or could a TUE be falsified, Salazar-esque, in a bid to obtain the perceived performance gains? It’s a question that can, and has been applied to every case like this in the past – this culture of suspicion is the norm in our sport.

The BBC’s Matt Slater confirmed via Twitter that Yates had not previously had a TUE for Terbutaline. This fact changes things; with no previous TUEs to point to it will be hard, even impossible, for Yates and the team to prove that his use of Terbutaline was in response to a legitimate medical need (presumably Yates was using Salbutamol previously).

As for the choice of Terbutaline over Salbutamol, Dickinson notes that the differences in effect between the two are negligible.

Sometimes athletes choose Terbutaline because they don’t get along with Salbutamol – either it’s not working well for them or they get more side-effects. There’s not really, from an asthma treatment point of view, that much difference. The effects can last a bit longer so that might be a reason for a cyclist to use it.

And if you’re wondering, as many are, why Terbutaline usage requires a TUE while other asthma drugs don’t; Dickinson has the answer for that too.

The reason Terbutaline needs a TUE and Salbutamol doesn’t is more down to the way the tests differentiate between oral and inhaled form. With Salbutamol it’s quite clear that if level in urine is above 1000ng/mL it’s likely that you’ve taken an oral dose. Whereas with Terbutaline it’s quite difficult to tell the difference between an oral and inhaled dose, so you can’t differentiate between the two.

Questions about Orica-GreenEdge

The Australian squad, who left the MPCC earlier this year, aren’t exactly known for a history of positive tests, unlike some other teams in the peloton, though this incident does bring the team and their staff into the limelight.

First though, lets consider the “administrative error” claim. Considering that TUE applications are not guaranteed to be accepted, it seems somewhat disingenuous to basically claim that the process was a done deal and that all that was missing was the application itself. Given the strict documentation guidelines laid out above, the granting of a TUE was not a given.

The grave error in communication is a worry – surely the priority is to get the TUE approved first before using the drug? Maybe Yates and other team staff assumed that it was granted, but this case just goes to show how important vigilance and double-checking are with regard to TUEs

Just as troubling has been the team’s employment of Spanish doctor Manuel Rodríguez Alonso. Having worked for ONCE and Mapei in the 1990s, he later worked at QuickStep, where Patrik Sinkewitz named him as a provider of cortisone, human growth hormone and EPO.

Alonso has been employed at the team for several years, though it is unknown whether he is still with the team as the website does not list staff members. Given his history though, the fact that Alonso has been associated with the team doesn’t look great.

Yates was World Champion in the points race at the 2013 Track WorldsYates was World Champion in the points race at the 2013 Track Worlds

Conclusion

Ultimately my thoughts were that this situation is the result of an honest mistake by the team, as they had claimed. However, the lack of a previous TUE for the drug does muddy the waters somewhat.

The fact that asthma medication does not have a great effect on athletic performance has not stopped cyclists from abusing them in the past. However, it makes no sense that a rider would risk purposely using Terbutaline without a TUE, given the certainty of being caught if tested.

Regardless, considering Yates’ lack of TUE history for the drug, the outlook for him isn’t great. A ban looks likely, though the length should be a matter of months rather than years. Past Terbutaline cases have included a cyclist (4 months), a swimmer (3 months) and a kayaker (2 months).

As ever, it will be some time before this case reaches its conclusion, but we can thank Orica-GreenEdge’s failure to apply for a TUE for bringing the issue to the forefront once again, letting us take another look at this problematic corner of the sport.

Race to the Snow?

Mont Brouilly - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Rowe Luke (GBR / Team Sky) - Koen De Kort (Netherlands / Team Giant - Alpecin)  Race cancelled because bad weather - snow - dangerous illustration - sfeer - illustratie Illustration picture of the peloton Landscape Bunch Postcard  during the stage 3 of the 74th Paris - Nice cycling race, a stage of 168 kms with start in Cusset and finish in Mont Brouilly, France  - photo VK/PN/or Vos © 2016
Riding through the snow at Paris-Nice (Cor Vos)

What exactly is the Extreme Weather Protocol?

Stage three of Paris-Nice saw the UCI’s new Extreme Weather Protocol (EWP) put into use for the first time at a major race. The 165km stage from Cusset to Mont Brouilly was halted for good after 93km, having been neutralised some 20km earlier with the intention of restarting at 40km to go.

