Roman Kreuziger is a man at a crossroads. On Wednesday, June 10, an arbitration panel at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, will meet to decide the Czech rider’s fate, and the stakes could not be higher.
Accused of using prohibited substances and/or prohibited methods, Kreuziger faces a ban from competition that could extend four years. And should the CAS panel rule in Kreuziger’s favor, the validity of biological passport program that UCI and WADA use to scrutinize biomarkers — enabling them to determine whether doping has taken place in the absence of a positive test — will be called into question. (On Friday, the UCI and WADA announced they would drop the case against Kreuziger -Ed.)
At the core of the matter is the accusation that Kreuziger’s blood values between 2011 and 2012, while riding for Astana, are consistent with manipulation, either through micro-dosing with EPO, blood transfusions, or both.
A high-profile rider with overall wins at the 2008 Tour de Suisse and 2009 Tour of Romandie, as well as the winner of the 2013 Amstel Gold Race, Kreuziger spent the 2011-2012 seasons with Astana before joining Tinkoff-Saxo at the start of the 2013 season.
Biological passport data taken from early April through late May 2012 — the period that Kreuziger prepared for, and competed in, the Giro d’Italia — shows a concurrent drop in hemoglobin and reticulocytes, followed by a spike in hemoglobin concurrent with a rise, and then dramatic drop, in reticulocytes.
During the final 10 days of the 2012 Giro d’Italia, Kreuziger’s hematocrit rose from 43.2 to 48.1, finishing higher than his pre-Giro value of 45.1 — an anomaly, as most athletes see a decrease of hematocrit/hemoglobin “after physical effort of sufficient duration and intensity due to plasma volume expansion,” as the UCI attests; i.e., during the final 10 days of a grand tour.
A rise in hemoglobin and a drop in reticulocytes, or immature blood cells, can be indicative of blood transfusions, as the body shuts down creation of its own red blood cells. A higher than expected hematocrit and elevated reticulocyte percentage can also be indicative of the use of EPO to artificially stimulate production of red blood cells.
Kreuziger argues that he has never exceeded the limit values in his biological passport; part of his defense is that his elevated reticulocyte level is due to the prescription drug L-Thyroxine, which he takes for hypothyroidism. He has never tested positive for doping.
Whichever way the CAS panel swings, it will be the end of a long saga that Kreuziger has called “Kafkaesque.”
The UCI first notified Kreuziger in June 2013 that its Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CAFD) regarded his data as suspicious. He went on to finish fifth at the 2013 Tour de France, one position behind Tinkoff-Saxo teammate Alberto Contador.
In October 2013, Kreuziger provided the UCI with two exculpatory medical opinions he had requested, but in May 2014 the governing body informed him that it did not accept his explanation for the passport abnormalities. He followed up with a third opinion arguing that the fluctuations in his profile could not be attributed solely to doping methods and that the conclusions of CAFD’s Experts Panel “had limited scientific supporting evidence.”
Tinkoff-Saxo sidelined Kreuziger from riding the 2014 Tour de France, but when the team attempted to start him at the Tour of Poland and Vuelta a España last summer, the UCI handed him a provisional ban. Kreuziger appealed, with CAS upholding the provisional suspension.
On September 22 the Czech Olympic Committee cleared him of any wrongdoing, and after sitting out much of the season, Kreuziger raced the season-ending one-day events at Lombardia and Paris-Tours. The UCI and WADA appealed that decision, meaning that next week’s hearing will be the second time Kreuziger’s case will be heard at CAS, one year, 11 months, and 14 days since his first contact from the UCI about his biological passport discrepancies.
Last fall, the Czech rider posted his blood values online, dating back to 2007, and followed up with a trip to the Mayo Clinic, in the U.S., to prove that he suffers from an under-active thyroid. In January he passed a lie-detector test administered in Prague by British specialist Terry Mullins, claiming that it supports his innocence.
Kreuziger is now home in Pilsen, about 90km southwest of Prague, after riding in the service of Contador as part of Tinkoff-Saxo’s winning squad at the Giro d’Italia. Though he’s finished in the top-five overall at both the Giro and the Tour de France, Kreuziger did not ride at that level last month. He finished 28th overall, and was not able to support Contador in the mountains during the crucial final week of the race.
