The Bio Passport: 5 Questions for Michael Ashenden

Thu, 04/29/2010 - 12:09pm by Andy Shen

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.

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Franco, Franco, say it ain't
By: Baptiste O-Ring
Mon, 05/03/2010 - 10:21pm

Franco, Franco, say it ain't so, bro?

By: West coast wanna be
Sat, 05/01/2010 - 10:15pm

Whine. Whine. Whine.

By: West Coast Reader
Sat, 05/01/2010 - 9:19pm

Page down to the bottom of the first page:


I knew it. Proof positive
By: Sacha
Fri, 04/30/2010 - 2:59pm

I knew it. Proof positive that LA is cheating.

NANO-DOSE.... cycling, from
By: Freddy Kruger Chainsuck
Fri, 04/30/2010 - 2:32am


cycling, from Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" to Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors"....


To think Pantani killed hisself over this in a lonely room in Rimini....

How will Armstrong go down???

have you seen Contador meditating like Bhudda to sell SADDLES!!!!!!!!!!!

TOTO please light the fuse!!!!

Blood Pass's
By: West Coast Reader
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 11:44pm

I think Vino's blood passport is right on, it has his doping (blood) on record from two years ago so he has to continue to inject blood so it reads the same right?

If your EPO levels were high when the passport began you have to continue to dope to maintain the high measure. A win win really, for those dopers. If they stop doping it will look odd or they might get benched due to anemia or low blood measures, or unsafe health.

I like and admire both Lance
By: Adam Ceramic
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 9:34pm

I like and admire both Lance and Vinokourov.

Wait, was Lance really
By: Dylan Rivnut
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 9:16pm

Wait, was Lance really suspended for two years instead of retired? Like Jordan when he "retired" to play baseball instead of being banned for gambling.

unfortunately there are two
By: Moving Violation
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 8:49pm

unfortunately there are two standards. one for the plebs, and one for those that enjoy long showers.

Another falls
By: West Coast Reader
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 8:49pm

Another Spanish rider positive for EPO today according to AS.com:

Manuel Vázquez, on Andalucía-Cajasur.

Then in a separate story they now have documents with Valverde's name from Dr. Viru (ex Kelme doc) from that time where it lists names, doping substances, dates, etc.

Operacion Grial, the second coming.

seems like doping issues are
By: Antonio Cage
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 6:14pm

seems like doping issues are what keeps the sport popular. what would there be to bitch about?

Thing is
By: Fred
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 5:33pm

Taking the wrong people out of the sport for 2 years at a time potentially can take many peoples interest away from the sport as well. In doing so, is that really good or bad for cycling. I personally think it's bad, but I'm the minority. (You know who I'm talking about, people that dodge, i.e. by shower, the DCO for 20min).

By: Lorenzo Rivnut
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 3:07pm

Great questions! I have to agree that there are some very smart dopers who have the brains to hire the right doctors to keep them just under the doping limits. The question is how can we catch those guys without catching other folks who are not cheating but who have values close to those of a cheater?

MA declined to comment on
By: Andy Shen
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 12:14pm

MA declined to comment on Frei as well.

Would have been nice to get
By: Tom
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 12:09pm

Would have been nice to get his views on the BMC rider Frei who avoided detection for 2 years.

We all know they are micro-dosing and transfusing in the major 3 week tours. The speeds up the climbs are the same as ever, closed mouths, robotic racing.

Don't fall for it guys, the major players are still doped to the gills.

As for Armstrong removing his blood values when people started to criticise them, don't even start me. When are people gonna wake up?

Speaking of doping - anyone seen this? Leipheimer positive!

Bio Passport
By: www.catskillscycling.com
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 12:00pm

Very cool info. How about a ban for life? 2yr suspensions don't seem very consequential compared to the fame and money that comes with winning by cheating. Too many racers out there working hard to be cheated by losers.


By: Arne Plug
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 11:49am

next question:

why does it only catch thrid rate or over the hill pros who dont win races? 69 of them last year.

MA: I don't wish to comment on the glaring hole in the $13,000,000 flawed system.

Good points Michael, it's
By: Steward
Thu, 04/29/2010 - 11:30am

Good points Michael, it's been a while. Wish we heard more from you.
I liked the 'dodging the DCO for 20 minutes' comment.

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