“We’re saying that our athletes will train as hard as they can, and they’ll look for every legal technical and preparation advantage, but our expectation is that they’re 100 percent clean,” says Garmin-Chipotle team owner Doug Ellis.
Along with Team Columbia — the other American-based team doing this year’s Tour — Team Garmin-Chipotle has instituted sweeping anti-doping rules for its riders in a sport that is so drug-tainted, fans dressed up as syringes and heckled riders on last year’s route while corporate sponsors left in droves.
This year’s Tour should be different. Thanks to the anti-doping programs of Garmin-Chipotle, Columbia and CSC (a European team), the Tour could be the cleanest in recent memory. At the very least, the blood and urine of every Tour rider will be monitored by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) throughout the race for abnormalities, and the riders on the three “clean” teams will be the most tested athletes in any professional sport.
“During the Giro (the Tour of Italy), I got tested at least once a week and sometimes even more,” says Vande Velde, who’s happy to be tested if it makes fans believe he’s not cheating. “The week before it started, I got tested four times in a row.”
At a cost of about $500,000 per team, Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia have hired an independent group, the Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE), to collect riders’ blood and urine about every two weeks. Riders are also subject to random testing by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), UCI, and the French federation.
“I feel that the sport has definitely cleaned up and it’s now one of the cleanest sports out there,” says American George Hincapie, who leads Team Columbia and was Lance Armstrong’s lieutenant for all seven of Armstrong’s Tour victories. “No other sport can say there are five different agencies capable of testing any given cyclist at any given time. They can come to your home or make you go to a lab at any time.”
All Tour riders (and many other top-tier pros) must submit their daily schedules to at least three different cycling federations every quarter, so testers can pay surprise visits. (They’re allowed two missed tests; several years ago, Vande Velde was at a friend’s wedding in San Francisco when a drug tester called from his front door in Illinois, wondering where Christian was.)
No drugs is good for business
The testing by the three anti-doping teams has been impressive enough that all of them signed new title sponsors in June, just a few weeks before the Tour started. Team CSC signed Saxo Bank as a co-sponsor; Team Columbia, which was known as Team High Road most of the season, signed with Columbia Sportswear; and global positioning system (GPS)-maker Garmin International signed on with Slipstream-Chipotle.
“We were an associate sponsor for a while and got a chance to see the team, the organizers and the coaches, and we realized they had a very strong antidrug program in place,” said Garmin spokesman Ted Gartner. “The timing was right and we decided to take the plunge. We jumped into this with our eyes open.”
As revolutionary as the frequent drug testing is, the testing method is new as well. Rather than hunt for specific drugs like human growth hormone (HGH), erythropoietin (EPO), or other steroids and hormones, labs are looking at biological markers in a rider’s blood and urine. They’re creating a baseline profile of the athlete’s body chemistry, because while many doping products aren’t traceable, their effects are noticeable in the body.
The new anti-doping tests
Under the ACE and UCI plan, a rider’s baseline chemistry is established over a period of about 12 weeks, so when a biomarker doesn’t match up with the baseline, the team and lab can investigate further. One example: Baseline tests will determine the average age of red blood cells in a rider’s system. “That’ll remain constant unless there’s an unexplained infusion of new young red blood cells (which could result from EPO administration), or if the rider’s injected blood with an older population of red blood cells,” explains Paul Scott, who co-founded ACE and was the architect of their program, but now runs his own anti-doping company, Scott Analytics.
“Same with steroids; you have a number of biological factors that behave in a predictable manner when you’re normal; some of these are testosterone pre-cursors and metabolites and others are hormones that are not necessarily related to muscle development but which nonetheless respond in a specific and predictable manner in the presence of steroid administration,” Scott explains. “When you take a steroid or some other actor that affects the anabolic profile, you’ll be able to track the changes in the (rider’s) profile and get a very good indication that the person’s done something to alter the profile.”
One example of such a marker is luteinizing hormone (LH) in (blood) serum. Use of exogenous testosterone, even in small doses that would be typically undetectable with traditional anti-doping methods, will have a significant suppressing effect on LH. In a normal, healthy male LH is stable. A statistically significant change in serum LH levels is a strong indication of testosterone abuse.
The UCI’s testing is similar. “All of the teams starting the Tour are part of the biological profile and passport program,” says Anne Gripper, the cheerful Australian who is manager of anti-doping for UCI. “It’s a real shift and paradigm change in anti-doping that we’ve needed for several years. The key difference in the profiling approach is that we use the individual values of the riders.” The UCI will also test for specific substances before, during and after competition.
2010 Tour de France