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The Explainer: How do we get from aging dopers to the big names?

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Nov. 25, 2010
  • Updated Nov. 29, 2010 at 2:16 PM EST
FDA's Jeff Novitzky - probably not going after your local masters racer. USADA is, though. | Getty Images

Q.Hello Charles,
I read your piece on the Michigan masters rider getting sanctioned for EPO use. What’s the story behind the story? Something doesn’t add up. I know Neal. He’s always been a true recreational cyclist. If I’m not mistaken, Neal is your stereotypical laid-off auto worker from Michigan. I imagine that Neal immediately accepted his sentence because he has no money for a lawyer.

I’m figuring this was one of Joe Papp’s customers. Is this the evidence that Joe Papp gave to reduce his sentence? If these are the people that U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is going after with the Joe Papp evidence, someone is wasting a bunch of money. Where are the high rollers to whom Papp claimed to have sold EPO?
Joe

A.Dear Joe,
To begin, I understand your reaction, especially when you know the person involved. However, Neal Schubel has now publicly acknowledged his involvement, posting a statement on his Facebook page.

FDA's Jeff Novitzky - probably not going after your local masters racer. USADA is, though. | Getty Images

The odd thing is that USADA issued two very similar suspensions on Wednesday, November 24. The first involving Schubel and then, a few hours later, another naming 38-year-old Coloradan, Charles Coyle. As of late Wednesday evening, it appears that despite his acceptance of a two-year suspension, Coyle may be asserting his innocence. He made a call to VeloNews managing editor Neal Rogers and says there’s more to the story than just a guilty plea. Well, as absolutely fascinating as that story might be, I’m sure we’ll probably hear more about it in days to come.

While USADA releases notices whenever it issues a suspension, those announcements generally involve athletes at the top of the game and don’t often name regional or other riders.

There’s a reason for that. With finite resources, USADA focuses the bulk of its attention on elite and professional athletes. It’s rare that we hear about riders at other levels being named, largely because those riders are rarely tested. What made Wednesday especially strange is that USADA issued not one, but two, suspensions in rapid succession on the same day.

But neither of those cases involved a laboratory test result. Both were so-called “non-analytical positives,” based on evidence the agency had acquired through other means. It’s beginning to look like we’ll be seeing more of those, too, and here’s why.

Growing old gracefully?

So how do we see two masters-aged bike racers suddenly appear in the news on the same day for essentially the same offense?

It probably doesn’t represent the sudden growth in drug use among those approaching middle age. Yeah, it does happen and it happens with greater frequency than we’d like to admit. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that masters racers — for whatever strange reason — do indeed succumb to the temptations of things like recombinant erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone (HGH) and other performance-enhancing drugs. I once worked on a story about a criminal case involving a 50-year-old track rider charged with financial improprieties. In reviewing depositions in a related civil matter, I found a passage alleging that the defendant had carried packets of dehydrated urine to fool drug testers. It happens … although I have no frickin’ idea why. It sure ain’t for the prize money or the lucrative contracts they offer old guys like me.

Still, Wednesday’s announcements are more than mere coincidence. While Schubel and Coyle are geographically separated, the key element in both announcements was the allegation that they had purchased performance-enhancing substances. In Schubel’s case, his purchase (or purchases) took place as far back as 2006. In Coyle’s, his involvement began in 2007. Keep those dates in mind, and that is where your theory that Joe Papp might have been involved gains traction.

Enter, Joe Papp

Papp is a former professional and U.S. National Team member, and a racer who showed considerable talent since getting into the sport in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, Papp is probably best known for his involvement in doping, first as a rider caught by a positive test, then as a witness who testified as to the performance-enhancing benefits of testosterone in the Floyd Landis case and, finally, as an admitted dealer.

After Papp tested positive for testosterone precursors at the 2006 Tour of Turkey, he began cooperating with authorities and speaking openly about his own doping practices. In addition to his testimony in the Landis case – in which he offered only insight into his own use of drugs and did not provide any direct evidence against Landis — Papp began speaking to groups and the media about his past. In an August, 2007, interview with VeloNews contributor Dr. Dawn Richardson, Papp went into great detail about his use of EPO and other drugs.

What Papp did not reveal at the time of the interview, however, was that he was still involved in the sale and distribution of doping products.

For those of us not privy to the investigation, the first indication of that involvement came in testimony provided in the 2008 doping case of former Rock Racing criterium specialist Kayle Leogrande. Papp testified that he had provided Leogrande with doping products, including EPO. That testimony was bolstered by a thank you note from the rider and a photograph of Leogrande’s distinctly tattooed arm holding vials in front of a refrigerator.

Then, earlier this year, Papp appeared in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania and entered a guilty plea to two counts of conspiracy to distribute EPO and HGH, specifically from 2006 to 2007. While Papp acknowledged that he had a customer list including more than 180 buyers, none of those names was revealed at the time.

Papp had originally been charged with more than just the two counts. His admission in February was the result of a plea agreement with prosecutors that remains sealed. He still awaits sentencing on both counts. A sealed plea agreement and a substantial wait before sentencing are both strong indicators that he is cooperating, not only with USADA, but with the Feds.

While it is reasonable to expect that we will see more announcements from USADA involving riders you don’t hear of too often, it may be a while before you see the “high rollers” you mentioned.

Little fish, big fish

First, while Papp’s customer list is still sealed, it’s unlikely that it contains too many really big names. Thus far, Leogrande is Papp’s most prominent customer, so we’re not talking Tour de France contenders here. However, Papp’s sale and distribution of performance-enhancing drugs did catch the attention of the Food and Drug Administration’s criminal division and its now-famous investigator Jeff Novitzky.

Novitzky gained national attention for his involvement in the BALCO investigation. With regard to the Papp case, he again teamed up with assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Miller to look into the distribution of those drugs. Again, while little has been made public, from all indications, the two had already initiated an investigation when Floyd Landis announced in April that he had, indeed, used doping products during his cycling career and then leveled doping charges against his former teammate Lance Armstrong.

It appears that Papp was not directly involved in leveling allegations against Armstrong or other top riders, but his case did set the stage for an investigation that rapidly shifted its focus from a list of relatively unknown riders to the “A list” of cycling.

As has been reported, several current and former pros have already been called before the grand jury. Recent weeks have also suggested a widening of the investigation, with Novitzky, Miller and USADA CEO Travis Tygart traveling to Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, to meet with prosecutors, investigators and anti-doping officials from France and Italy.

Some have suggested that we could see indictments issued by year’s end, but the U.S. attorney’s office isn’t saying anything at this point.

So with the federal investigators are now focusing on the upper levels of the sport, USADA still has that list of customers out there. It appears that some of those names are coming out … one or two at a time.

Stay tuned.

Charles


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to CPelkey@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.


Editor’s note: Charles Pelkey joined VeloNews in 1994 after leaving a leadership staff position in the U.S. Senate. Pelkey has worked as a journalist since 1985 and has held a number of editorial positions at VeloNews and currently serves as Senior Editor of VeloNews.com. Pelkey has a Juris Doctorate from the University of Wyoming College of Law and lives in Laramie, Wyoming, with Diana, his wife of 24 years, and their two children, Philip and Annika.

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