The reason was, of course, the heavy snow falling – conditions that made any form of safe racing impossible. With several similar incidents affecting races over the last few years it was refreshing to see decisive action taken with rider safety in mind, despite the predictable outcry from some fans harking back to the days of Hampsten and Hinault.

Milano-Sanremo was famously halted due to snow in 2013, before racing resumed with 145km to go. The following year saw more confusing outcomes when the weather turned bad, with snow on the Stelvio during a controversial Giro stage, and the peloton weaving through fallen trees at a wind-swept stage of the Tour de Pologne.

There are many more examples to cite, and all have contributed to the introduction of this new rule. It has been over a year since it was first seriously mooted, partly thanks to the efforts of the Association of North American Pro Road Cyclists (ANAPRC).

So, now that the EWP is here, what exactly does the regulation entail? You can find a copy of the rule on the UCI website. It’s a pretty simple document, certainly when compared to the rough proposals we have heard about before – the ANAPRC once proposed specific cutoff temperatures that would trigger a plan B, for instance.

In essence, the regulation stipulates that a meeting between the major stakeholders (members of the organisation such as doctors and commissaires, as well as rider and team representatives) must be convened if extreme weather conditions are anticipated during the day’s stage. The conditions in question include:

weather conditions

Other weather conditions will also be considered – these are examples given by the regulation. In the event of conditions such as these, any of the following actions will be considered:

actions

The remainder of the regulation is concerned with defining who comprises the ‘stakeholders’, followed by an interesting footnote which specifies that the rule will be applied in accordance with article 2.2.029bis.

2.2.029bis mentions that the EWP will be enforced in WorldTour and HC-ranked races, but makes no mention of women’s races or .1 and .2 ranked races. However, last month we saw the EWP debut at the Clásica de Almería, so it seems possible that the regulation will be applied at all levels.

It’s a very simple piece of legislation, perhaps overly so. Sure, there’s a meeting before the race to discuss potential action, but what happens in the event of a sudden change in conditions (as we saw in Poland)? One presumes that further conversations between the noted parties take place as the situation develops – but then isn’t that how things have always been?

Additionally, there is no mention of what would happen should all parties be unable to reach a consensus over how to proceed with the race. To give one hypothetical – organisers of smaller races could be keen to push ahead in borderline conditions as riders object.

Then there’s the question of how feasible the proposed actions actually are. Actions such as modifying and rerouting the course can sometimes be impossible, especially at such short notice. Does this mean that races will have backup routes and alternative finishes in place? It’s unlikely given the organisational burden, but again it’s another detail that isn’t mentioned.

Martello/Martelltal - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - illustratie on the Stelvio Climb - left with green helmet Wilco Kelderman (Ned - Belkin-Pro Cycling Team) pictured during Giro-D'Itaia 2014 stage 16 from Ponte di Legno - Val Martello/Martelltal 139km - photo LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2014
Miserable conditions on the Stelvio during the 2014 Giro d’Italia (Cor Vos, also header image)

As with all new rules, the beginnings will always be somewhat shaky. In Almería there was misunderstanding over the period of neutralisation, while at Paris-Nice there were complaints about the lack of an alternate route, as well as the tardiness in making a decision about the race.

Despite these teething problems the rule is a good start. Finally introducing an entry to the rulebook is a positive step to introduce some accountability and ensure rider safety. Surely over time the EWP will be fleshed out to avoid the impromptu decision-making we continue to see and further improve the sport. It’s an issue that will always be mired in argument but headway is being made.

 

Mo’ Motos Mo’ Problems

Stig Broeckx after being hit by a moto on Sunday (Sporza)
Stig Broeckx after being hit by a moto on Sunday (Sporza)

What can be done about motorbikes hitting riders?

Despite the great racing on show at Openingsweekend, Sunday saw the return of an ugly issue in cycling, as two more riders fell victim to crashes caused by race vehicles.

Today’s main event, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, saw Lotto-Soudal’s Stig Broeckx abandon with a broken collarbone and rib, while in the La Drôme Classic, BMC’s Danilo Wyss was denied a chance to compete for the win after a collision with a motorbike.

These latest incidents follow a spate of crashes involving motorbikes towards the end of 2015, including Peter Sagan and Sergio Paulinho (both Tinkoff-Saxo) at the Vuelta a España, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) at the Clásica San Sebastián, and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) at the Tour de France. Earlier in the season Shimano neutral service cars took out Jesse Sergeant (Trek) and Sébastien Chavanel (FDJ) at the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

Ex-president of the Association of Professional Cycling (CPA), Cédric Vasseur has already called for action from the UCI.