Though his CAS hearing follows the Giro by two weeks, Kreuziger did not speak with the media about his case in May, instead choosing to focus on the race. He agreed to do an interview with VeloNews once the race had finished. He also updated his website on Wednesday, one day after the interview, stating, “I consider the biological passport to be an excellent tool. However, clear rules must be set for its use. What purpose do the limit values serve if a person can be accused, like me, without reaching these limit values?”
Kreuziger’s defense has worked before, at least in front of his national Olympic Committee. It’s also been rejected, by CAS, although that was based on a provisional suspension from competition prior to a sanction, rather than based on a conclusive four-year ban. Which way CAS rules next week will prove pivotal — for Kreuziger, the UCI, WADA, and the future of the sport.
(Full disclosure: Because English is not his first language, and because of the sensitive nature of his upcoming hearing, Kreuziger and his attorney, Jan Stovicek, asked that all questions be presented via email, before the phone interview, and that he have an opportunity to review his quotes before publication to be sure his answers were understood clearly. Though unconventional, VeloNews agreed, under the condition that it had final editorial control. Kreuziger answered all questions put before him, and though a few of his responses where slightly revised via email, the changes were made solely for clarification; in no instance was the tone or direction of any of his answers significantly altered.)
VN: Are you nervous about the upcoming CAS decision?
RK: Of course I’m nervous. This is not just about my professional career, it’s about my future; it’s about my life. It’s already been a long time, since Corsica at the 2013 Tour de France, almost two years, so it’s been very long. On the other hand, I’m very happy that it’s going to be decided. I’m self-confident, and I’m happy I will soon know the final decision. For me it’s very important to have the decision. It’s never easy to perform while also thinking so much about the future. It’s nice to have family around you … I have a daughter now, and I’ve passed the time with my family. It recharges the batteries; it’s another form of motivation. Sport is important, it’s my life, but with family you understand what’s really important. In addition to my family, I’ve also received a lot of support from the fans, there are many on my side.
VN: How have you been received in the pro peloton since you returned to racing?
RK: When I came back [in October 2014], I had not been in the peloton since the Tour de Suisse [in June]. That was a long period, but I was always focused to get back to the races, and I kept my level high. In terms of the peloton … when you are in the races, everyone has something to do. You are with team, and everyone is motivated for the races. I didn’t speak about it with anyone. Last year Bjarne [Riis] was there, so we spoke, but with the other guys, I kept it out of the conversation. I was nice to get back to racing, to speaking about racing, and the races, and not about the case. It was not the time to speak about it, at the dinner table.
VN: You’ve been in the top 10 of a grand tour on four occasions since 2008, but at the Giro d’Italia you were not riding near the same level as in years past. Why not?
RK: I did everything to be in the best shape for the Ardennes, those races were my goal for the season. I expected the CAS hearing before the Giro d’Italia, so I wasn’t originally thinking about Giro. Last year I didn’t do a grand tour, so I was missing that in my legs. I would say I was performing well for the first two weeks. Then, after the stage 14 time trial, I had a small tear in my gluteus muscle. I was not used to being on the time trial, especially for so long [59.4km]. It was so tight the osteopath couldn’t even massage it. After the TT, I was almost not able to walk. Then, on the stage to Aprica, with the Mortirolo, I had stomach issues, and I was almost not able to eat for three days. The stages that finished in Cervinia and Sestriere were really hard for me. When you have diarrhea and fever, it’s very hard to recover.
Overall I’d say my level at the Giro was okay. At a grand tour, it’s a very [high] level, and the racing every day was full gas. I’ve never done such a hard grand tour; it was really intense every day. There was never one day easy, you can ask any rider and they will confirm it. And then I had my issues, first at the time trial, and then my stomach issues. It’s not nice for me to be in the grupetto, but I had high moral, and I wanted to finish. We had Alberto [Contador] in pink and it was important to finish with the whole team, with all nine riders, and the guys were all very supportive of me.
The race was really hard, and not just for me. I’m a bit more like a diesel, and last year I did less races due to the short suspension in July, until I was cleared by the Czech Olympic Committee. I missed the Tour and the Vuelta. I used to do two grand tours each season, this year I did many one-day races, and with the engine, you can train all you want, but race pace is always a little different.
VN: You say that you condemn doping and cheating in sport. What do you make of what’s happened with your former team, Astana, with its WorldTour license being brought into question over the winter, followed by several highly impressive performances by the team at the Giro d’Italia?
