Potential drugs cheats at the 2009 Tour de France will face the biggest anti-doping army ever seen at a major sports event next month, UCI president Pat McQuaid warned on Wednesday.
McQuaid, speaking at an anti-doping conference in Paris, also officially welcomed the French National Anti Doping Agency (AFLD) back to the race after their muddy relationship last year.
And the Irishman believes the improved relations between the UCI, AFLD and Tour organizer, Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), and their combined efforts in fighting doping at the July 4-26 race, will leave potential cheats with a huge dilemma and race officials with a smile on their faces.
Even before the race the entire peloton will undergo tests to make sure they, as is often done in the weeks leading to major events, are not preparing with banned performance enhancers on the sly.
UCI President Pat McQuaid
McQuaid said that around 50 of those most likely to star at the three-week epic will come in for special attention.
“The Tour de France in 2009 will probably be the most tested sports event in history,” McQuaid said.
Because of a long-running feud last year’s Tour de France was held under the aegis of the French federation, leaving the AFLD, much to the UCI’s annoyance, to carry out the majority of doping tests.
It proved a fruitful enterprise, however, with a number of top riders being snared for the use of the newest generation of the banned blood booster EPOGEN (a synthetic version of the human hormone erythropoietin) CERA. The UCI is once more overseeing the race, but the AFLD’s expertise has not been overlooked.
“Our collaboration at Paris-Nice (in March) worked extremely well, we continued discussions and came up with an anti-doping program leading up to and through the 2009 Tour,” said McQuaid. “We consider it to be extremely important. We will do everything possible to protect the integrity of the race.
“If it means we have confidential information and we can use it, in a confidential way, to take a rider out of the race then we will do it.”
A major weapon in the UCI’s fight against doping is the biological passport, which, after recent successes, could snare more riders before the race starts in three weeks time.
On Tuesday Katusha rider Anton Colom, a Spaniard who formerly rode for Astana, was the latest to fall victim to the passport’s efficiency – although Colom said he believes further analysis will prove his innocence.
At this year’s blood screenings, usually held a day before the Tour starts, two samples instead of the traditional one will be taken from riders, allowing the UCI instance access, and a quicker final decision.
McQuaid explained: “If we see something when we screen the first sample, then it means we have a B sample at hand, and we will be storing samples for future analysis. We are currently testing some riders’ samples from 2007 for products for which the tests are now better equipped.
“During the race we will do between 300 and 400 tests,” he added. “Tour officials have provided us with a long list of riders likely to be racing the Tour. We’ve decided that all of them will be targeted between now and July 1.
“We’ve also selected 50 who will get extra, very detailed testing,” McQuaid said, adding that ASO deserved special thanks for helping to fund the anti-doping fight.
As well as EPO, the UCI and AFLD will search for insulin growth factor and human growth hormone, although a question mark remains over testing for autologous blood transfusions.
Currently, athletes can be caught with a test for so-called homologous blood doping, which detects the use of a compatible donor’s red blood cells to boost performance. It is the same test that caught now-retired American cyclist Tyler Hamilton in 2004. McQuaid conceded that no direct test exists for the use of one’s own blood – autologous blood doping – in which red cells are stored and then reinjected, but added that shortfall is one which the UCI hopes will be erased by the biological passport.
Questions, however, remain as to the efficacy of the passport program. Testing at last year’s Tour resulted in positive tests for a number of top riders, including the apparent winner of the King of the Mountains competition, Bernhard Kohl. Kohl, who has been stripped of his results from the 2008 Tour, has recently said that he and other cheats used the passport program to as the means to closely monitor their blood levels and elude testers. Kohl said that the passport program helped him use autologous blood doping with a degree of confidence. He was, however, subsequently found to have tested for CERA.