Despite USADA’s voluminous Reasoned Decision, the truth regarding the UCI’s alleged cover up of Armstrong’s 2001 Tour de Suisse test results remain elusive. Were the results positive or merely suspicious? Were payments made to obscure them? Did Armstrong and Bruyneel meet with the lab’s director and why?
The issue cuts to the very core of whether the UCI has been corrupt in its anti doping efforts, and is much more complex than the simple allegation leveled by Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton (they both claim Armstrong told them that the UCI took care of a TdS positive in ’01). The UCI has defended itself in a statement released when they recognized USADA’s Reasoned Decision on October 22nd. Their defense essentially states that Armstrong never tested positive, ergo there can be no cover up of a positive test. Michael Ashenden examines the facts more fully with us.
AS: Before we can get to the Armstrong tests there’s a lot of background to establish. We know from Tyler Hamilton’s book that rumors of an EPO test in 2000 drove riders to blood transfusions to raise their hematocrit. But they still used EPO in micro doses to raise their reticulocyte count (this practice is fully explained in our interview on Contador). Can you explain why they were masking with EPO long before the blood passport was put in place?
MA: In early 2003 our Australian group published a paper proposing ‘second generation’ blood tests to flag athletes who had used EPO. One of those models incorporated both haemoglobin values and reticulocyte counts - either high haemoglobin or low reticulocytes triggered the model to flag a result as suspicious. Later on, this became known as the OFF model. The UCI also had in place threshold limits for reticulocytes, I think values below 0.2% meant the rider got a two week holiday. Subsequently, the riders realised that they needed to avoid low reticulocyte values. From what Floyd Landis told me, they’d twigged pretty early on and began using microdoses of EPO to subtly stimulate their bone marrow and thereby lift their reticulocyte values above suspicious levels.
AS: I’ve heard it said that micro doses of EPO injected intravenously is undetectable. Is it more accurate to say it’s detectable but falls under the threshold for declaring a positive test?
MA: Its not so much about detectability per se, but instead the window of detection. Tyler Hamilton refers to it as the glow time. In crude terms, if you inject EPO into the fat layer beneath the skin it takes longer to leach into the bloodstream than if you had injected it straight into a vein. That means that it will hang around in the body longer. As you can see in the affidavits of riders contained in the USADA files, they were told to use intravenous injections in the evening, which gave them at least 8-10 hours before testers were allowed to disturb them next morning. We were aware of that ruse pretty early on and published data in 2006 showing how quickly intravenous EPO fell below the positivity threshold, but short of kicking the door down in the middle of the night we were powerless to prevent it.
AS: An EPO test is used in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and the UCI introduce a different test on April 8th 2001. Straight away they catch Bo Hamburger on April 19th. His sample was tested at the Lausanne lab, directed by Dr. Martial Saugy. The Hamburger case gives us an insight into Saugy’s state of mind at that time.
First we have to define what’s positive and what’s suspicious. Can you explain the criteria being used in ’01?
MA: First of all, it was the same EPO test that was used in Sydney. I don’t understand why the UCI referred to the test as being two months old, because it had been in use since the previous year. I was part of the delegation that had persuaded the International Olympic Committee to adopt EPO testing at the Sydney Olympics, so I’d sat through all the presentations. The Paris lab presented their work which showed they had performed some exquisite science and validated how to make EPO in urine visible for the purpose of doping controls. Lausanne later replicated their work, but they used the same test.
When the UCI announced on 31 March 2001 that it would begin testing for EPO, it instructed the Lausanne lab to carry out the test. The UCI rules did not lay down any thresholds for what level constituted a positive EPO test. Instead, because the samples were analysed in Lausanne, it fell to the laboratory to define what was positive and what was negative.
Lausanne adopted the position that if more than 80% of the visible EPO was found in the region associated with injected EPO then the sample was declared positive.