RK: I think it’s easy … If you look at the list of riders from Astana, they’re not really specialists for classics, they were almost all climbers for grand tours. I think they came with a strong climbers team, and they did really well, much better than others expected. If you have 15 riders in the front group, and there are six from Astana, sure, it was surprising. They were there, they did a lot of work, but they didn’t win. They had many strong people, but you need to have the right tactic to be there with the best.
As far as the team’s WorldTour license … It’s not for me to comment about Astana, how they get their license or not. If anyone did something wrong, the investigators should go in and understand what’s wrong and bring it into the light.
I think it’s good to be more open, like I’m doing with my case, so that everyone can see what’s happened. I would not like to put suspicion on Astana. It’s true they perform really strong. There are so many climbers — riders like Tanel Kangert, and Dario Cataldo — and on other teams they would also perform well. I think Astana just organized their preparation well for the Giro d’Italia. I hope that their A group is not going stronger than their B group at the Tour de France, because the level of the B group at the Giro d’Italia was really good.
VN: A major part of your defense is the explanation that your elevated reticulocyte count is due to taking L-Thyroxine for hypothyroidism. Are you still taking L-Thyroxine? And if so, is your reticulocyte count still elevated?
RK: Yes, of course, I have been taking it for 10 years. I increase the dosage every two years. If I were a journalist, sitting behind a computer, it’s still something I would have to take. It’s not something you can be without; it’s something your body needs, whether you are an athlete or an everyday, average person. I have been increasing the dosage every two years. I started with 50 micrograms per day, now 125 micrograms. It’s something in the family, both of my sisters have it as well. And I would say that my reticulocyte count isn’t elevated. It’s still a little bit higher than normal people have, but just a little bit on a higher level.
VN: Part of your defense is that you maintain you have kept “within the parameters” of the biological passport. However a recent study by France Télévision’s “Stade 2” micro-dosed athletes with EPO, and although they received a performance benefit, their values also weren’t outside biological passport parameters; the notion behind micro-dosing is to gradually change blood values so that they don’t raise alarms in the passport. How do you respond to the notion that an athlete can cheat while staying “within the parameters”?
RK: It’s true, I read about the study, and it’s very alarming. I think they should use the study to improve the passport, and catch the liars. There are many factors involved, you have to have many dates, and many tests, to analyze everything individually. In the bio-passport, you have to have clear rules, not just “highly likely.” And this is not just for cycling but for all sports.
I underwent tests at Mayo Clinic, on request of the Czech Olympic Committee. I underwent a lie-detector test. For 10 years I have suffered from hypothyroidism. My passport is clear. I am open. I published all the details. Everyone can see on my website. I hope people look there to see that I am a clean rider.
What can I do more now to prove I am innocent? I did all my best to clear my name. Now it is up to judges, I do firmly believe that common sense will prevail.
I can repeat what I’ve said many times, yes, I condemn doping. I participated in two Olympic Games, and maybe it’s old-fashioned, but to me, the Olympic Charter is not just a piece of paper. I hope that common sense will prevail. I have done everything I have been able to do. My conscience is absolutely clear. I hope that in Lausanne, the judge, the committee, will check it over well. Over the next week I’m sure I will become more and more nervous. I know I didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s still something serious when you go before a judge, you don’t know what you can expect.
It’s been a long fight, and I hope to show my innocence, so that I can continue with my job, as a bike racer, which is something I’ve loved since I was a child.
VN: Whatever the ruling is, it will be a big decision for you, personally, but also for WADA and the UCI, which are both deeply invested in the success of the bio-passport system. There are major implications for both agencies should you be cleared of any wrongdoing.
RK: It can happen that, you look at numbers, and make a determination, but they should also listen to the explanation, like with me, and my use of Thyroxine. There are two parts to this, the tests, and also the explanation. I’ve said many times I did nothing wrong. Nobody else has shown all their tests and all of the dates. I have nothing to hide, and I wanted that everyone can see all the numbers. And I have to stress out: The biological passport is a great tool and I fully support it. But clear rules need to be set.
Of course it’s difficult, but with the support I’m getting, people can see this is something strange. And if I should win, it’s not against the bio-passport, it’s just that everyone has to look at everything in close detail. But I’m relaxed, the arguments are on my side.