The UCI is not serious in facing this problem. They talk and say they will brainstorm, but it’s not about that now, you have to act at this point. The motorbike driver must be sanctioned, the race organiser must be sanctioned, otherwise, it’s the law of jungle.

During last season’s Vuelta, current CPA head Gianni Bugno penned an open letter to the sport’s governing body, calling for fast actions in order to “finally stop this bloodbath.”

The Rules

Before we get to the UCI and what they have done to help, lets first take a look at their rulebook. What regulations are in place to try and prevent this kind of thing from happening in the first place?

Well first of all, everybody wishing to be part of the race convoy in any UCI event is required to possess a license allowing them to do so, per regulation 1.1.010.

Furthermore, WorldTour events require any license holder to also hold a separate driver’s certificate, per regulation 2.2.035 (more information here)

2.2.035 bis

This rule was extended to include media vehicles in July 2013, in response to the Hoogerland/Flecha incident during the 2011 Tour de France. Anybody who wishes to obtain said certificate has to attend a UCI-run course, details of which were released just last Monday.

Presumably this course includes some sort of skill-based driving test – imagine a bunch of journalists and directeur sportifs waiting in line to slalom a saloon car in and out of traffic cones as an Aigle-appointed official watches on with his clipboard.

That’s what journalist Paul Maunder thought too, at least until Rouleur Magazine sent him to a course in Albertville, south-east France for an article in issue 59.

Maunder describes a Power Point presentation, the gist of which can be summed up as “Make sure you always have the right documentation, stay away from the race and.. always obey the Commissaires,” followed up by a collective signing of the register to confirm their attendance.

This was what a UCI driver’s course looked like last summer, after the incidents at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Remember that the people who caused those crashes, as well as the incidents later in the year, had all sat through the same course.

There are further rules too though. Regulation 2.2.050 states that all drivers must be experienced (though I’m sure we all remember how experienced the Shimano drivers were last April.)

2.2.050

While regulation 2.2.051 states that everybody must listen to the commissaires.

2.2.051

Regulation 2.2.073 tells motorbikes to keep their distance from the riders.

2.2.070 & 2.2.073

Then there is regulation 2.2.053, which deals with the punishments to be doled out should a driver not hold the required license. Fines range from 1,000-10,000CHF, while the institutions involved are banned from races for up to six months. This rule specifically mentions the press though, and there do not seem to be any regulations concerning the punishment of non-press drivers apart from this note.

So, sure there’s a regulation telling motorbikes not to get too close to riders, but the drive of the rulebook is more about protecting the sanctity of the racing rather than doling out basic road safety advice.

Has anything been done?

Last September, the UCI’s Road Commission met to discuss and review the regulations in the wake of the crashes at the Vuelta. Since then though, as we have seen many times before, things have gone quiet. Have the UCI changed anything? It’s hard to tell if they don’t say anything, though after Sunday’s events we will surely hear something. 

What can be done?

While there is no one solution that can guarantee no more crashes, there are a number of ideas to help prevent similar incidents occurring again.

Last September saw both Tinkoff-Saxo and BMC release statements suggesting that the number of vehicles involved in races be cut down. Currently there are motos carrying television cameras, radio reporters, photographers, neutral service mechanics, police, commissaires, race timing equipment, as well as the occasional water bottle moto and the addition of motos to help with the new-fangled telemetry tracking. Not to mention the plethora of cars in the convoy.

That seems like an awful lot, and while many are necessary in order for a race to function, surely not every vehicle on the road is vital.

Cortals d´Encamp - Spain - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Sergio Paulinho (Tinkoff - Saxo visits the doctor pictured during La Vuelta 2015 Stage 11 from Andorra la Vella to Cortals d´Encamp - photo IB/LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2015
Sergio Paulinho after his moto crash at the 2015 Vuelta (Cor Vos)

Given the nature of these accidents – the fact that many (Sergeant, Fuglsang, Van Avermaet, Paulinho, Sagan, Broeckx) can be attributed to a lack of spatial awareness and misjudging gaps or rider movements – it seems clear that there needs to be a more conservative and predictable style of driving.