AS: Hamburger’s A sample tests at 82.3%. Strangely the B sample is tested twice, at 82..4% and 78.6%. No explanation is given and it is not revealed which result was arrived at first. The case goes to CAS, where Hamburger is exonerated. What does Saugy argue at the arbitration?
MA: Yeah its intriguing that the UCI pointed toward the Hamburger decision when they defended against allegations of a cover up. The CAS ruling, which anyone can find online, makes for some interesting reading in hindsight.
Saugy argued back in 2001 that there was no scientific justification for an 80% threshold. He said that the laboratory could be convinced that EPO was present even if the results were less than 80%.
The position he took under oath during that hearing was that he endorsed a qualitative approach, specifically that because the 80% value already included a safety margin of more than three standard deviations plus an additional 10% buffer, a level marginally below 80% was reliable enough to allow one to assume a positive result.
Remember that this was years before the labs realised that bacterial degradation or effort urine could yield elevated results. There was nothing at the time to make Saugy doubt that the only scientific explanation for high scores was that the athlete had used EPO.
AS: Can we make a brief tangent and discuss the testing of Hamburger’s B sample? It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that it fell below 80% at first, and they tested it again to get the result they wanted. This seems to be a breach of ethics, and is the kind of thing that would lead athletes to mistrust anti doping agencies.
MA: Whatever my personal feelings I am not willing to take a position as to why Lausanne chose to analyse two ‘B’ samples. When reading their ruling, it seems clear that the CAS panel did enquire, but they were not able to get any clear answer to the question.
I’m also puzzled by what the CAS referred to as the “interesting” stance of Saugy’s that he would have found Hamburger’s sample to be negative if the ‘A’ sample had been 78.6%, even though he’d argued that a level marginally below 80% was reliable enough to assume a positive result. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Based on my reading of the CAS ruling, its seems Saugy made inconsistent arguments to the CAS. So coming back to the thrust of your question, any sort of opaqueness or inconsistency regarding how a lab goes about establishing positivity leaves room for scepticism in the minds of athletes.
AS: Hamburger’s CAS arbitration ends on January 28, 2002, so it’s fair to say that in late 2001 Saugy believed that a urine sample tested below 80% could be considered a positive, even though it’s not the official position of the Lausanne lab?
MA: That’s right. The case was filed on 24 August 2001, so it seems during the period when the 2001 TdS was run and samples analysed for EPO, Saugy believed that a result less than 80% could be considered positive. It wasn’t until February 2002 that the CAS announced their ruling, during which they flagged the inconsistency in Saugy’s stance and in their ruling they highlighted that the lab’s policy differed from the argument Saugy had made to CAS.
AS: It’s unclear why the UCI cites the Hamburger case in their defense, it seems that they’re trying to cast doubt on all EPO positives from that time.
Now, the Tour de Suisse is run on June 19-28 of 2001. After Landis levels his allegations in 2010, Saugy tells David Howman of WADA that he remembers four suspicious samples from the TdS that were between 70-80%, but he doesn’t know who they belong to. It’s typical that the lab doesn’t know the lab doesn’t know the identity of the athletes they’re testing, correct? If they find a positive they send the sample numbers to the UCI, and the UCI matches it to a rider?
MA: It’s not just typical, its mandatory that the lab does not know who a sample belongs to. That’s the reason why samples are numbered but not identified with anything except the sport and gender of the athlete. The laboratory then notifies the sport and provide the sample number which the federation matches to the athlete’s name.
AS: Is it standard procedure for a lab to inform the UCI of suspicious results?
MA: My understanding is that it varies, depending on the lab’s attitude, the sport federation and the substance in question. But with regard to EPO, there is a very good rationale for labs to inform the sport of a suspicious result - it is universally accepted that a suspicious result makes it very likely the athlete had doped with EPO. You don’t need to be wearing a Sherlock Holmes hat to deduce that such athletes should be targeted. If they just slipped the noose first time, chances are that you might catch them further down the track.
