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The Explainer: Lab wars and the real Tour of Colorado

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Feb. 10, 2011
  • Updated Jun. 10, 2011 at 2:32 PM EST

Dear Readers,
It’s been a while since I’ve written up an Explainer column. First, I went to Germany for the UCI world cyclocross championships, which offered a terrific opportunity to get out on the road and to visit an area where I started elementary school way too many years ago. I then used the opportunity to take a vacation, hoping to spend a bit of that down time enjoying the winter weather in Wyoming and maybe do a little camping. I love snow caves and back-country skiing, but Mother Nature cooperated a little too much for my liking. I got back from Germany just in time for winter temperatures to hit 38 below zero and the wind made it feel even colder. I took a pass on spending much time outdoors.

Anyway, I’m back at the desk and, as always, I welcome your questions about cycling, racing history, general legal issues and riders’ rights.
Charles

Q. Charles,
In his appeal today, Contador brought up a “fairness issue.” His argument is that only four certified labs in the world can detect the minute quantity of clenbuterol found in this blood and it was a crap shoot that his sample ended up in one of them.

And that got me asking, why Cologne? The sample was taken way down in southwest France, but there are closer certified testing labs closer than Cologne. How did the sample end up there?
Tim in KY

A. Dear Tim,
Indeed, there are laboratories closer than the WADA-Accredited Laboratory of the German Sports University at Cologne. The first, and obvious, choice would be to put all sample testing under the control of the Département des Analyses at the laboratory of the Agence Française de Lutte contre le Dopage (AFLD) in Châtenay-Malabry, near Paris.

That’s the lab that has garnered attention for a number of reasons. First, laboratory staff at Châtenay-Malabry were instrumental in the development of the first test for EPO in 2000 and 2001. The lab also got its share of unwelcomed publicity in 2005 when it retested samples from the 1999 Tour (a time when there had been no test for EPO in place). While the tests were said to have been anonymous and confidential, the tests did reveal that 12 samples showed indications of EPO use. The whole thing turned into a major kerfuffle when reporters at L’Equipe gained access to those tests and did a bit of cross-checking on the numbers and found that six of those samples belonged to one rider, a guy by the name of Lance Armstrong.

As you might imagine, a great hue and cry ensued. Interested parties all quickly lawyered up (and I am not saying that’s a bad thing). Press releases, threats, opinions and lots of chatter followed. The UCI launched an investigation and the resulting report focused largely on the procedural shortcomings of the lab and its failure to maintain confidentiality. The reported noted that the tests only involved retests of B samples (since the A samples were used up when originally tested in 1999) meaning that even if valid, none of the information could be used to pursue a doping case.

Of course, the lab’s apparent inability (unwillingness?) to keep test results from the hands of those tenacious reporters at L’Equipe became an issue once again when news was quickly leaked about Floyd Landis’ test results from Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour.

The relationship between the management of the AFLD and the UCI was further soured following the 2009 Tour when the French agency suggested that the UCI had somehow protected the Astana team of Contador and Armstrong, often making it difficult for testers to approach the team without warning.

Last year, the AFLD even requested the ability to carry out its own testing, independent of the UCI, a request that the governing body of cycling rejected.

So, all of that history should underscore the fact that the conveniently located Châtenay-Malabry was not the UCI’s lab of choice. Instead, much of the testing was done at the WADA-certified lab at the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland. Yes, there were some tests conducted in France, but the bulk of samples were sent to Switzerland. All told, there were only 215 blood and 251 urine tests were performed during the 2010 Tour de France. That number does not include the pre-race medical exams conducted on all riders, but just tests run during the race itself. Frankly, that’s a remarkably low number, considering the size of the field and the length of the event.

As a matter of course, the guy in the yellow jersey is the most regularly tested rider at the Tour, so a significant percentage of those samples belonged to Alberto Contador. But as I mentioned, samples were mostly tested in Lausanne. So how did his clenbuterol test results come from the German lab?

Well, it wasn’t quite the “crap shoot” you suggest it was.

The lab in Cologne ranks among the world’s best. As is now tradition at the Tour de France, there were rumors floating around about riders employing new methods, injecting and ingesting new substances and coming up with all sorts of new tricks to beat the testers. To address those concerns, the UCI flagged a small number (just ten) of samples for “additional analysis for new substances and/or methods.” Alberto Contador’s rest day sample was one of the ten. It was the only one to produce a positive result, although for just trace amounts (50 picograms/per milliliter) of clenbuterol.

