There was a tremendous amount of outrage in the cycling community last week following the strong showings of Alexandre Vinokourov and Riccardo Ricco, some of it directed at the alleged ineffectiveness of the Bio Passport program. We sent off 5 questions for Bio Passport panel member Michael Ashenden (for more from Ashenden, much more, click here).
NYVC: It's year #3 of the Bio Passport. How has it changed the sport?
MA: It has raised the profile of antidoping strategies considerably - there is a lot of media attention on how authorities seek to catch athletes, compared to previous times when the only coverage was when athletes got caught. The Passport has provided a tangible sense of optimism - or perhaps 'faith' is a better word - that we can make inroads against doping in cycling. Its also important to acknowledge this is merely the first chapter, not the end of the story! In future the Athlete Passport will be expanded (i.e., to steroid profiles, GH monitoring etc) and revised (improved markers for each type of doping) to increase its capability.
The Passport has provided a strategy to target test suspicious athletes (increasing the likelihood of them being caught) as well as to revisit stored samples for signs of doping (e.g., Giro). Although these lead to 'conventional' sanctions, they are directly attributable to the Passport. It has also spawned something of a cottage industry of self-proclaimed experts willing to review team's results in return for cash. This makes me uneasy - firstly because its not always clear those people have sufficient background to properly interpret results, and secondly the possibility that this process might be abused by riders wishing to understand if their profiles are likely to be flagged as suspicious. There is a simple solution - ensure that all results gathered in this manner are automatically reported to authorities before sending to the teams' experts, however the cost and logistics of this solution seems to deter most entrants into this field...
Ultimately I see the Passport as a new era, still bedding itself down within conventional antidoping infrastructures, and I anticipate that many glitches and wobbles will smooth out over time, and the streamlined Passport will enhance its relative importance in antidoping.
NYVC: There have been doping positives since the Passport has been instituted. Why haven't those positives been caught by the Passport, or were those riders actually targeted for more testing by the Passport?
MA: Several riders have been caught for 'doping positives' because of the Passport (see my earlier answer). However I believe the point you are making is that if they had been doping, they should have been sanctioned via the Passport in the first place. The issue here is sensitivity - the Passport is the most sensitive tool we have available to detect doping once the banned substance has left the system. But it is not 100% sensitive - it won't catch every single rider who had doped. A large part of this is due to the margins of tolerance we must allow to ensure that riders are not wrongly accused of doping - which means that there are riders who we suspect are doping after we've reviewed their profile, but these riders are not sanctioned via the Passport because we must allow a large margin of tolerance. They are however closely targeted, which increases the likelihood that they will be caught in the future.
NYVC: Is the Passport functioning like a more stringent version of the 50% hematocrit rule? Are guys still cheating, but just at a much lower level, and thereby leveling the playing field more?
MA: I accept the argument that its a more "stringent" version of the hematocrit rule - just as I'd accept that breath analyzers are a more stringent version of asking motorists to walk a straight line! There is no doubt whatsoever that the Passport is a better approach than the hematocrit rule, but just because it is better does not mean it is perfect. So yes it is true that riders are still doping. I don't know that it can automatically be assumed that they are doing so at a lower level - I think it is more likely to be correct that they are doping in a different manner! For example, altering the doses of EPO to reduce fluctuations in blood results, or using transfusions shortly before/after events to avoid being tested with elevated blood levels. It does not matter to me if a cheat wins by 60 seconds or 6 seconds - whether they doped a lot or a little - what matters is that they cheated to win. So I'm not overly reassured by the sentiment that the Passport has led to 'lower levels of doping' - although I don't disagree that its possible, in my opinion it is not the end point we should be satisfied with, or focused on.
NYVC: Does that then favor the more sophisticated riders, who can push the limits of the Passport knowing that they won't trigger a positive?
MA: Yes. This has always been the case - the most sophisticated dopers use cutting-edge products that aren't detectable (i.e., autologous transfusion), and/or learn ways to avoid testing positive by masking strategies (i.e., adding proteases to urine, or dodging the DCO for 20 minutes). One advantage we have, and which I am pleased is being actively pursued now by the UCI, is that the rider won't know if their 'below the threshold' profile is deemed suspicious by us experts. As I said, we see things that lead us to suspect the rider is doping but which don't yet exceed the necessary thresholds to pursue a sanction. Those riders might float along mathematically dodging the Passport, but be high on our list of suspects. And here I must take a leap of faith - that more focused testing will one day catch them unprepared.
NYVC: There's much hue and cry over Vinokourov's win at LBL this weekend. Is his victory a sign that the Passport isn't working, or is it a sign that he's a talented rider who can win clean or dirty?
MA: I don't wish to comment on specific cases.
You know that old box of bike parts you've put in your closet?
Recorded inside the press room at Grenoble Velodrome, we bring you Episode #8 of the Insider from the 2011 Tour de France, our final podcast.
Recorded 1,850 metres above sea level atop the famed Alpe d'Huez, we bring you Episode #7 of the Insider podcast from the 2011 Tour de France.