I’ve argued for years that the laboratories should go one step further than just notify of a suspicious result, and in fact share the gel image itself with antidoping agencies. It can be very useful information to have when the antidoping agency is generating their test distribution plans. For example, in the weeks after EPO injections stop, the kidney’s natural production of EPO is limited and consequently there may be no visible signs of either injected or natural EPO on the gel image. On the other hand, the gel might indicate traces of EPO but not enough to trip the threshold suggesting that the athlete is likely in the midst of a course of EPO injections but you’d tested a day or so after an injection and so just missed out on a positive. You’d postpone re-testing the former and have a tester on the doorstep next morning for the latter.
The labs, with just one or two exceptions, have resolutely refused to share the gel images because they argue that only experts can discern the difference between a negative gel and a suspicious gel. I don’t share that view, but I don’t run a lab either.
AS: According to Hamilton in The Secret Race, Ferrari has Armstrong try a new technique with EPO, where he sleeps in an altitude tent to raise his natural EPO so that the ratio of exogenous/endogenous EPO in his system stays below the positivity threshold.
Armstrong tells Hamilton on the morning of stage 9 of the TdS “You won’t fucking believe this, I got popped for EPO.” Then, “No worries, dude. We’re gonna have a meeting with them. It’s all taken care of.” If we take Saugy and Hamilton at their words, it seems that the Lausanne lab informed the UCI of those results, and the UCI told Armstrong?
MA: There is no longer any doubt whatsoever that is what happened. In an interview Verbruggen gave to The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, he confirmed that the UCI notified Armstrong that he’d had a suspicious test result at the 2001 Tour de Suisse.
AS: Ok, so at this point, Saugy is, according to him, in the dark, and Verbruggen has informed Armstrong of his suspicious test. In May of 2002, Armstrong donates $25,000 to the UCI. They agree to keep the transaction secret but it slips out in subsequent interviews. Needless to say it’s unacceptable for an athlete to donate funds to the governing body in charge of anti doping?
MA: First, please don’t use the word donate during this interview. Call it a pineapple, call it a bazooka, call it anything you like but please don’t characterise it as a donation.
You know, it’s an aspect that truly puzzles me. In most walks of life, if an authority was found to have accepted a secret payment from someone it polices and for whom it had grounds to suspect had flouted their rules, there would be an uproar. Where sport is concerned, the public seems to shrug its collective shoulders in resignation. Perhaps we’ve been desensitized by Olympic bribery scandals, match fixing or the whole FIFA fiasco. But in my view, anyone with a moral compass should be outraged that the people who took Armstrong’s money under those circumstances continue to cling to office.
AS: The 2002 Dauphiné Libéré takes place between June 6 and 9, and Armstrong again tests suspicious, this time with another lab. In Saugy’s words, “Armstrong had another suspect result during the 2002 Dauphiné Libéré. The politics (policies sic) of the UCI at that time, if there was such a result involving an important competitor, was to meet them and ask for an explanation. That was their approach to prevention. The UCI said to me at the end of June 2002: 'we warned the rider for whom you had a suspect result in 2001, he gave another suspect return at another lab and he would like to know by which method it was tested'. The rider was Armstrong. It was then that I learned about it." According to Saugy Armstrong and Bruyneel meet with him at the UCI’s request.
How unusual is this? How often do athletes get an audience with a lab director?
MA: As WADA’s Director-General David Howman has said, it’s inappropriate because it’s all about perception and the principle of anonymity which the lab system is based upon. But this is compounded when the public is confronted by Saugy offering different versions of what actually happened.
So for example, in May 2011 Saugy told a Swiss newspaper that he did not know who the four samples belonged to when he met Armstrong and Bruyneel. Yet in October 2012 he revealed that he did in fact know that one of the samples belonged to Armstrong. In fact not just one suspicious sample. Saugy also admitted that he knew that Armstrong had had an additional suspicious EPO sample from the 2002 Dauphine when he met with Armstrong and Bruyneel.