Better judgement is certainly needed, though can it be taught? Beefing up that driver’s course and making it mandatory for those wishing to join the convoy of lower-ranked races seems a smart step. On a more basic level, perhaps limiting speeds when vehicles are navigating groups of riders, or making the presence of motos known more easily would be good ideas.

Then there’s the question of punishment. If the regulations aren’t helping to keep riders safe, and clearly they aren’t, then surely these drivers who endanger the riders shouldn’t be in the sport anymore?

It sounds tough and possibly over-the-top to kick someone out for causing one accident but if you consider the risks that these drivers have been shown to be willing to take, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

If you’re looking a more radical approach to the problem then check out Cervélo co-founder Gerard Vroomen’s ideas from a few years back:
Cycling vehicles: the solution part 1, part 2, part 3.

Conclusion

Race vehicles are essential in order to keep races running smoothly, but when incidents like these continue to happen it is clear that something needs to be done. When drivers continue to makes mistakes and take the risks we have seen them take in the past year it is plain to see that neither the regulations, nor the training given, is adequate.

Hopefully the sport’s governing body take notice of BMC manager Jim Ochowicz, who once again called for action to be taken. In an already risky sport, the additional chance of serious injury or worse is unacceptable and if ever there was an issue for the UCI to act swiftly on, this is it.

The MPCC just got even smaller

Tour of Qatar 2016 - Elite - Stage 5
Katusha at the Tour of Qatar earlier this season (Cor Vos)

Yet more teams leave the voluntary organisation

WorldTour teams Katusha and Orica-GreenEdge have become the latest teams to leave the Movement For Credible Cycling (MPCC) this week. It leaves the France-based organisation with just seven teams in the sport’s top tier, with seventeen remaining at ProContinental level.

The latest withdrawals continue the exodus of last year, when five teams left the group, with a variety of reasons cited.

Lampre-Merida (9 March 2015) – Quit after hiring Diego Ulissi, when MPCC rules stated they would have to wait another year to do so.

Bardiani-CSF (4 June 2015) – Left after a fallout over an unnamed rider who rode the Giro d’italia with low cortisol levels.

LottoNL-Jumbo (10 June 2015) – Fell out with the organisation after being forced to withdraw George Bennett from the Giro due to low cortisol levels.

Astana (4 September 2015) – Kicked out after letting Lars Boom start the Tour de France with low cortisol levels.

Southeast (20 June 2015) – Chose to leave rather than suspend itself from racing after Ramon Carretero’s EPO positive.

Meanwhile, Katusha have found a delightfully contrived reason to leave, and thus avoid the mandatory self-suspension had they stayed aboard. With the team cleared to race by the UCI Disciplinary Commission in the wake of Luca Paolini and Eduard Vorganov’s positive tests, they claim that they will fall foul of a mandatory participation rule should they self-suspend from racing.

“A suspension of Team KATUSHA during a WorldTour race based on the MPCC Rules would violate the UCI Regulations of mandatory participation and the Disciplinary Commission would then be obliged to sanction the Team.”

The remainder of the press release goes on to state how dismayed the team is with the MPCC for not bringing their team suspension rules (8 days for 2 positive B-Samples) into line with the UCI’s (15 days for 2 positive A-samples), before reaffirming their commitment to clean cycling.

However, we have already seen teams suspended from racing in similar situations, notably AG2R La Mondiale in 2013 – the French team missed the Critérium du Dauphiné and were not punished by the UCI.

Katusha meanwhile, have taken this nice opportunity to leave the group whose rules, considering the team’s past, are likely to cause them trouble at some point in the future, as well as preventing themselves from missing any important Spring races.

Santos Tour Down Under 2016 stage 4
Simon Gerrans at the Tour Down Under (Cor Vos)

Onto GreenEdge, and their exit is an interesting one, being as they are the only team so far that isn’t departing under a cloud of controversy. Their reasoning is altogether different to any given previously, too.

As general manager Shayne Bannan noted via press release, several initiatives put in place by the MPCC “have now become an integrated part of the rules of the sport.” So if many of the MPCC’s rules have already been incorporated into the UCI’s rulebook, teams see no reason to stay part of what they see as a now largely useless organisation.

The no-needle policy has been adopted by the UCI, as has the idea of team suspensions, while the CIRC Report reccomended that the cortisone rules also carry over. Meanwhile, UCI President Brian Cookson has already talked about a possible tramadol ban.

