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Analysis: Doping scandals old and new to be part of 2015 season

Tougher sanctions for first-time offenders and the pending CIRC report are sure to keep doping in the headlines during the 2015 season

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The 2015 racing season will see several key issues on the doping front that could have significant impact across the elite peloton.

The introduction of a four-year ban for first-time offenders, coupled with the highly anticipated release of the CIRC report, could send shockwaves across the sport.

UCI officials confirmed to VeloNews on Monday that the final report from the yearlong inquiry under the guise of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) should be released by late February.

The CIRC project was central to the ambitious platform of UCI president Brian Cookson when he was elected president in late 2013, and all eyes will be on the results of the three-member panel’s review. Officials also confirmed Monday that there will be no interviews or information released to the media before the official document is released.

What will CIRC reveal?

The UCI’s look into the rearview mirror of cycling’s sordid doping past is sure to provoke controversy no matter what comes out. UCI officials have suggested a final document for public review could be released as soon as next month, but whatever it contains, it’s almost sure to be a lighting rod for controversy.

Right from the gun, some say the inquiry, which looked at the period from 1999 to 2013, does not go back far enough, and gives a free pass to dopers in the 1990s, a few of whom are still working in the peloton today as team managers and sport directors. Others suggest it will reveal little new of what’s already public, either via tell-all books, police investigations, or the Reasoned Decision from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s look at the Armstrong era.

It’s also unclear what the commission will recommend. Will names be revealed? Will it include salacious details that made the USADA report so compelling? Or will it simply paint a broad stroke, and focus on remedies rather than casting doubt?

Cookson said in an earlier interview with VeloNews that the effort would pay dividends. And the linchpin will be that the CIRC findings could serve as a lever to push unrepentant riders and staffers out of the sport for good.

“All of the information that comes out of that will be helpful going forward. We need to have a mechanism that can look at the sport and decide who can stay in the sport and who needs to be thrown out,” Cookson told VeloNews. “And when we have that mechanism, it needs to be robust and sustainable in court, and I can guarantee that if we excluded someone from their main source of income, that they’ll challenge it. So we need to make sure that what we do is truly defensible.”

How that might stand up legally remains to be seen, but the UCI has begun to introduce licenses for sport directors, and they could, in theory, refuse to approve deemed undesirables.

Several big names, including Lance Armstrong, have reportedly stepped forward to give evidence.

It will also be interesting to see how deep the panel digs into the UCI. Accusations of corruption and insider deals were rife during the bitter presidential campaign between Cookson and former UCI president Pat McQuaid.

Cookson is hoping, perhaps optimistically, that the CIRC report will help the sport definitively turn the page on its darkest doping chapters.

“I think this is something that cycling has needed for a long, long time. We are all aware of the terrible reputation damage that’s been done to our sport,” Cookson said when the project was unveiled. “We can expect a very comprehensive report that will be produced with the utmost integrity. What I’d like to see come out of the commission [are] clear recommendations for the future, of what we need to do at the UCI so that this never happens again.”

Tougher bans for dopers

In another important step, new, tougher World Anti-Doping Code (WADA) rules went into effect on January 1. The lengthy document is the second amended version of the original code introduced in 2003, and revised in 2009. The latest version stems from meetings in South Africa in the fall of 2013.

The most important element is new language that expands first-time bans from two to four years, in the cases of intentional doping, for cases of an athlete knowingly taking banned substances, such as EPO. Athletes who miss three anti-doping controls within a 12-month period also can face a two-year ban, up from 18 months.

Unintentional violations, such as eating contaminated meat or spiked nutritional products, will see two-year bans, with a possible reduction to one year, but the onus remains on the athlete to be responsible for what enters their bodies.

Athletes who assist investigators may continue to get reduced sentences, but second-time offenders face eight-year to life bans.

How to measure success?

Over the weekend, the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC) released a document outlining basic statistics involving doping cases during 2014. Cycling, long the poster child of dirty sport, is not longer at the top of the list, at least in terms of doping cases. Athletics (track and field), with 95, and baseball, with 62, lead the pack. Cycling ranked fourth, with 16 doping cases in 2014. On the surface, that could be read as an encouraging trend.

Of those 16 cases, 13 came from the road, two from track, and one from mountain bike. All were male, except one. Of the doping cases on the road, only three involved WorldTour riders. Two others were from Professional Continental teams, and seven came from Continental teams.

And another positive sign — no pun intended — is that there were no doping positive cases from any of the grand tours in 2014.

There remain doubts about just how effective doping controls are. Concerns raised last year by defending Tour champion Chris Froome (Sky) that he, and other Tour favorites, had not been tested while training at altitude on Tenerife only fueled worries that the UCI was dropping the ball.

Some skeptics believe that many top pros continue to dope, perhaps without the same impunity as during the EPO era, but doping nonetheless. The ever-tightening dragnet makes it harder for cheats to beat the system, but some believe dopers remain a step ahead of the controls, by using micro-doses that quickly flush out of the system or new products that are beyond the scope of current anti-doping controls.

While that might partially be true, controls are more precise than ever before, the biological passport has become a useful tool for target testing as well as handing down bans outright.

Those statistics point back to the question of just how good of a job the UCI is doing administering and applying doping controls. Since becoming UCI president, Cookson has improved relations with WADA and eliminated any hint of tampering by creating the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, which operates with relative autonomy to handle doping offenses.

Yet as the string of doping positives within the Astana organization during 2014 revealed, both at the WorldTour and development squads, doping remains a constant worry for cycling.

Doping is sure to be a major talking point throughout the 2015 racing season. Some things never change.