Throw into the mix that Armstrong and Bruyneel claim to have no recollection of meeting with Saugy at all, and the perceptional risk that David Howman referred to is brought into sharp relief.
AS: Why would a lab ever disclose its methods of detection, and what does Saugy have to tell them that wouldn’t be in published scientific literature at the time?
MA: Yeah that’s a very good point. How the EPO test works is completely irrelevant to anyone who is not using EPO. The scientific methodology is always published ahead of time, so if they were science buffs they could’ve gotten detailed information from the original articles.
Armstrong asking Saugy how the EPO test works is a bit like walking into a bank and asking the manager to show how the lock on the safe operates. But in the case of Saugy already knowing that Armstrong had suspicious results, I’d extend that analogy to having a balaclava in one hand when you approached the bank manager.
AS: There’s another element to that Saugy quote, wherein he believed that the UCI had two sets of rules, one for an ‘important competitor’ and one for others. An important competitor was brought in and ‘asked’ about a suspect result. Compare that to what just happened to David George, a relative unknown, whose suspect passport results led to targeted testing, which led to a positive EPO test, and eventually a sanction.
MA: Saugy’s quote is substantiated by the UCI’s Mario Zorzoli. In August 2005 Zorzoli gave a sworn statement to the Hamilton hearing that it was the UCI’s policy to discuss abnormal results with the riders. According to Zorzoli, the UCI had had approximately ten of those meetings over the years.
Think about that for a second. As of 2005, according to Zorzoli, the UCI had only ever seen ten abnormal results during a period when they themselves acknowledge that blood doping was rampant in the peloton. I have to wonder if they were even looking. According to Hamilton, most of the USPS squad had haematocrits pushing 50 at one stage. It seems that should have soaked up half a dozen of the ten meetings right there.
How can the UCI reconcile rampant doping with just ten meetings? One explanation, which is the one put forward by Saugy and Hamilton, is that only the most important riders were offered an opportunity to explain their results, and the expendables were just busted.
Getting back to your question, an athlete should never be subjected to different antidoping standards than their competitors. Never. It’s scandalous. Either warn everyone, or warn no-one.
But there is an additional layer where the UCI is concerned, because nowadays the UCI only pays for about 15% of their antidoping budget. The remaining 85% is contributed by the teams, race organisers and the riders themselves. The UCI are essentially just administering the program, not paying for it. It beggars belief to think that the UCI would take the rider’s money, but reserve a right to decide which of them got a warning and which of them got targeted then blasted out of the sport.
If the teams and race organisers are happy to keep paying their dues under those circumstances, they should be ashamed of themselves. It’s on issues like that Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans should be taking a stand on behalf of the expendables.
AS: Ok, now we have to step back and enter an alternate reality. Despite Saugy’s claims of ignorance in 2001, the USADA Reasoned Decision states that he was advised by the UCI in 2001 that one of the four suspicious samples belonged to Armstrong. There’s also a posting on CyclingNews forum by Race Radio that the UCI told Saugy to drop it, that the positive was ‘going nowhere’. While unreliable, this also indicates that Saugy knew Armstrong was suspect in 2001.
It’s quite likely USADA’s information was gathered in tandem with Jeff Novitzky under oath and, perhaps, more believable than Saugy’s media accounts. Is there a reasonable justification for the UCI informing Saugy in ’01 that Armstrong was one of the suspicious riders? Does Race Radio’s posting on CN imply the opposite is true, that Saugy somehow got wind that one of those samples was Armstrong’s, railed against the UCI, and had to be silenced?
MA: I won’t comment on an anonymous posting. But a story in The Washington Post in May 2011 reported that after Saugy had met Travis Tygart in Moscow in July 2010, he was later interviewed by FDA, FBI and USADA at WADA’s Montreal headquarters in September of that year. Subsequently, I think USADA’s Reasoned Decision is likely to reflect what Saugy told the interviewers. According to USADA, Saugy told them that he was advised by UCI that at least one of the samples belonged to Armstrong, but it does not specify when he was told. Nonetheless, this gap in knowledge can be filled because in May 2011 Saugy told a Swiss newspaper that he learned the sample was linked to Armstrong shortly before he met Armstrong and Bruyneel in 2002.
