David Lappartient: The doping days of Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich will never be back
Exclusive interview with the UCI president on all matters doping and the fight for clean cycling.
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On Tuesday, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and International Testing Agency (ITA) gave a presentation to the cycling media at which they painted a landscape of success when it came to the world of anti-doping.
The two bodies have worked together for the last 18 months, after the UCI dumped the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF) and replaced the agency with a new relationship with the ITA.
In that time, testing has returned to roughly pre-pandemic levels, and Tuesday’s presentation stressed the importance of intelligence-based anti-doping tests, as well as collaboration with WADA, the need for improved labs and influence from police authorities.
However, while the ITA and UCI were keen to dwell on the positive aspects of their work, the fact remains that no male athletes in the WorldTour have tested positive or been sanctioned for doping by the UCI since their collaboration with the ITA began.
Riders have raised concerns directly with the UCI about the return of two speeds in the peloton and the use of performance enhancing substances.
Following the presentation, VeloNews interviewed UCI president David Lappartient about the current state of the anti-doping fight, what to read from the lack of positive tests, and whether cycling is truly winning the war against doping. Here are key excerpts:
VeloNews: It was said during today’s presentation that 7.5 million euros per year have been invested into the anti-doping efforts by the UCI and ITA. However, since the ITA took over testing and anti-doping 18 months ago, no WorldTour men have tested positive or been sanctioned. Do you deem that a successful program?
David Lappartient: Yes. We believe it’s a success because the goal for us was to have more testing and intelligence and we’ve reached that. This will never end and we need to continue to push and make new efforts. We probably need to contribute more to the ITA. We’re doing a bit less in-competition testing and more out-of-competition testing, so I would say that after 18 months since joining the ITA the results are good. But we have to continue. We can see that we’ve shared expertise with other departments and are not doing all this intelligence and investigation work alone, which would be quite difficult. The switch to the ITA was a good decision.
VN: You mentioned in the presentation the importance of prevention in the fight against doping, but one of the biggest preventions of doping is actually catching dopers and you’re not doing that at the highest level. So how is this a successful program if you’re not catching any criminals or dopers?
DL: Is it because we’re not able to find them, or is it because there is less doping? I’m always positive about the second point. Of course in the past we had the big cases of Armstrong, Ullrich, and so on, but we also believe that with all the efforts we’ve made in cycling this will never be back.
There are two responsibilities. One is in the hands of the UCI and ITA to do all the efforts to have a strong testing program, and a strong whistleblower platform. The other thing is to have more from WADA and the laboratories so that we can find more consensus. We can do the best job at our level but the substances must be detectable. This is not a problem just for cycling but for all other sports.
This is why in Paris in front of the WADA foundation board at the end of 2021 I was calling for more contributions for research and for labs to be more efficient. I’m pleased to tell you that this was the agreement in the last meeting but it takes time from when you allocate more funds and resources, and then you have the programs of research.
This is key but I’m a little bit worried that we spend a lot of money through the ITA on efforts, and we’re doing a good job but it’s often a case of the quality of the testing and this is not in the hands of the ITA. It’s in the hands of WADA.
VN: But you saw Armstrong, Puerto, Aderlass, and Festina. As UCI president you would be naive to think that there’s no doping in the men’s WorldTour?
DL: I never said that there was no doping. I’m not naive to think that there’s no doping. All the affairs that you mentioned came via the police and not directly from positive tests. That’s why we must strengthen the relationships between the UCI/ITA, the police and Interpol. That’s how we can catch cheaters.
When we have information we transfer this to the ITA and they do what they have to with it. Investigative intelligence is really key because I don’t want to be like Armstrong in the past and say that because all my tests are negative there’s no cheating. History demonstrated the opposite.
VN: Let’s leave testing for a second. You mentioned the ITA and the intelligence aspect of their work. Can you point to an example of where their intelligence has led to the opening of an anti-doping case or sanction in the 18 months that they’ve run anti-doping?
DL: There are some of them but some are ongoing procedures and I’m not able to comment on this. But in the presentation the ITA clearly mentioned some information was handed in via the whistleblower platform or via the bunch and this was used. Then we have some ongoing procedures. We can have some good information but it’s the job of the ITA and we put our trust in them.
VN: They’re testing, they are gathering information. That’s good, but at the moment, there’s no open investigation into either riders or teams that the ITA has launched?
DL: To be honest, it’s completely independent which is good on one hand but I’m not informed about all points. It’s not that I don’t want to answer. Usually I only have the information the day before the day of the press release of the UCI. That’s the reality. From what I understand there are ongoing procedures but I’m not aware of them.
VN: Last year Tadej Pogačar, who has won the Tour for the last two years, and was very dominant, said that he had been tested three times in one day. Is that target testing and can you explain why you targeted that rider in particular given that in your presentation you said that target testing was intelligence lead?