Hark back a handful of years and remember that both teams joined the organisation in order to look good. Katusha joined up while fighting the UCI in CAS for the right to stay in the WorldTour, while GreenEdge came aboard at a time when key staff members such as Matt White and Neil Stephens faced suspicions about their pasts.

Conclusion

The MPCC has, in many cases only been useful to teams for a PR boost – as we have seen in the past many find themselves leaving when they are inconvenienced by rules.

Still, it is hard to deny that the organisation is facing increased irrelevancy – yes, teams are jumping ship but the rules they had put in place have been adopted by the UCI. Only there are certainly more fronts to fight on in the war against doping, and no doubt more issues to highlight.

The MPCC’s strong relationship with the ASO is another wrinkle to this situation – Tour de France organiser has said in the past that members would be prioritised for Tour invites. Should the ASO vs UCI standoff remain in place, then the lineup of teams in future ASO races could get more interesting.

In spite of this, the prospect of teams flip-flopping in and out to please Prudhomme doesn’t seem too probable. And would he really refuse invitations to non-members such as Sky and Etixx-QuickStep? It’s unlikely.

Putting these hypotheticals aside, and despite its seemingly increasing redundancy, the MPCC remains an organisation that can make real differences in cycling. We have already seen that it can bring important issues to the fore, and should continue to do so, at least while it still has the power (via the members it holds on to) to have a voice.

CIRC and the state of cycling in 2015

Finally, the time has come and the report we have all been waiting for has been released. At 228 pages in length it’s a bit of a slog, and with a great deal of emphasis on the past.

There’s talk of all the familiar faces – the tales of Hein, Lance and Pat are covered at length. We hear about the 1990s and the ‘period of containment’ that focused on limiting the health risks of doping rather than a policy focused on catching every wrongdoer.

Many pages are dedicated to failures in governance that occurred a decade or more ago, and there’s even a section walking us through the history of doping. We all knew how bad the past was – and now we have an official document to prove it. Almost as soon as it was released we saw a number of all-encompassing summaries of the report, including articles by the always great inrng, and Peloton magazine.

Rather than focus on the past though, I want to look at what it the report has to say about the current state of cycling, and what it could mean for the future. Here’s a look.


A turning point in anti-doping

With the cesspool of the 1990s behind us, and the Armstrong years already covered ad nauseum lets fast forward to 2006. The period from that year to 2008 is highlighted by CIRC as a turning point in the fight against doping. “Steady improvements and a growing willingness to combat doping at its roots” are cited.

It was indeed a period of change. At the UCI’s anti-doping unit with Lon Schattenberg (a man who shared the same ‘avoid scandals’ mindset as Verbruggen and McQuaid, notably writing letters to teams informing them of drug detection windows) left to be replaced by the Australian Anne Gripper. Other changes in personnel included the dismissal of a large number of doping control officers, described as receiving little training, prone to leaking information and often being close with teams.

Saunier Duval wielerteam 2008
Riccò & Piepoli both spoke to CIRC (Cor Vos, header image by Reuters)

With Gripper came a raft of changes. Targeted testing was brought in, while more and more out-of-competition tests were carried out. The Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF) was also introduced during her time at the UCI and funding for anti-doping was increased. An often unnoticed part of the fight – the introduction of post-race chaperones is also noted.

“UCI started to systematically use chaperones in 2008. However, it took some time for the chaperones to serve their purpose. Part of the reason for this, was due to sport-specific logistical obstacles (difficulty of spotting riders, packed finish area). By 2010 it was acknowledged that the chaperone-system was, in principle, working well.”


The biological passport

The biological passport (ABP) was brought in under Gripper’s watch in 2008 and has been hailed as a big advance in anti-doping. We have seen in the past that it isn’t a foolproof tool though, and the report tells us that there are deficiencies for riders to take advantage of – much like the 50% rule, it limits how much riders can dope, rather than eliminating doping altogether.

“In interviews with riders and athlete support personnel it appeared that the basic problem was that athletes would go to the limit of what is detectable and this has not changed. Furthermore, the incentive to try out substances that might give a performance enhancing effect, but are not on the prohibited list is still very present in the peloton.”

Meanwhile there are other problems. The report has found that riders are able to fine-tune doping programmes using ADAMS software – an unintended consequence but a disturbing finding. It is noted that riders can use the software to “assess and monitor their blood values and make sure that they stay within pre-defined parameters through fine-tuning.”