So as far as the publicly available information shows, there was a suspicious result from the 2001 Tour de Suisse, then a second suspicious result at the 2002 Dauphine at which point the UCI informed Saugy that the 2001 result belonged to Armstrong.
AS: Lionel Birnie reported in Cycling Weekly that Armstrong pledged $100,000 to the UCI after a visit to its headquarters in 2002. The UCI claims the pledge was made in 2005. Many media reports indicate the actual payment was made in 2005, but the UCI claims it was in 2007.
In fact, one very interesting aspect of this story is how inconsistent and evasive Verbruggen, McQuaid, and Saugy have been in their accounts.
MA: First of all, let’s look at the facts. Before Damien Ressiot’s story was published on 23 August 2005 showing that Armstrong had used EPO during the 1999 Tour, no-one had ever mentioned the words ‘pledge’ or ‘promise’. Not Verbruggen, not the UCI, not Armstrong.
In March 2004 Armstrong made casual reference to the fact that he’d paid money to the UCI. Paid, not promised. In April 2005 during a dual interview Verbruggen and Armstrong both confirmed that he’d paid the UCI from his private funds. Again, paid not promised. On 30 June 2005 Verbruggen told Mart Smeets on NOS television that Armstrong was paying for the UCI’s new machine, which was corroborated by Sysmex Corporation’s press release on 29 July which stated that Armstrong had financed the purchase of the machine used during that month’s Tour. Paid, not promised.
Even the UCI’s press release when announcing Armstrong’s ban pointed in the same direction. At the end of the Le Monde article from 24 July 2005 noted in the press release, it makes reference to Verbruggen’s statement on NOS television that Armstrong had financed the UCI purchase. Contrary to the UCI’s depiction, there was no mention of a donation nor of any promise.
It was not until several months after Ressiot’s story had appeared that the word ‘pledge’ is first mentioned. That mention was made during Armstrong’s deposition on 30 November 2005. However Armstrong could not remember when he had made his pledge. And most telling of all, just a few months after Verbruggen’s interview on NOS television, Armstrong himself had no recollection whatsoever of having promised to pay for an analyser.
Fast forward to October 2008 when the UCI announced that it was waiving its own rule to allow Armstrong to compete in the Tour Down Under. When Lionel Birnie emailed McQuaid in order to clarify whether Armstrong’s payments had influenced the UCI’s decision, McQuaid flatly denied any link. He argued that because Armstrong had paid the UCI in 2005 to purchase the machine, and the UCI had no way of knowing at that time that Armstrong would return, it was “ridiculous” for Birnie to make a link between those two events.
Birnie persisted with his email exchange to McQuaid, and specifically queried whether it was possible that there had been a $25,000 payment and a subsequent $100,000 payment. On 4 December 2008, McQuaid clarified that there was only one payment of $100,000 and “no other donation or anything of the type”.
Almost two years later, this time in response to Landis’ allegation that the 2001 TdS result had been covered up, McQuaid was adamant during a 20 May 2010 interview on Irish radio that the $100,000 had been paid in 2005. He made no mention of a promise nor a pledge.
It was not until several days later, during an interview at the Giro d’Italia, that McQuaid makes the first reference that I can find on public record that Armstrong had promised, but not paid, the $100,000.
During the interview, McQuaid explained that during 2002 Armstrong and Bruyneel were given a guided tour of the UCI headquarters in Aigle which had opened in April of that year. According to McQuaid, Armstrong was impressed by what they saw and offered $100,000 to help the development of cycling.
So the notion of a promise having been made was not introduced into the equation until five years after the instrument had been purchased. Apparently the promise was made in 2002. And according to McQuaid, it was Armstrong and not his agent Bill Stapleton who made that promise.
