By Andrew Hood
Chances of a clear resolution to the Roberto Heras doping case seemed lost after doubt and uncertainty over Heras’s counter-analysis was raised this week in Spain.
On Wednesday, Heras and his legal team demanded that charges that he used the banned blood booster EPO en route to winning the 2005 Vuelta a España be dropped after follow-up tests were inconclusive.
Anti-doping authorities stuck by their guns, however, insisting that further tests were required to fairly conclude if EPO can be identified in Heras’s urine sample taken on the penultimate stage of this year’s Vuelta.
Officials from Spain’s Consejo Superior de Deportes laboratory called for additional review of Monday’s counter-analysis and said results could be known as soon as Friday.
Heras’s legal team – who held an emotional press conference Wednesday in Madrid – called foul and insisted the confusion only reinforces the growing notion that the urine-based EPO test is flawed.
“There was nearly unanimous agreement that no one saw (EPO) beyond a doubt, and it clearly proves that the method is flawed, even if the results coming back Friday are negative,” Heras’s attorney Andreu Garriga, adding that the validity of the EPO test “has been questioned because it gives no guarantees.”
Heras, 31, has insisted on his innocence and repeated the claim in Wednesday’s press conference.
“I want to reiterate once again that I’ve never taken a doping substance in my life,” he said. “I passed 12 doping controls during the last Vuelta. I was leading the race by four and a half minutes and had victory in my pocket. It would have been madness to have committed a doping offense. It would have been incomprehensible and absurd.”
Spanish cycling has been thrown into turmoil since news leaked in early November that Heras failed an EPO test in samples taken on the penultimate stage in this year’s Vuelta. The four-time Vuelta champion has been suspended from his Liberty Seguros team until the results of the counter-analysis are known.
Officials said results from Monday’s counter-analysis were “inconclusive.” Rafael Blanco, general director of the CSD, told Spanish radio that it’s unfair to characterize the second test as a negative.
“There are images of EPO in the test. If there hadn’t been any, the laboratory would have declared the analysis as a negative,” he said. “The images are not clear enough to declare a positive, so we decided to continue with the same control. We have not started a new test as stated by the defense.”
Blanco said if the additional review is non-conclusion, the result will be a “non-positive.” According to some reports in the Spanish media, all the urine from the second sample has been used up, meaning another round of tests cannot be conducted.
All eyes are watching the Heras case, which is viewed as the highest-profile doping scandal in recent cycling history. If the sample comes back positive, Heras would be stripped of his 2005 victory and slapped with a two-year racing ban. His legal team has already promised a lengthy legal battle.
If the sample is ruled as negative, Heras will retain his victory, but the aftershocks are likely to be felt for a long time.
McQuaid supports back-tests
UCI president Pat McQuaid said he would support anti-doping controls on back samples if the idea is backed by national federations. Speaking to the French daily La Provence, the Irishman defended the UCI’s fight against doping.
“From 1998, the UCI has not stopped working on this subject and we continue to do so with a strong collaboration with (the World Anti-Doping Agency) and the national federations,” he said. “Cycling is evolving to confirm with the ethical rules. I say ‘globally’ because the problem of doping exists and it’s something serious.”
The issue of retroactive testing of samples came to the forefront in August when EPO anti-doping controls on urine samples taken in the 1999 Tour de France indicated that 12 samples tested positive for the banned blood-booster, among them six belonged to seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong. The Texan and other riders subsequently named have strongly denied the allegations.
The EPO-detectable urine test was not approved by the UCI until late 2000, but officials used frozen “B” samples taken from the 1999 Tour to perfect the new testing method. The French newspaper L’Equipe gained access to the test results, linked the anonymous numerical codes to the riders’ names and published them in a controversial report in August.
The UCI ruled that none of the riders could not be sanctioned based solely on the “B” samples tests, but McQuaid didn’t entirely discount the idea that retroactive testing might someday be added to the arsenal of catching doping cheats.
“If the federations supported the idea (of back-testing), the UCI would also support the principal of anti-doping controls a posteriori,” he said, also calling for more “surprise” out-of-competition tests.
Donation to Gillett foundation
The Amy Gillett Foundation got a boost from the organizers of the Thüringen Rundfahrt race, who gave the group a check for 25,000 euros this week.
The foundation was established in the wake of the tragic accident in July when a car drove into the Australian women’s cycling team who were training the day before the start of the Thüringen event. Gillett, a champion cyclist and rower, was killed in the crash and her five team mates were seriously injured.
Race organizers also confirmed the establishment of the Amy Gillett Memorial Prize to be awarded to the cyclist who best represents the values of fair play and teamwork.