Further criticisms of the passport include the lengthy procedures involved in sanctioning riders (the Menchov and Kreuziger cases are cited), and the “conservative approach” of some of the ABP experts in wanting to pursue ‘doping scenarios’ thanks to the difficulty of analysing nuances in data. While we have seen dopers hide behind excuses like training at altitude or dehydration before, but they can be legitimate reasons for odd blood values. It’s a fact that only makes the job harder for the experts.


So how clean is cycling today?

There were varying responses in the report, and it seems that riders know about as much as we do. According to the CIRC, a common response when asked about how teams was “probably 3 or 4 were clean, 3 or 4 were doping, and the rest were a “don’t know”.”

One rider was asked about cleanliness levels in the peloton and put the figure at 90% but said he thought that “there was little orchestrated team doping” anymore. Another rider felt that 20% were doping, while many stated they just didn’t know who was clean and who was not. Of course, we don’t know who these riders are, so we have little idea of which figure is closer to the mark. And that’s before we get to the question of what riders view as ‘doping’.

Vinokourov was another contributor (Cor Vos)
Astana boss Alexandre Vinokourov was another contributor (Cor Vos)

Meanwhile new methods of doping such as ozone therapy and AICAR are brought up, while CIRC also includes a staggeringly long list of substances that riders are currently using, or have been during the past few years. There’s even a small section dedicated to the possibility of mechanical doping, something that has been raised several times in the past.

These answers aren’t surprising, but they aren’t heartening either. None of us can safely say which number is more accurate, but we do know that the days of massive gains from doping are gone. The report echoes this, saying that “10-15% gains have become a thing of the past.” Instead, performances are enhanced perhaps 3-5% by new techniques such as microdosing.

So the playing field still isn’t a level one, but going by these figures it’s more level than it used to be.


Loopholes

Despite the heartening numbers, more work still needs to be done, as CIRC notes a number of ways in which riders are still gaining an advantage. The problems with the ABP have been outlined above, but there are further loopholes for riders to take advantage of.

The no-testing window between 11pm and 6am is one. CIRC states that, “riders are confident that they can take a micro-dose of EPO in the evening because it will not show up by the time the doping control officers could arrive to test at 6am.” This is a difficult problem to solve though, with the human rights of riders factoring into the equation.

Chris Froome was another who spoke to CIRC (Reuters)
Chris Froome was the only named current rider who spoke to CIRC (Reuters)

Often a controversial topic, TUEs are another problem, with interviewees reporting that they are “systematically exploited by some teams and even used as part of performance enhancement programmes.” The abuse of corticoids and insulin in particular raise concern, while there was also a feeling that obtaining a TUE is too easy. One anonymous doctor told CIRC that corticoids were often used for weight loss as opposed to their stated function of pain relief.

Finally, concerns are raised regarding the use and abuse of substances not on WADA’s banned list. One rider talked of a ‘pill system’ he used, which involved him taking up to 30 pills a day, while also reporting the use of tranquilisers and anti-depressants on his team.

The report lists a various array of nutritional and homeopathic substances along with painkillers, caffeine tablets, Viagra and Cialis, with CIRC having been told that all were taken with the sole purpose of substance enhancement in mind. Just think back to the Kovalev brothers to get a glimpse of what this looks like.

Tramadol use has also been in the news in the recent past. It cropped up again here, with interviewees of the opinion that if a rider needed to take it then they shouldn’t be racing. Similar sentiments were recorded regarding corticoids.

Tramadol (chm.bris.ac.uk)
Problem drug Tramadol (chm.bris.ac.uk)

Conclusion

So no revelations then, but a lot of information about what is going on in the peloton today. Or at least what is presumed to be going on – the lack of evidence and a reliance on hearsay is a problem. Proof is hard to come by though, and in this case we have to make the best of what we’ve been given.

There are some disappointments – look at the list of names and you only see 16 riders with Chris Froome the only non-retiree. Ten others have declined to be named, but Francesco Reda and Mauro Santambrogio are dead certs. 26 is still a very low number though, and the question of credibility comes up.

In any case, it’s less important to dwell on the individual stories than it is to think about what can be done in response to the report. While everything we have read might not be totally reliable, the raft of ideas that have been proposed seem, on the face of it, to be very useful.