The problem for Contador – as he has repeatedly pointed out in recent days – is that there is no minimal acceptable level for clenbuterol. It’s banned. Period.

Brave, brave Sir Beaker.

Whether you agree with the current state of the WADA Code or not, the rules are pretty clear: Clenbuterol is a banned substance. It should not be in your body. If it is, you’re guilty of a doping violation, even if you did not intend to put it there. Whether that’s fair or not, is a topic for debate, but that’s the way the rules read now.

For further reading on the subject, you might want to go through the Independent Observers’ Report on drug testing at the 2010 Tour de France.

It makes for terrific reading. I even like to use it as a remarkably effective bedtime story for my daughter.

“Once upon a time, there was a braaaaaave knight, armed only with a noble heart, a little plastic beaker and his skills in the art of capillary electrophoresis ….”

Charles

Q. Hi Charles,
I had not seen anything on the Tour of Colorado in a while now. I may just (once again) have missed the information on this. Does it look like this stage race is going to happen? I would actually like to see Lance race in person once in my life time.

Thank you and stay warm!
David

A. Hello David,
First off, I have to assume that your question involves the race known as the Quiznos Pro Challenge. So what? What’s in a name?

Well, in this case, the name has been used for quite some time by one of the hardest working folks in cycling. There is a Tour of Colorado, but it has nothing to do with the Quiznos Challenge. The Tour of Colorado is a race series organized by former USCF technical director Andy Bohlmann and one that features some terrific events, including the iconic Bob Cook Memorial Hill Climb in July.

At this point, the schedule includes the following events.

May 1 ─ Koppenberg Classic, Superior
May 27-30 ─ Superior Classic, Superior
June 17-19 ─ Western Slope Omnium, Glenwood Springs
July 10 ─ North Boulder Park Criterium, Boulder
July 23 ─ Bob Cook Memorial-Mt. Evans Hill Climb, Idaho Springs
July 29-31 ─ Salida Omnium, Salida
August 14 ─ Sand Creek Road Race (Colorado Senior Road Race Championship), U.S. Air Force Academy
August 20-21 ─ Fort Collins Criterium and Rist Canyon Road Race, Fort Collins

Nope, the Tour of Colorado won’t feature a full slate of ProTeams, but the schedule includes some terrific events quite worthy of your consideration, either as a participant or spectator.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to your original question about Quiznos. At this point, from all indications, the race is still on track and is scheduled to start in Colorado Springs on Monday, August 22.

August 22 — Prologue, Colorado Springs
August 23 — Stage 1, Salida to Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte
August 24 — Stage 2, Gunnison to Aspen
August 25 — Stage 3, Vail (Individual Time Trial)
August 26 — Stage 4, Avon to Steamboat Springs
August 27 — Stage 5, Steamboat Springs to Breckenridge
August 28 — Stage 6, Golden to Denver

The race has been rumored to have had organizational problems, but news this week seemed to bolster the effort, when it was announced that former AEG president Shawn Hunter has joined the race’s management team. Hunter has considerable experience in sports promotion, including a big role in the organization of the Amgen Tour of California.

Part of the problem and the root of the speculation about the future of the race has to also involve the rather shaky financial condition of the race’s title sponsor. Last month, the company laid off about 70 employees from its corporate headquarters in Denver and there have been recent complaints about the structure of Quiznos’ financial arrangements with individual franchisees. Even with that in mind, marketing dollars are usually committed well in advance and, for now, the race’s 2011 schedule appears to be secure. Whether it will continue for years to come, really depends on the success of the race itself. If the Quiznos Challenge turns out to be as good as – or even better than – the Red Zinger/Coors Classic of years past, then we could see a spectacular return of high-level stage racing to some of the country’s most challenging roads. Obviously, we’re all hoping that the effort succeeds.

We hope, too, that you get your chance to see your favorites race this year. Armstrong may be there. He was at least peripherally involved in getting the race off the ground, but he may have other matters to attend to this year. He’s still the subject of an ongoing federal grand jury investigation and no one really knows if or when indictments will be handed down in that case.
Charles


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question feel free to send your query toCPelkey@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.

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