DL: First of all, because he wore the yellow jersey and was the leader of the race. So it’s normal that the ITA focuses more on the leaders to ensure the quality of the race result. When you have a very early morning test, one before the start and another right after the race, it’s difficult to do more than this.
It’s also to keep the pressure on all the potential winners of the Tour de France. It was not because he was under investigation, I believe, it was to ensure that they were doing their job and that the riders can’t escape from our testing programs.
VN: Picking the guy in the yellow jersey — that’s not really intelligence testing, is it?
DL: I knew that he had three tests on one day, he said so himself. I don’t know why. The only information I can tell you is that at the UCI we want to ensure there are more tests so that the leaders of the Tour de France feel that pressure. When you have three tests in a day it’s not always because you’re under investigation, it’s because we want everyone to feel the pressure from the ITA.
VN: You’ve been the president of the UCI since 2017. Looking at the timespan, Hein Verbruggen, Pat McQuaid, the CADF — they caught more WorldTour riders for doping than you have. So how can the ITA claim that it’s doing its job?
DL: Because the results now can’t just be based on the positive test. It’s because the pressure is higher than before. So before, the level of the out-of-competition testing wasn’t at the same level that it is now. The cheaters then were coming from the old days, they were always riding with doping so it was more sure that we could catch them.
Today a lot of riders are coming from a generation that was without doping. So I really believe that there’s less doping. Things are going well, doping has probably decreased but I come back to the point that I’m not naive enough to think that there’s no doping. I just want the laboratories accredited to WADA to be at the highest level.
That takes more investment and research from those funding WADA. We can have the strongest program with the ITA but if the testing is not at the right level then you won’t find cheaters.
VN: But WADA and other agencies seem to have no problem with catching cheats in athletics, for example. Yet in cycling there doesn’t seem to have the same results.
DL: Clearly in the teams the mentality has changed and the sponsors as I mentioned in the presentation also are clearly strict. I spoke to the chairman of Total. Initially they were not in cycling but they merged with Direct Energie. I met with him and he said that if there was one positive case in the team then he would close everything. That’s the case with most sponsors, they don’t want their image harmed by a doping scandal.
In athletics you have a lot of individuals training alone. The mentality in cycling has changed, even if I’m not too naive. They’re afraid of the police in Italy and France if they arrive.
VN: But going back to the previous investigations, Festina, Telekom, US Postal, none of these sponsors wanted a doping scandal either, did they?
DL: There are two points. Those doping examples were organized by the teams. Today you can have single guy doping but it’s not organized by the teams, I hope. Clearly in the past it was organized by the team, Telekom or Festina. Now, after all this, credibility is something key. Festina sold a lot of watches during the affair but I’m not sure that would be the case now.
VN: During the presentation there wasn’t a single mention of the biological passport. There hasn’t been a passport case for several years. Is the biological passport dead as a tool for catching dopers?
DL: I think that it was something very nice but it clearly had some limits, as we saw with cases going in front of the court. The passport provided direct proof and we had some cases to look at here in the UCI. I think that the passport is still key because if you remove it, will things be better or not? I think not because you can use it to target riders.
VN: When we last spoke in April you said that some riders approach you with concerns personally about concerns regarding potential doping in the peloton. Does that frustrate you?
DL: I want to ensure that all the riders are riding the same race and that’s a fair competition. That’s my job, and that of the UCI, ITA, WADA and all the stakeholders. Of course when riders ask me questions I have to consider them.
For instance, about ketones, which is not on the prohibited list, we at the UCI financed research into ketones in cycling. We’ll have those results in the middle of next year. It may take some time, but it’s on the way. I’ll also push for more financial support into other substances. This is where the efforts have to be made.
VN: We’ve talked about the riders and their suspicions, but what makes you suspicious of a performance?
DL: Of course I watch cycling, it’s my passion. All the classics and grand tours. If I see results that make me wonder sometimes if it’s normal or not I will share that with the ITA and say what do you think of this, please have a look at this. But I don’t want to be in a position where just because a rider is pushing harder on the pedals that maybe it’s because of some prohibited substances.
In cycling, it’s the results of all the years of Armstrong and so on, but today maybe it’s something wrong in our sport that we wonder if we can trust the results. I think it’s normal to ask the question but we also have to trust in the ITA and what it’s doing. I’m just asking for more collaboration with the police, WADA, the agencies and the ITA because that’s clearly the way to catch cheaters.
VN: Finally, you mentioned trust. Last year we had a team, Bahrain Victorious, who were raided at the Tour de France by the police. Do you trust Milan Erzen to run a clean cycling team?
DL: He’s probably not the one who I would appoint as the chairman of the ITA.
VN: Do you think that he should be running a cycling team?
DL: There are some legal points. His name was mentioned in the Aderlass affair from what I saw [ed. Erzen has denied all ties and wrongdoing]. I don’t know where it is. I would love for the Austrian authorities to go until the end of this investigation and then take some decisions but as of today we have nothing consistent in our hands to take some decisions so it’s up to the owners of the different teams to take the decisions that they need to take.