Thursday, June 18, 2009


Well, Yes and No

Vacillating Answers to Today’s Cycling Questions

There are at least two sides to every story, and in cycling these days, there are always at least two answers to every question. Let’s look at four of this week’s discussion topics, and try to arrive at a simple “yes or no” based on the news of the week.

1. Is examining blood values a reliable way to catch cheaters?

Pat McQuaid and the UCI give an emphatic “yes,” based on the fact that, over the space of a week and a half, they got to nab the “list of five” for blood profile suspicions and Toni Colom (Katusha) for EPO. According to the UCI, Colom was targeted for the EPO test based on suspicious blood values, so we’re giving the UCI the benefit of the doubt and calling that a bio passport success as well. Of course, asking the UCI if blood values work is like asking a proud parent of an honor roll student if their child is really smart – they had a bit of a skewed view in the first place, and now they have the bumper sticker to prove it. Of course they’ll say yes.

In the “no” chorus we have Bernhard Kohl, whose story is, by now, over-told. But now Kohl has someone to harmonize with in newcomer Vladimir Gusev. Gusev was terminated last year by Astana for blood values that were interpreted as suspicious by well-known dope guy and Astana consultant Rasmus Damsgaard. CAS decided that maybe those values weren’t so suspicious after all, at least not suspicious enough for Astana to fire him over. In the meantime, Saxo Bank, where Bjarne Riis helped Damsgaard forge his dope-monitoring legend, has scaled back its vaunted internal testing programs citing the fact that the UCI passport program covers the same ground. So if the bio passport tests are now taking the place of some of the internal controls teams used to do, are they prone to the same problems? Only the appeals will tell, so call us in eight months or a year.

2. Does the UCI know what “targeted” means?

On June 9, the day they announced the Colom positive, the UCI seemed to have a solid grasp of what “targeted” meant. Colom’s blood values looked a little fishy, and so based on that, they gave him more tests than the average, non-suspicious rider. You know, they “targeted” him.

But that moment of clarity seems to be fading fast, as’s interview with UCI Reine de Dopage Anne Gripper reveals. Gripper comments on the list of 50 riders that the UCI has said will be extra-special tested in the run-up to the Tour de France (not to be confused with the list of five riders to be prosecuted). According to Gripper, these 50 riders aren’t being “targeted,” they’re just being subjected to additional testing based on the fact that they’re likely to do well at the Tour, either in terms of GC or stage wins. Well, that’s better – thank goodness they aren’t being targeted, you know, in the sense of being singled out for extra scrutiny based on a specific criteria or behavioral pattern. Like winning races or something.

It doesn’t really matter, of course, but I do hesitate to ask what they’ve thought “random” meant all these years.

3. Are Astana’s money problems solved?

Yes, apparently. Just a day or so after the UCI’s deadline officially passed, Bruyneel and the team’s Kazakh sponsors managed to come to some sort of agreement that should see everyone paid through the end of 2009.

But then we have to ask, who is everyone? Because if we go back to that Gusev story again, we see that Astana, presumably through Bruyneel’s Olympus management company, now owes the amply-chinned Russian his salary, plus damages, plus legal costs. I don’t know what his salary was, but Gusev was starting to really break through right before he got preemptively popped by the team, so damages could be considerable. So will Astana’s barely-dry check from Kazakhstan cover that little tab, or is Bruyneel going to be left to cough up the rubles himself? I don’t know, but if you think it’s hard to get the Kazakhs to pay guys who have ridden for them this year, you should see how hard it is to get them to pay the guys who haven’t.

4. Does Tom Boonen really like the marching powder as much as we think he does?

According to the testing agency and the Belgian justice system, yes. Boonen himself says he was blacked out during the night in question, and can’t rightly say either way whether he did cocaine or not. But now an independent review panel says no, Boonen didn’t actually ingest cocaine. Apparently, panel looked at a hair test, and while it does show the presence of cocaine, it doesn’t show enough coke present to indicate definitively that Boonen had any, only that he’s probably seen some in the last few months.

Before we get too excited, I’d note that the English version of the story says Boonen didn’t “ingest” cocaine. The initial Flemish versions I’ve seen say he didn’t “snort” cocaine. These are obviously two different meanings, as there are other ways to ingest besides snorting, and they affect how strongly the drug shows up in your system. While, say, eating cocaine is less efficient than sniffing it, it is still ingestion. This article sheds some light on the testing tolerances and whatnot, but frankly I’m just bored with the whole thing, and I steadfastly avoid dealing with anything measured in ng/mg.

ASO is apparently bored with the whole business too, since they’ve announced today that, for their purposes, Boonen snorted, otherwise ingested, or rolled around in the blow enough to exclude him from this year’s Tour de France. Now all we’re left to wonder about is whether the UCI will still try to come up with some “damaging the image of cycling” charge to hang him by. I suppose they could, as he’s still caused a hell of a PR fuss, but if you can get hanged in cycling for having been in proximity to drugs, there won’t be an empty gallows or a vacant tree branch in all of Europe pretty soon. (Update: No sanction for Boonen)

So for those of you keeping score, that’s a yes, a maybe, a no, and a “we’ll see” all on a single question that doesn’t have the slightest bit to do with racing a bicycle. Flattering times for the sport, indeed.

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Two things come to mind when I read the topics on this site in general and especially this topic.

I wonder which is tougher to figure out, interpret and keep straight, the US Tax Code or the rules of Pro Cycling.

Then, The Service Course could be subtitled "Pro Cycling for Dummies". Please don't take that wrong. It's a compliment. I'm able to read items on here and have a much better understanding what heck it all means and how it ties together.

Alternative answers to your questions:

1) Yes, examining blood values makes it easier to catch cheaters because the impression that the 'authorities' are paying close attention lends credence to their sometimes wild accusations of doping. Since many (maybe nearly all, who knows?) dope, they are likely to hit more dopers with the flood of accusations now forthcoming. It doesn't mean they're more accurate, it just means more are caught. Fairly or unfairly. Innocent or guilty. You just asked "more," though, without reference to accuracy.

2) There are different types of targeting. You target with a laser, a scalpel, a .22 rifle, a shotgun, a 155mm howitzer round, and a carpet bombing sortie. In this case, UCI appears to be carpet bombing. It's 'targeted,' in that sense of the term.

3) Don't mess with the Kazakhs, 'kay? Never works out for anybody involved.

4) Tom Boonen can quit any time he wants. Really.

All of which goes to prove that in cycling, you can ask questions but there's no guarantee you won't get utterly fatuous answers. The UCI and WADA appear to operate on this principle, as do many larger promoters. While it's bad as far as "sport," it's good as far as opera goes. Which is how I'm interpreting the TdF this year - Italian comedy, probably.
Eric: Thanks! Now if you had said "Pro Cycling BY a Dummy"...

Jim: I have to admit, sometimes it's the ridiculousness that makes writing about it fun. There's just no good material in a well-managed sport. And your answer to #4 just reminded me that I think it's time for Tom Boonen to start referring to himself in the third person.
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