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Former Gerolsteiner manager Hans-Michael Holczer claims that American Levi Leipheimer showed blood values in the 2005 Tour de France so suspicious that he should have been ejected from the race.
In a press conference announcing the release of his new memoir, “Garantiert Positiv” (Guaranteed Positive), Holczer claims that a rest-day blood test of the former Gerolsteiner rider indicated “a high probability of manipulation.”
Referring to measurements of the ratio of mature red blood cells to new cells — reticulocytes — Holczer said that a UCI blood screening, conducted on the Grenoble rest day at the 2005 Tour, showed that Leipheimer’s “stimulation index” showed a value of 132.8, far in excess of the normal range of 85 to 100 in a healthy adult male.
A high number would suggest a low percentage of reticulocytes in a given blood sample. The UCI uses the index as a means of detecting autologous blood doping (the reinjection of one’s own stored red blood cells) on the theory that the introduction of red blood cells would suppress the body’s natural production of new cells. Anti-doping officials have used other methods to detect homologous blood doping (the injection of donor cells) since 2004.
Under the UCI’s Biological Passport program, a value of 133 is considered evidence of doping. While riders have only been subject to suspension for “suspicious blood values” since 2008, the UCI has used the “stimulation index” as part of its blood analysis since 2002.
In his press conference on Wednesday, Holczer said that Leipheimer’s result of 132.8 caused at least one UCI official to recommend that the American be pulled from the race. Holczer said that while he recognized that the numbers were “a clear indication of manipulation,” he declined to withdraw Leipheimer from the Tour due to his own sponsorship concerns.
Holczer said he would have been inclined to pull his top GC rider from the Tour, but he was worried that the team’s title sponsor — bottled water producer Gerolsteiner — would withdraw its support of the team, particularly after the positive doping test of sprinter Danilo Hondo.
“I was caught between a moral obligation and a legal threat,” Holczer said. “After (Hondo’s positive) we were sitting on an economic landmine. I was facing total bankruptcy.”
Gerolsteiner remained a sponsor until the end of 2008, the year in which two of the team’s top riders, Bernhard Kohl and Stefan Schumacher, tested positive for a new blood boosting drug known as a continuous erythropoietin receptor activator (CERA) at the Tour de France. Schumacher and another Gerolsteiner rider, Italian classics specialist Davide Rebellin, also tested positive for CERA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Leipheimer eventually finished the 2005 Tour in sixth place and then went on to win that year’s Deutschland Tour in Germany, defeating T-Mobile’s Jan Ullrich by 31 seconds in the mountainous nine-stage event.
Leipheimer was a member of Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team in 2000 and 2001, making his grand tour debut at the 2001 Vuelta a España. He moved to the Rabobank team in 2002 and rode in his first Tour de France that year, finishing eighth. He joined Gerolsteiner in 2005. Leipheimer left Gerolsteiner at the end of 2006 and joined the Discovery team in 2007. Following the end of that sponsorship, Leipheimer and others from the squad moved to Astana for the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He joined several other Astana riders, including Armstrong, on the new RadioShack team in 2010. He finished this year’s Tour in 13th place.
Leipheimer has never tested positive for blood doping, EPO or CERA, although he was sanctioned by the U.S. Cycling Federation after testing positive for ephedrine at the U.S. National Criterium Championships in 1996. Leipheimer, then a member of the amateur Einstein Bagels squad, said that the positive was the result of his use of a cold medication that he did not know contained the banned substance. He was stripped of the national title and forced to return his prize money and jersey.
The Holczer allegations come at a time when U.S. officials are conducting an investigation into allegations leveled by former U.S. Postal rider Floyd Landis that Armstrong and other riders, including Leipheimer, had doped during Armstrong’s unprecedented seven-Tour winning streak. Among other charges raised by Landis is a claim that Armstrong instructed riders, including Leipheimer, about the methods used to avoid detection of doping and blood manipulation. Armstrong has denied Landis’ allegations.
VeloNews’ request for comment from Leipheimer or Team RadioShack had not been answered at the time of publication of this article.