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Concerned about clenbuterol, riders swear off beef this week in China

MENTAUGOU, China (VN) — Worries about clenbuterol are scaring most of the top pros off beef and pork during this week's Tour of Beijing.

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2011 Tour of Beijing
There is doping control at the Tour of Beijing, but it's not clear where the samples are being tested. Photo: Andrew Hood © VeloNews

MENTAUGOU, China (VN) — Worries about clenbuterol are scaring most of the top pros off beef and pork during this week’s Tour of Beijing.

A spate of clenbuterol positives linked to possible food contamination coming out of China and Mexico has cast a chill over the peloton racing here during the first edition of the high-profile race.

Hayden Roulston (HTC-Highroad) said that most riders are not taking any chances and are avoiding eating anything that might get them in trouble with anti-doping controls.

“Everyone knows about the cases. Most of the peloton have stopped eating beef or pork,” Roulston told VeloNews. “It will be interesting to see what happens. If the whole peloton here tests positive, then there’s something to answer for.”

The issue was such a concern that Garmin-Cervélo’s team manager Jonathan Vaughters sent an e-mail to China-bound riders reminding them of the dangers of eating Chinese beef and the possibility of triggering a positive for clenbuterol.

“Nothing is certain over here with the food supply,” Garmin team doctor Prentice Steffen told VeloNews. “The ‘fish and fowl’ rule is a good one, and just to try to stay clear of red beef and pork. You have to think it’s a real possibility. It’s not always the explanation (of clenbuterol positives), but it certainly can be.”

A string of high-profile clenbuterol cases over the past year or so has raised worries of possible contamination from eating drug-laced beef.

Clenbuterol is banned in Europe, but is said to be used illicitly in the livestock industry. There’s growing evidence that consumption of beef can trigger a positive test, though the issues remains highly contested.

Clenbuterol is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list and can be abused as a weight-loss drug.

Despite the recent uptick in clenbuterol positives, WADA decided last month not to create a minimum threshold and instead retained the drug’s current status of “strict liability.”

Many of the cases have been linked to athletes who have been training or competing in developing countries, such as China and Mexico, where rules are allegedly more lax about the illicit use within livestock.

Alberto Contador’s case from the 2010 Tour de France is different because the alleged meat that he said triggered his positive case was allegedly brought to France from nearby Spain. Clenbuterol has been banned for use within livestock in Europe since the mid-1990s.

Last spring, the same WADA-approved lab in Germany that tested Contador’s samples during the 2010 Tour de France randomly tested German tourists returning from a trip to China. Some 22 of 28 tests revealed traces of the banned substance.

Those kinds of reports are putting the fear into riders racing this week in China.

“I’m not eating it. I don’t eat that much meat anyway, but I am not eating any beef here at all,” Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broeck told VeloNews. “They say it’s dangerous, so you better watch out.”

Tour of Beijing race leader Tony Martin is leaving nothing to chance, telling VeloNews: “I don’t eat meat and I don’t eat fish,” he said, when asked if that’s everywhere or just in China, he replied. “Here.”

Saxo Bank-Sungard doctor Joost De Maeseneer said the risk might be higher in China, but he said that food contamination is a worry across Europe and the United States as well.

“We all know there is a risk, and that risk is just as high in Europe as it is in China,” he said. “There are no guarantees in the food chain anywhere.”

One reason behind the recent spike of clenbuterol cases is newer, more precise testing methods that allow ever smaller traces of drugs to be detected in the human body.

Only a few labs in the world carry this capacity. VeloNews could not confirm if samples taken during the Beijing tour would be tested here or in Europe, but anti-doping controls are ongoing throughout the week.

“When you are unlucky, that means you can have it in your body. That doesn’t mean you will always test positive, because you have to have a very specialized lab to detect that small quantities,” De Maeseneer said. “Most labs in the world cannot detect it. For sure, we will have some guys here who will have it in their system by way of the food.”

Riders said they’re talking to each other about risking a positive case.

The scare also extends to other products here in China. Due to weigh limitations on travel — 800kg (1,760 pounds) per squad — teams were not able to bring along as much of their own tested food products, such as energy bars and gels.

Another worry is overall general sanitation of food and water sources in China. Even five-star hotels say it’s not considered safe to drink tap water even in Beijing.

Garmin’s Andrew Talansky was forced to abandon Thursday’s second stage after being zapped by a bad stomach. Other riders are complaining about stomach ailments as well.

“We’re more worried on a practical day-to-day basis about food poisoning,” Steffen said. “We just try to drink bottled water and cross your fingers. We got one guy with a little bit of stomach problems, it’s unavoidable. It’s part of the game.”

Riders are just hoping that testing positive for clenbuterol won’t be part of the game when they return home after spending a week in China.