A former doctor with the U.S. Postal Service cycling team has reiterated earlier allegations that he says support claims that American Lance Armstrong used EPO (Erythropoietin) to win his first Tour de France in 1999.
Prentice Steffen, a 44-year-old emergency room physician, claims U.S. Postal fired him in 1996 when he refused to administer doping products to certain riders. And although he says he has received threatening phone calls warning him not to speak out from Armstrong, who in recent weeks has been forced to deny reports that he used EPO in 1999, warning him not to speak out, Steffen is determined to do so.
Dan Osipow of Tailwind Sports, the parent company of the Postal and Discovery Channel teams, said that Steffen’s claims were baseless accusations from a disgruntled former employee.
“Within our team, Prentice has zero credibility,” Osipow said. “He was let go by the team way before 1999, and now he’s accusing our team of something that he says happened when he had nothing to do with the team.
“Prentice joined our team as an inexperienced EMT doctor,” Osipow continued. “He only worked with us for a year. The team was growing more international and wanted someone with more experience in sports medicine. He made some ridiculous threats to the effect of, ‘Hey, you better keep me or I’m going to make accusations about the team.’”
“Accusing us of doping has been his continuing M.O.,” Osipow said “He continues to want to speak about us and jump and down about us, and clearly he has an audience and a platform. But within our team, when Prentice speaks it doesn’t mean anything. Prentice is a non-issue.”
A question of enforcement
Steffen claims that today’s top riders are now using almost fail-proof methods of doping in the world’s biggest bike race.
“There are some riders from certain teams on the Tour de France riding with a hematocrit [red blood cell] level of between 55 and 60,” he said in an interview in Thursday’s edition of the French sports daily L’Equipe.
The UCI’s permitted hematocrit level is 50.
Elevated red blood cell levels, gained by using EPO or blood doping methods, give an advantage because oxygen-rich blood cells allow the muscles to work for longer, and to recover more quickly after extreme effort.
“I’ve been told by a well-informed source from one of the teams about the methods,” Steffen said. “It’s so easy to do that there’s almost no chance of getting caught.”
“Then a doctor will take out some of the blood and keep it in a special container so their red blood cell count can be brought back to the permitted (racing) threshold so they will sail through pre-race testing,” Steffen claimed. “The teams know that the blood testers can arrive at hotels on any day, but always between seven and eight o’clock in the morning — give or take half an hour.
“After that, there are no more controls and so the riders can be reinjected with their own blood. They race the stage with a huge advantage, their red blood cell count oscillating between 55 and 58.
“After the stage, doctors will take out some blood again to make it safe to sleep, but above all to make sure they don’t get caught in any random checks in the morning.”
Osipow that Steffen’s claims had no basis in reality.
“Now he’s claiming of having sources within a ProTour team, but I don’t believe it,” Osipow said. “This is a U.S. team doctor. I don’t think he has any real extensions to Europe.
“To claim that Lance and Tyler have doped, that’s just crap. To shoot his mouth off like that, especially with all the details that are trying to be found out right now, and with our team, and Lance himself, being involved in the fight against doping.”
While Steffen did not name the sources he claims to have contacted, the methods outlined in his latest allegations have been supported by French blood doping expert Michel Audran, widely regarded as an authority on methods currently being used in sport.
“In a stage race, these methods are totally plausible, both scientifically and materialistically,” said Audran.
He expressed fright however at the suggestion of blood doping being carried out the morning of a stage. “I hope this isn’t the case, from a strictly health point of view,” Audran said. “It normally takes an hour for a liter of blood to be properly transfused and it must be carried out in proper conditions. As for taking blood out after the stage, it seems totally plausible to me. The rider would have less chance of getting caught the next morning. Taking out a unit [450 milliliters] of blood would drop the hematocrit by about three points.”
For Audran, whose scientific studies have shown that athletes using micro-doses of EPO will retain it in their system for a maximum of only 24 hours, there’s only one solution.
“They would have to take blood and urine samples from riders just before the start,” he said. “You could also take a pinprick-sized sample of blood from every rider on the start line.”
Hope for the sport?
Steffen, who has been involved in cycling for 26 years, currently works with the American TIAA-CREF team and says that he has spoken out because he fears for the sport he loves.
If Armstrong or his former teammate Postal Tyler Hamilton — who is currently awaiting a decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on his ban for doping — escape punishment, Steffen said he will end all his links with the sport.
“I’ve made a promise to myself and my wife,” Steffen said. “If Hamilton is let off and nothing happens to Armstrong, then I will quit cycling for good. For me, it’s the end of all hope.
“For the moment I’m optimistic, but I believe every method possible should be used to catch cheats, including keeping samples for retroactive testing.
“The amateurs I work with know fine well what goes on in the professional ranks,” he added. “To compete with the best you have to dope. I don’t think for a minute they have any doubts about that.
“You don’t know how a [young] rider is going to evolve [into possible doping]. If you had asked me 10 or 11 years ago about Tyler Hamilton I would have said, ‘No way, he’s too honest, he’s been brought up well and he works hard,’ but it doesn’t work like that. The bad guys, like Armstrong, dope, and the good guys, like Hamilton, dope too. There’s always a moment of wavering, as if, all of a sudden, they have no choice.”
Steffen has already come under fire from Armstrong for speaking out, in 2001, to The Sunday Times of London about doping within U.S. Postal, the team with whom Armstrong won six Tour de France yellow jerseys. The American doctor, however, said he has little fear of those threats, as he has plenty of experience in facing down top cyclists.
Steffen said Hamilton, formerly with U.S. Postal, was one of two riders, the other being Marty Jemison, who asked him for EPO when they were racing the 1996 Tour of Switzerland and struggling to keep up with the pace of the race. Steffen says that he refused, reported the matter to then-director Mark Gorski, and at the end of that year his contract with the team was not renewed. Subsequently, he received a registered letter from U.S. Postal ordering him not to talk about what went on inside the team.
Now, however, Steffen has apparently decided to ignore the directive contained within that letter.
(VeloNews’s Neal Rogers contributed to this story)