“Anti-doping agencies… are sometimes better placed to interpret significance of modest changes in blood values” — Michael Ashenden
When news broke last month that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was filing formal doping violation charges against Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, Michele Ferrari and three team staff members, one of the most damning sentences in the official 15-page charging letter was that USADA claimed it had collected blood from Armstrong in 2009 and 2010 that was “fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions.”
It was troubling both for its recent time period, and for the fact that Armstrong’s blood had been monitored, during the same time period, by the UCI’s Biological Passport program — the same program that saw Italians Franco Pellizotti and Pietro Caucchioli suspended for doping for biomarker abnormalities, without ever delivering a direct positive drug test.
To find out how USADA could have found evidence of blood manipulation that the UCI either did not find, or chose not to pursue, we asked blood-doping expert Michael Ashenden.
Up until spring of this year, Ashenden, an Australian exercise physiologist specializing in blood doping, had been on the UCI’s Biological Passport panel since its inception in 2008. He resigned from his position after a clause was added to his contract dictating an eight-year confidentiality agreement, telling the BBC, “”Anti-doping exists to protect clean athletes, not the reputation of the anti-doping movement. When push comes to shove, my actions will always be in the interests of clean athletes, even if that means I ruffle feathers by highlighting some inconvenient truths. And just because I serve on their panel, it doesn’t give them the right to silence me.”
Formerly with the Australian Institute of Sport, Ashenden was involved in the development of the blood test for EPO, first used at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and he later led the team that developed the test that uncovered blood doping by Tyler Hamilton at the Vuelta a España in 2004.
In April of 2009 Ashenden told NYVelocity.com that, based on his interpretation of Armstrong’s urine sample data collected during the 1999 Tour de France and later exposed by French newspaper L’Equipe, he had “no doubt” that Armstrong had taken EPO during the 1999 Tour.
“There is no doubt in my mind these samples contain synthetic EPO, they belong to Lance Armstrong, and there’s no conceivable way that I can see that a lab could’ve spiked them in a way that the data has presented itself,” Ashenden said in 2009. “So there is no doubt in my mind he took EPO during the ’99 Tour.”
In April 2012 Ashenden resigned from the newly created Athlete Passport Management Unit (APMU), based at the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses (LAD) in Lausanne, which had recently taken over management of the Biological Passport.
Ashenden told the BBC that his new contract required him to get permission before offering personal opinions on any matter related to his role interpreting blood profiles, claiming the APMU is “trying to manage the message”.
Ashenden now serves as the director of an international research consortium known as Science and Industry Against Blood doping.
Last month Ashenden told Cyclingews.com that he felt USADA’s claim that the UCI had covered up a positive EPO test of Armstrong’s from the 2001 Tour of Switzerland could damage the UCI’s credibility.
“Whether the EPO gel in question was positive, suspicious or negative is secondary to the fact that according to multiple witnesses, Armstrong thought he had had one of his results covered up,” he said. “He can’t cover it up himself so he must have believed that he’d influenced someone to cover up his result. That points to the UCI, and infers that Armstrong believed at the time that he had the capacity to influence their actions.”
Our line of questioning for Ashenden was centered not on Armstrong’s 2001 EPO test, but rather USADA’s claim that it had evidence that Armstrong had blood doped in 2009-2010, yet the UCI Biological Passport had not caught it.
Ashenden agreed to answer, with a few conditions: All on-the-record comments would be made via email, primarily for accuracy; he be given the opportunity to “put the whole landscape down so that readers can discern for themselves rather than rely on someone’s opinion”; and that he be granted the right to review it before it was posted, to “ensure that the core message has gotten through the editorial process.”
Of most significance, Ashenden told us that an agency’s “tenacity to confront dopers, as well as how risk averse they are to the prospect of lengthy legal proceedings, will influence the outcome,” and that “anti-doping agencies, which in contrast to the experts are always in possession of competition schedules, are… sometimes better placed to interpret the significance of modest changes in blood values.”
Ashenden’s reply follows on the next page.