The curious case of Trent Lowe’s 2009 visit to Spanish doctor Luis del Moral, which cost Garmin-Cervélo director Matt White his job Sunday, added a bizarre chapter Tuesday when Slipstream Sports, the management group behind the Garmin team, issued a statement claiming that Lowe had threatened to blackmail the team for €500,000 (US$670,000) over potentially damaging information.
Lowe’s legal advisor Martin Hardie issued a statement several days later, saying the Garmin press release was inaccurate.
Following White’s dismissal, and the team’s explanation that he was fired for referring Lowe to former U.S. Postal Service doctor Luis del Moral, Slipstream claims Hardie suggested the team search its archives for an email originally sent by Lowe in June 2009 to Vaughters and Garmin team physician Prentice Steffen.
That email contained a PDF attachment showing the results of Lowe’s quarterly UCI blood test. Del Moral’s name appeared on the letterhead of the results from Clinica Olivea, the laboratory that conducted the blood analysis. The test results were forwarded to the UCI, as is protocol with quarterly health checks. According to Slipstream Sports, Hardie cited the June 2009 blood test and email to the team on Monday, threatening to take the information public unless Slipstream paid Lowe €500,000.
Instead, the team issued a statement detailing its side of the events, explaining that it was “sharing all of this information in the interest of transparency.”
It was Lowe’s second apparent blackmail attempt in the span of a few weeks. Earlier this month Slipstream claims Lowe first threatened to take his visit to del Moral public after he was not paid his December 2010 wages, which were withheld due to a breach of contract stemming from photos that Vaughters claims appeared online of Lowe, taken at the Pegasus Sports team camp in Noosa, Queensland, in November 2010. Both Lowe and Svein Tuft, another of Garmin’s 2010 riders, were pictured riding Scott race bikes, however both riders were contractually obligated to ride Felt bicycles through December 31, 2010.
Lowe, the 2002 world junior mountain bike champion who rode for Discovery Channel in 2006 and 2007 before joining Slipstream, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Following the initial news of White’s firing, and the reasons behind it, Lowe told VeloNews, “I cannot comment on anything at this stage.”
Hardie issued a statement of his own on Thursday: “We note that this material (in the Garmin press release) is factually inaccurate and we reject the allegations made. We will make a further statement after we have had an opportunity to discuss these matters further with Slipstream Sports. We look forward to resolving these issues as soon as possible without any further damage being done to cycling and people’s careers and reputations.”
Hardie, a faculty member at the Deakin School of Law in Geelong, Australia, famously organized the New Pathways for Pro Cycling Conference during last year’s world road championships in Geelong, which drew controversy for inviting Floyd Landis. The disgraced 2006 Tour winner’s involvement with the conference was met with criticism from the world championships organizers, who withdrew their support for the event.
Jonathan Vaughters, Slipstream’s CEO and the Garmin-Cervélo team’s interim head director, told VeloNews that UCI quarterly health checks are separate from the team’s internal blood-monitoring program or the UCI’s longitudinal anti-doping effort, the biological passport. Instead, the quarterly exams are mandatory blood tests put into place to detect any health issues a rider might have that would compromise his or her ability to race.
“With a blood test in Spain you don’t have to see a doctor or even need a prescription, you just go to a clinic or lab, tell the secretary you need to have blood work done, and that’s that,” Vaughters said. “These clinics always have one doctor on staff, but that doesn’t mean he is involved in any way. Del Moral may or may not have been in the clinic at the time, but his name is still going to show up on the letterhead. I’ll be honest, I don’t pay attention to the letterhead on a UCI quarterly. Typically I don’t even look at these UCI health tests at all, so why Trent decided to CC me on this email, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t expect Prentice to be looking at the lab’s letterhead, either. I’d expect him to be looking at the results.”
Because it is not an anti-doping blood test, Vaughters said UCI quarterly tests do not follow the standard specimen-handling protocols that a WADA-accredited test would adhere to.
“The lab does the test, sends the results to the rider, the rider sends the result to, in our case, Prentice, and Prentice sends it to the UCI,” Vaughters said. “There is no chain of custody. It’s not anti-doping. We weren’t sending a rider to del Moral for an anti-doping test, and we had no idea del Moral was involved. If people want to judge our organization based on our not reading the letterhead more carefully, rather than the results of 200-odd blood tests per year, then we’re guilty as charged. We focus on the data; the doctors’ names on the letterheads are irrelevant.”
Vaughters added that he’s been surprised by the approach Lowe has taken, given that his relationship with the young Aussie had always been good prior to the last two weeks.
“I think Trent is a very nice kid, and a good person,” Vaughters said. “I’ve always liked him, and I think we’ve always had a good friendship. I hope he’s not getting advice from people that don’t have his best interests in mind. I think he’s gotten some strange advice in the last few months.”
Asked if this week’s high-profile internal team soap opera was the cost of Slipstream’s long-running policy of full transparency, Vaughters said it was a small price to pay.
“At the end of the day, we’ve always been transparent,” he said. “We’re happy to reveal the information we have. There is nothing nefarious going on. It’s a little bit tiresome that some of Trent’s representatives are trying to take advantage of a situation. It’s a little bit sad. But I don’t regret the decision to be idealistic. We set a high standard for ourselves, and we set it publicly, and that’s something we have to live up to. You have to take the good with the bad when you take a stance like that.”