The old face of the UCI (Cor Vos)
The old face of the UCI (Cor Vos)

At this stage they are somewhat vague but each idea is something the UCI needs to take notice of. There’s talk of intelligence sharing with governments as well as more intelligence gathering within CADF. On the testing side we read about re-testing samples and testing riders at night. Also mooted are sound ideas like a whistleblower desk, a review of the TUE process and improvements to the ABP.

If the UCI has changed – and both the commissioning of this report and the contents within point towards that being the case – then we can cross our fingers and hope that changes like these will be implemented. There’s still a long way to go, but things can get better.

Astana’s license troubles

Astana are in big trouble (Cor Vos)
Astana are in big trouble (Cor Vos)

In a surprise move, the UCI have today asked its License Commission to revoke Astana’s WorldTour license. Back in December, the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL) began the process of auditing the team – a condition of the team’s WorldTour license following the positive tests of the Iglinskiy brothers (EPO) and Ilya Davidenok (anabolic steroids).

The UCI has now finished their review of the audit, which was tasked with reviewing the “anti-doping culture, policies, structures and management systems” of the team. In a press release issued today, the governing body have announced that they “believe that it contains compelling grounds to refer the matter to the Licence Commission and request the Astana Pro Team licence be withdrawn”.

In addition to the audit, Italian anti-doping authorities have passed on information relating to the long-running Padova investigation. That’s the investigation centred around Dr Ferrari. Numerous riders and staff are implicated, with Astana team boss Alexandre Vinokourov a standout name.

Now, we wait on the License Commission – an independet body tasked with issuing and reviewing licenses as well as enforcing its conditions. They will call a hearing on the issue, and should the team lose its license that will be that, pending any appeal to CAS. It is unknown how long we will have to wait for further action, as there is no precedent for a case like this.

You can cast your mind back to late 2012 and Katusha’s WorldTour exclusion, but there was no lengthy audit process from an independent party. CAS ordered their license to be re-instated in February, so it seems likely that months will pass before we know the final outcome.

Nibali won't like today's news (Cor Vos)
Nibali won’t like today’s news (Cor Vos)

So what will happen if the team’s WorldTour license is taken away? Well, a drop down to ProContinental level seems impossible given the nature of this investigation. This is a threat to the existence of the team itself.

The riders and staff will be the ones in the biggest trouble. Here, we are faced with the chance of a large number of people out of work thanks to the actions (or rather inaction) of a few. Some riders, like Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, have contract clauses that allow them to leave if the team loses its license but lesser names will be stuck. Regardless, the season is already in full flow and teams (and budgets) are full, so where could go?

Conclusion

The UCI seems very sure of their standing – the public announcement proves that. Rather than people rushing to ask why have they waited for so long, we should be congratulating them for being more thorough than they were back in 2012.

Given the language of the press release, it does seem that the team haven’t taken the threat of an audit seriously enough. Certainly the management hasn’t changed enough in order to satisfy ISSUL and the UCI that things have changed for the better. It is hard to imagine a future in pro cycling for Vinokourov.

Together, for now (Cor Vos)
Together, for now (Cor Vos)

As for Astana, well they can participate in races for now but it feels like a stay of executio. If the License Commission agrees with the UCI’s assertions then we could see the team prevented from racing within days.

A CAS appeal could see a temporary license granted granted which would allow them to race until the final ruling. With the Tour de France still five months away though, it’s impossible to know whether the reigning champion will be there or not.

On Zorzoli

Dr Mario Zorzoli (UCI) After the three-year investigation into him drew to a close on Thursday, ex-Rabobank and Sky doctor has been banned from the sport for life by USADA as well as the Danish and Dutch anti-doping authorities. USADA were obligated to investigate the Belgian after he was named by Levi Leipheimer during testimony for the US Postal investigation back in 2012. Michael Rasmussen was the other big name involved with the investigation. His testimony (you can view the full USADA report here) implicated teammate Michael Boogerd, now a manager at the new Roompot team, as well as bringing back memories of Stefan Matschiner and the Human Plasma Clinic in Freiburg. However, the most interesting name to crop up was that of Dr Mario Zorzoli, the UCI’s Chief Medical Officer for well over a decade. He has been suspended by cycling’s governing body after being mentioned twice by Rasmussen in testimony, as well as that of Steven Teitler, head of legal affairs at the Dutch anti-doping authority. rastest 40 rastest 44 steven teitler test 67 USADA have passed information from this case to the UCI and CIRC (Cycling Independent Reform Commission), with the UCI due to investigate the doctor. The UCI hasn’t been immune to this sort of thing in the past, with former Presidents Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid accused of at best ‘warning’ riders about doping tests and results, and at worst protecting them. However, this is the first time that a senior UCI member is under investigation for such an impropriety. But wait, there’s more. Zorzoli has been in the headlines before, on quite a few occasions actually. Here’s a look back at the storied career of the UCI’s (possibly soon to be ex) Chief Medical Officer.

