How Floyd Landis' accusations will impact this year's Tour de France
Floyd Landis specifically explained how he was able to beat drug tests while doping
This information has helped testers know what to look for on blood passports
It also questions whether changes should be made to current testing techniques
Who will crash on the early, cobbled sections of this year's Tour de France, which starts in Rotterdam on Saturday? Can Alberto Contador repeat as champion, despite being surrounded by less talent on this year's Astana team? Does Lance Armstrong, two months shy of his 39th birthday, riding in his final Tour and under the shadow of a federal investigation, have even an outside shot at winning No. 8?
I'll address those issues, and others, tomorrow. Today, let's tackle what is, to me, a more intriguing Tour question: What effect, if any, will the recent confessions and allegations of Floyd Landis have on this race?
In addition to accusing more than a dozen riders, ex-riders and team officials of doping, or being involved in doping, Landis has been very specific about how he was able to beat every drug test he took until July 20, 2006, despite his admitted reliance on performance enhancing drugs throughout the prime of his career.
"It is easier to catch someone doping if you know what, when, and how, they are doping," writes Michael Ashenden, an Australian exercise physiologist and expert on blood doping, who responded by email to a series of questions from SI. "Not automatic, but easier. Floyd's admissions have provided that insight."
The Molotov Cocktails lobbed by Landis have tended to obscure a general truth: Since 2008, when the Union Cycliste Internationale launched its "blood passport program," cycling has slowly, inexorably, become a cleaner sport. It's far from immaculate. Guys still cheat, they just have to be more subtle about it. In other words, they must cheat within the narrow parameters imposed by the passport.
One of the markers measured by the passport is the number of new or "immature" red-blood cells, called reticulocytes, in the bloodstream. When a rider transfuses blood, his body responds by sharply reducing its production of reticulocytes - a red flag to testers.
To nudge their "retic" count back into normal range after a transfusion, Landis recently told Bonnie Ford of ESPN.com, he and other riders would inject themselves with smaller doses of EPO, during races, on a nightly basis.
Confirming that account in an email to SI, Landis wrote that he could inject "double or more the endogenous daily production [of EPO] intravenously, and still be relatively free of any risk of a positive test after eight hours." By injecting EPO into their veins, rather than into the body's soft tissue, the drug was assimilated much more quickly in the bloodstream, and became undetectable much sooner.
Landis further lowered the risk of detection, he informed SI, by learning how to use the Sysmex machine, an automated blood analyzer owned by Phonak, his team from 2005-06, and also learned to monitor his reticulocytes with a microscope.
The brazenness of these tactics came as a surprise to Ashenden, who sits on the independent, nine-person board tasked with interpreting passport data for the UCI. "I had never contemplated that riders would continue to use EPO during a Tour," he writes. "I felt the risk of detection, either by urinalysis or police, was too great. Floyd's account described how they did take that risk."
What else should testers look for, based on what they've learned from Landis? "One thing I would be looking for, based on Floyd's account," writes Ashenden, "is a steady hemoglobin value throughout the 3-week race." In other words, the inhuman rigors of a grand tour should force those values down. "It is both unnatural and highly suggestive of doping if blood values do not decline during a Tour."
(Sort of like this profile, posted by Lance Armstrong on his LiveStrong site after last year's Tour, but subsequently taken down. In Armstrong's defense, hematocrit levels can be skewed by diarrhea and dehydration.)
One way to crack down on the cheats is to make sure that surprise tests ... are a surprise. After last year's Tour, the UCI was criticized for being overly predictable in its timing, and overly chummy with certain teams.
Despite its pioneering passport program, the UCI has demonstrated borderline ineptitude at catching cheats during actual races. The French anti-doping agency (AFLD), has been far more creative, and far less predictable, in its in-race testing protocols, and busted many more riders as a result. So it was good news for cycling fans when the World Anti-Doping Agency ruled last week that, even though the UCI will ostensibly direct testing at this year's Tour, it will be forced to ask "How high?" when the AFLD says "Jump!" (For a clear, concise explanation, check out the indispensable Boulder Report).
Between the lessons learned from Landis, the AFLD's superior in-race testing, and general deterring effect of the passport, this Tour will be cleaner than last year's, which, one hopes, was cleaner than the Tour before. Of course some riders still dope. But "the wriggle room for cheats is getting smaller," writes Ashenden, who then shares this concern:
"I fear we may be approaching the limit of how invasive testing can be ... How do you balance the obvious need for riders to sleep with an awareness that if they [microdose] in the evening, traces will have disappeared by 6am next morning? On which side does the public want to fall: protecting clean riders from doped competitors, or protecting a doped rider's sleep?"
To me, that's a no-brainer. The Tour ends in Paris on Sunday, July 25. Let the guys sleep in on Monday, the 26. In the meantime, keep cleaning up the sport.
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