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Commentary: Anti-doping falls behind as women’s racing grows

Pro women's racing is on the rise, but it's concerning that anti-doping measures aren't keeping up with the pace of growth.

Women’s cycling has less of everything. Fewer teams, fewer races, smaller fields, fewer dollars. But as the sport slowly expands, there is a danger that having less could result in more of the one thing it doesn’t need: doping.

The modern women’s peloton does not operate under the same level of anti-doping scrutiny as its male counterpart. In fact, it’s not even close. The vast majority of professional women see little testing and are not in the biological passport program, the tool that helped clean up men’s cycling beginning in 2008.

It’s a problem the UCI acknowledges and is “something that the UCI’s anti-doping commission will be working on with the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation,” UCI president Brian Cookson said. “As we think it’s necessary, we’ll try to expand [the biological passport].

“We’re trying to help women’s racing develop, and not weigh it with extra costs at the moment. For the men, the bio passport costs very largely come from the men’s teams,” Cookson said.

The president is right. First- and second-tier men’s teams pay into a fund that is used to apply the passport within the men’s ranks. Women’s squads, all of which operate on budgets less than Peter Sagan’s annual salary, don’t have cash to spare to increase testing. The UCI currently bears most of the costs of the women’s biological passport.

“We use our resources as effectively as we can, and at the moment, we’re targeting pretty effectively I think,” Cookson said. But this is difficult to quantify. Only one woman is currently serving a ban, and another two are provisionally suspended, compared to 42 banned and 27 provisionally suspended men. Is this lack of doping positives in women’s cycling indicative of a clean peloton or one that is inadequately tested? Optimism suggests the former, cycling’s long history suggests the latter.

This is not intended to be overly pessimistic, but merely realistic, and it’s a view held, most often off the record, by top women in the sport. That old truism that women’s cycling is clean because there is less at stake — smaller prize lists and less prestige — is demonstrably false. As women’s cycling grows, that excuse will become even more insincere. If money were the only goal, the well-educated women’s field would find a different line of work. After all, there is no minimum salary and top women’s wages are equivalent to that of a young male domestique. Motivation to dope doesn’t only rise from the potential for financial gain.

Of the 1,033 professional cyclists in the sport’s Registered Testing Pool, the list from which biological passport testing is drawn, just over six percent are women. The total figure has hovered around 60 riders in recent years, spread across all disciplines. Fewer still are on the biological passport program, though exact numbers are not published.

The biological passport relies on frequent testing over time and utilizes algorithms and experts to detect aberrations in an athlete’s blood and urine values. Currently, the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation uses the passport within the women’s field in a targeted manner, according to the UCI. That can mean adding a rider with excellent results, as is most often the case, or chasing a specific individual who may be under suspicion. But the passport’s use is infrequent, according to athletes within the testing pool.

This should surprise no one. Anti-doping, and the passport in particular, is incredibly expensive. Women’s cycling is poor by any international sporting standard. The problem is one more of means than of will. The costs associated with increased testing present a chicken/egg problem. Women’s cycling is growing, slowly but quite perceptibly. If this growth outpaces the growth of anti-doping measures, then women’s racing is set up to repeat men’s cycling history.

The UCI knows it will have to expand women’s testing in line with the sport’s expansion, and it says it will. “We’ll take appropriate action in developing the biological passport program as and when we can,” Cookson said. How to do so without putting undue financial burden on cash-strapped teams is a problem waiting for a solution.