Sending warning letters to riders

The UCI has been known in the past to send letters of warning to teams and riders should their test results return suspicious values. Rasmussen and Teitler have said as much with regards to Zorzoli, and we all know about incidents such as the 2001 Tour de Suisse. In 2004, Tyler Hamilton received a letter informing him that during the Tour de Romandie he returned abnormal blood values and that the UCI would be monitoring him more closely in future.

The L’Equipe/Armstrong affair

In 2006, Zorzoli was outed as the man who leaked evidence to L’Equipe journalist which helped the newspaper link Lance Armstrong to the 1999 EPO test positives. He apparently believed that there was no way for the documents he provided to be traced back to Armstrong, and that by providing them he would help the journalist write an article “proving that Mr Armstrong never asked for an authorisation to use any drugs after he successfully fought his cancer.”

Zorzoli was suspended pending an investigation before being reinstated less than a month later without comment. Looking back, the leaking had inadvertently turned out to be a positive move, though the ‘independent’ report by Emile Vrijman was a weak attempt to undo that.

Fuentes connection

A 2007 article in Spanish newspaper ABC detailed what infamous doctor Eufemiano Fuentes had in his possession at the time of his arrest. Along with a hotel card with rider nicknames, multiple phones and credit cards and some swiss francs (the UCI is based there) was Mario Zorzoli’s business card. Quite why one of the most notorious doping doctors in the sport would have the phone number of the UCI’s Chief Medical Officer is anybody’s guess, and seems to have been largely forgotten.

Gianetti friendship

Another questionable relationship was brought up in David Millar’s book Racing Through The Dark. In 2007 Millar returned from his doping ban with the Spanish Saunier Duval squad, managed by ex-rider Mauro Gianetti, he of perfluorocarbon fame. Shortly after leaving Saunier Duval as PR manager, Stéphane Heulot said this ”Doping is so ingrained in certain managers, like Gianetti, that they can’t conceive of cycling any other way” but here’s what Millar had to say about him. gianetti-zorzoli

More favours

Further allegations of cosiness with team staff came from Michele Ferrari in 2012. He writes about an incident in 2010 at a Tenerife training camp in which a team doctor was able to phone Zorzoli to arrange the wiping of test results. The effects of altitude distorting blood values was thought to be too much of an inconvenience to the team, and so it was done.

Froome’s TUE

Finally, we come to 2014 and the previous controversy to befall Dr Mario, in which a TUE for Chris Froome was ‘fast-tracked’ and granted by Zorzoli alone, rather than a three-person TUE committee as demanded by the WADA Code. The UCI refused to confirm whether such a setup was in place, but according to its updated TUE regulations, a committee is now in place.

So, not great then. With the good doctor suspended once again, we should all be hoping that this time it will be made permanent. If the UCI’s plans to centralise anti-doping judgements in 2015, doing away with the inconsistent rulings and favouritism we see from national federations, Zorzoli cannot be there. A relic from the McQuaid era, with a record of favourable treatment and dodgy connections, is not someone we need at the UCI in 2015. MPCC Twitter

Instigating change at the UCI, follow-up

I’m not sure if anyone remembers my post from last week and the letter to British Cycling’s Head (and my local UCI Management Committee member), Brian Cookson, but I wasn’t very hopeful about the chances of letter-writing bringing about any meaningful change in the higher echelons of the sport. Now, however, it seems that the fan’s voices have been heard. Continue reading “Instigating change at the UCI, follow-up”

Instigating change at the UCI

This post stems from a Tweet from @UCI_Overlord, writer/founder of Cyclismas.com. Well, this Tweet in fact. In it, he lists the email addresses of the UCI Management Committee (who are due to meet on Friday as you know) and urges the reader to call for the resignations of Pat and Hein, and outline the changes you would like to see. Continue reading “Instigating change at the UCI”