The paradox of internal blood testing

One of the more mysterious aspects of recent revelations about the prevalence of oxygen vector doping is the role of internal testing of blood values. One might ask how it is possible such testing failed to identify the level of blood manipulation that is now becoming clear from evidence provided to the Puerto trial. The decision by Armstrong not to enter into an official internal testing programme with Catlin during his comeback is often seen as a signal that his interaction with Catlin was just a public relations game. Of course, Catlin is well aware how internal testing programmes can be perverted into early warning systems that actually facilitate doping, and still possesses in his infamous fridge the evidence that would demonstrate how dirty US athletics had become at at a time of intense internal testing. Of course, there is no paradox here, individuals and teams use blood testing to ensure they do not get caught by the official testers. Rasmussen’s recent interview on NOS (here in English with Dutch subtitles) confirms yet another purpose for such internal controls: to manipulate and maintain internal hierarchies within a team. As we know from the Hamilton book, and from Voet’s book on Festina, access to doping products is often controlled in such a way as to create a hierarchy of performance enhancement, with a group of favoured riders entitled to dope. Of course riders can choose to dope without the support of a team, but this presents logistical problems, and may be seen to be a deviation from a script. This where the Rasmussen interview becomes interesting. He notes that CSC stopped him from racing because his haematocrit was too high, and implies that one reason he switched to Rabobank was to be permitted to manipulate his blood as he saw fit. Indeed his difficulties at Rabobank revolve around discussion of how the team management retained control of blood doping to (probably) ensure that performances did not become too suspicious. In this way, internal testing becomes the enemy of anti-doping, not its friend.

Edited 09032013 to clarify testing of blood values, not for specific substances.

Haunting Malcolm Elliott

Kellogg's Tour of Brittain 1988. Winner Malcolm Elliott

Photographs are obvious catalysts for memory. They sometimes deliver more than one expects. Someone I follow on twitter posted some old pictures of the Kellogg’s 1988 Tour of Britain (which spookily include a blurred Jimmy Savile) today. I was there at the final criterium in Westminster,  and my hazy memories are formative in my passion for cycling (this was the first international racing I saw in the flesh). This photo of Malcolm Eliott,  who won that edition, is one I have seen before. However, I never noticed that I was in the crowd in the blurry background until today (unless I am seeing what I want to see)… and indeed Elliott was the first pro I had an on road encounter with (a few years later), in Sheffield, stopped at the lights.

Secret Race vs. Human Race: it’s all about Tyler Hamilton

I wrote the other day about why we should resist the tendency to focus on individuals in efforts to combat sporting fraud, especially doping. Instead, I argued, we should focus on the institutions and values that facilitate and encourage such behaviour. Paradoxically, it is individual cases and the personalities of individuals that can be pivotal in catalysing such a change in focus. That is why we should applaud the actions of those that lift the veil, rather than scapegoat and vilify. Here, I want to explore some of the personal qualities that emerge in one such whistleblower.

Tyler Hamilton’s recent book with Daniel Coyle (The Secret Race) might easily be portrayed as a book about doping in general, and particularly as a book about the behaviour and personality of Lance Armstrong and his confederates. Whilst this is a reasonable and accurate response, I think it would downplay a more positive and constructive narrative about an individual who seems peculiarly adept at battling physical pain, but much less equipped to deal with the psychological pain of life and competition. It is this peculiar combination that makes the book much more interesting than pure exposé. If we are to understand doping, I would argue, understanding the mindset of those who are prepared to publicly discuss it is an important step to undertake. Continue reading

Doping scandals: lessons learnt?

Ben Johnson, BALCO, Festina: sport often learns the wrong lessons from doping scandals. It learnt that coming clean about your doping when caught screws you and leaves others just as dirty to win; that if you have the right drugs and advice you will only get caught if someone gives you up; and that all sporting entities learn from a scandal is that a repetition must be avoided at all costs.
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Why am I an anti-social cyclist?

Cycling is a social sport, yet like music, it attracts some fairly anti-social characters. I love people, but my borderline social anxiety (or misanthropy according to some) has made my cycling life rather lonely: I do like the monastic solitude of cycling on my own, but I wonder whether this is entirely healthy. Answers on a postcard, or do comment if you will…

They shoot horses: performance enhancement, risk-taking and the rage to master

In the last few days both the cycling and mainstream press have reported on the usage of presently undetectable performance enhancing drugs in cycling (see e.g., this article in de Telegraaf; this article on velonews.com). José Been wrote an excellent post on her blog tourdejose.com about two of these products, and following news of the arrest of Alberto Bèltran in El País, updated this with news that he had been caught with both AICAR and TB-500, making the link back to the arrest of Wim Vansevenant on the eve of last year’s Tour de France. Here I consider the implications of turning to such ‘new’ drugs for cycling in particular and sport in general. Continue reading

Speed and distance: the Andy Wilkinson paradox

I did my first turbo session of 2012 today. To be more accurate, it might be my first session of indoor sensory deprivation torture since January 2011: I can’t say I took up cycling to ride indoors. I can’t go out on Tuesdays during the day as my youngest son is at home with me, but the opportunity is there for indoor training whilst he is having a nap. Given that I don’t race, the wisdom of turbo training is a paradoxical one. The received wisdom of long distance preparation is slowly building a base; gradually increasing the duration if rides to match the distances encountered in competition. As with marathon training, there is an upper limit: it is probably not a good idea to prepare for PBP by gradually increasing training distances to 1200 km: a diet of long day training rides and events of up to 600 km is the sort of regimen suggested by Doughty (or Burke and Pavelka). Continue reading