News for March 31, 2001

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Selle Italia caught in Turin

In what could become Italy's Festina affair, Italian police searched the hotel rooms of the Sella Italia team in Turin during the Coppi - Bartali week on Thursday night after finding a stash of prohibited substances in a team car.

The substances are alleged to be anabolic agents, corticoides and growth hormones, and were found by the carabinieri during a routine control check on a highway in neighbouring Modena.

The driver of the car was Dr Beltran, the Colombian team doctor, who told police the drugs were for Colombian patients, not the riders, although there are 11 Colombian riders within the 20-man squad. The sponsor, meanwhile, has denied any knowledge of the transportation.

Just a wee chance of catching EPO users

By Gerard Knapp

The Tour of Flanders on April 8 will be the first major race to see the introduction of urine tests for EPO, following the announcement by the International Cycling Union (UCI) that it would begin tests on April 1.

Despite the day coinciding with "poisson d'avril", aka April Fool's Day, the tests will be the same as the urine tests that were used for the first at the Sydney 2000 Olympics (see special report).

A key feature of the urine test is that it can only detect the presence of EPO up to three days after it was last used, which is perhaps why there were no busts for the substance at the Olympics given that the drug provides a benefit to athletes for weeks at a time.

Research by sports scientists have shown that a new blood test can detect the use of EPO for up to three weeks after it was used - but this was not used in Sydney and nor will it be used by the UCI. Last year, the IOC claimed that this blood test was not as conclusive as the urine test.

It has to be said that the UCI is aware of these limitations and recognises that its best chance of detecting EPO will be during the longer stage races. For the major one day races, the UCI's strategy "to fight effectively against the use of this product" will consist of more frequent blood and urine test in the weeks preceding the race.

The urine test will use the method developed by the national doping testing laboratory in Châtenay-Malabry, France. From now on, in the UCI's view, if a urine test returns a positive result, it will constitute proof of EPO use. The UCI said it hopes that other laboratories will soon use this procedure. However, at present the capacity of these laboratories is limited and not sufficient to detect EPO. Currently, the UCI requests 6000 analyses each year and the total number in cycling is 13,000 with the national federations.

The UCI says it will target "the winners and leaders in the classification of the most important races" as part of its new regime. To determine if the somewhat expensive urine test should be used, riders will be selected based on an enhanced blood test, which will examine - "in the interest of health protection", said the UCI - the number of reticulocytes (young red blood cells), as well as haematocrit and haemoglobin.

A haematological profile which justifies use of the urine test will be any unusual level and/or variation of haematocrit, or a level of reticulocytes higher than 2.4%. Although the UCI did not define "unusual", it appears that any significant change in the blood profile will require the rider to undergo an anti-doping control after the race. In addition, riders with a haematocrit level higher than 50% will still be declared unfit to race, and will also have to undergo the urine test.

"However, not only riders with such blood levels will be tested. The EPO tests could also be carried out on any rider irrespective of the blood tests," the UCI said.

The selection of riders to be tested will range from the obvious to a game of chance, as the UCI's criteria for selecting riders will include:
results in major races, such as the World Championships and World Cup races, major tours, etc;
a blood profile justifying further investigations;
and finally, the drawing of lots.

That's one hell of a door prize. For some, the latest measures may be too little, too late. ``It's possible that other products have taken over from EPO,'' Tour de France race director Jean-Marie Leblanc told Darren Tulett from Bloomberg news-agency.

"Chain Massacre" coming - in English

Willy Voet
Photo: © AFP

The long-awaited English version of Willy Voet's "Chain Massacre" is slated for a May 24 release this year under the name "Breaking The Chain". Publishers Random House had delayed publication of the English version until the "Festina trial" had run its course.

The trial wound up late last year after three weeks of hearings which re-opened many of the old wounds from the 1998 Tour de France and earlier. The book by the former Festina soigneur was first released in Paris in May 1999 and went on to sell 180,000 copies in France and a further 120,000 in Belgium.

The book stems from the interception which changed cycling forever. Voet was on his way to Dublin for the start of the 1998 Tour de France when he was caught with a bootload of prohibited substances, including 234 ampoules of EPO, 80 of growth hormone, 160 capsules of testosterone and amphetamines. He was arrested and charged and he clearly stewed while he sat in prison for two weeks, feeling betrayed by those he served.
Richard Virenque
Photo: © AFP

"Massacre à la chaîne" was originally published by Calmann-Lévy, and outlines in minute detail the world of doping in the peloton. At the time Voet insisted that Richard Virenque played "an active role in the distribution of the doping products", something which the Festina rider later admitted to Judge Delegove in the trial late last year. The book is also subtitled "Révélations sur trente ans de tricheries" (Revelations about 30 years of Cheating) and the English language version may provide some insight into the European doping culture.

As Virenque himself said at the Festina trial: "We don't say doping. We say we are preparing for the race. To take drugs is to cheat. As long as the person doesn't test positive, they're not taking drugs."

Related stories:
October 25, 2000, Festina trial - the mud begins to fly, Festina case timeline
October 24, 2000, Festina trial - Virenque cracks
May 20, 1999, Willy Voet goes for the jugular

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