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.

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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

What the Russians left behind

what the russians left behind

This is an incident that has flown under the radar somewhat – towards the end of July, two riders from the Russian ProContinental team Rusvelo flew over to the United States to participate in the Prairie State Cycling Series (part of the National Criterium Calendar). A few days ago, a photo of what they left in the bins of their host family was posted to the internet.  Continue reading “What the Russians left behind”