By 10 June, McQuaid’s position seemed to have changed. During an interview with Stephen Farrand he suggested that Armstrong would have no recollection of the $100,000 figure because the UCI had actually been dealing with Bill Stapleton. Yet, when he was deposed in September 2005, Stapleton had no recollection of any payment or a promise of any payment during that period.
One month after that, McQuaid’s position seemed to change again. After delving into the UCI archives, McQuaid said that Armstrong had promised $100,000 “just at the time Armstrong retired” in 2005. It seems that McQuaid must have unearthed what he believed to be documentary evidence in the UCI archives that established that a promise was made when Armstrong retired, so I expect that evidence will come under the scrutiny of the independent review.
AS: What isn’t in dispute is that a Sysmex machine was purchased by the UCI and given to the Lausanne lab in July of 2005. Some speculate that no such purchase was made, and the UCI have been elusive in producing a receipt for the purchase. But you’ve actually seen this machine?
MA: Yes I’ve seen the machine. The lab staff explained to me that they had been given free use of the analyser by the UCI. The instrument had Lausanne laboratory stickers and what seemed to me to be the laboratory’s inventory code attached.
I think the public are entitled to wonder why the UCI gave away a machine it said that it had needed in its fight against doping.
AS: The UCI have characterized the $100,000 payment as funds that aid in the fight against doping. Yet you say the Lausanne lab already had an identical machine, and had no need for another?
MA: The Lausanne lab told me they already had one of those instruments. They explained to me that the second machine was a backup in case the first one broke down. I suppose that’s a plausible justification, but it does seem to me that having a backup machine in case one breaks is a somewhat extravagant use of scarce resources.
AS: Furthermore, Armstrong allegedly pledged to buy the $80,000 machine, and the UCI purchases it before receiving the funds. They later remind Armstrong of the pledge and receive $100,000.
MA: Yeah I find it very difficult to believe that scenario. Fair enough, if you undertake to buy someone an instrument and don’t know ahead of time its exact cost, you might promise a ballpark figure of $100,000 confident that would cover the eventual price tag. But the UCI now claim they had to chase Armstrong down for the money after the instrument had been purchased. So the UCI knew the final cost when it asked Armstrong for the money. Why would you demand $100,000 if the instrument had only cost $88,000?
When the disparity between the cost price and the payment was brought to McQuaid’s attention during the Irish radio interview in May 2010, he made no attempt to offer an explanation as to why, or where the additional $12,000 had gone.
AS: If I may summarize, Armstrong’s urine sample is deemed suspicious at the 2001 Tour de Suisse. Even though Saugy is now adamant that it cannot be deemed a positive, we know that in 2001 he would’ve thought those samples came from a doper.
Armstrong is called to UCI headquarters to discuss the result, and in May of 2002 he gives the UCI $25,000. He then tests suspicious again at the Dauphiné, and he and Bruyneel meet with Saugy.
The UCI give Saugy’s Lausanne lab a Sysmex machine in 2005, and later receive $100,000 from Armstrong.
It’s very easy at this point to speculate on motivations but we’ll stick to just the facts ma’am and leave it at that. Any final thoughts?
MA: I think what disturbs me most about the Armstrong Triangle is that we have no choice but to rely on what Verbruggen, McQuaid, Saugy and Armstrong have said in public to piece together what actually happened. Each of their stories seems to have changed over time, except for Armstrong’s who claims to have no recollection of what happened.
Bear in mind that no-one has yet produced even one single shred of documentary evidence to support anything they’ve said with regard to the payments. Even the UCI’s truly bizarre decision to allow a journalist to see but not copy an invoice for a Sysmex analyser, kept in a folder marked ‘Confidential’, does nothing to explain who paid what and when it was paid because the UCI have admitted the instrument purchase was separate to the payments.
Until there is evidence to the contrary, I maintain the best word to describe these transactions is ‘pineapples’.
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.