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By Andrew Hood
A small vial tucked away inside the Châtenay-Malabry laboratory near Paris contains what is probably one of the most-watched batches of urine in recent sports history.
Officials are expecting a Saturday conclusion to a counter-analysis of Floyd Landis’ “B” samples, taken after his heroic victory in stage 17 into Morzine during the 2006 Tour de France. Lab technicians began work on the counter-analysis on Thursday.
Landis’ own attorneys expect the tests to confirm the unusual T/E ratio, which was confirmed by Landis’ representatives to reflect an 11-to-1 ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, well above the 4:1 T/E threshold that triggers potential doping indicators.
“The reason why Mr. Sanz and I said that probably the result is going to be the same is because statistically the results of the `B’ sample usually – not always – but usually confirm the results of the `A’ sample,” attorney Jose Maria Buxeda told The Associated Press on Thursday outside the lab.
Not a lot is at stake; just the outcome of cycling’s biggest race and the overall credibility of the sport. If the counter-analysis comes back positive, Landis will face a two-year racing ban and the loss of his Tour crown.
If it comes back negative, however, the 30-year-old Californian will have dodged a major bullet and retain his distinction as the third American to have won cycling’s biggest prize.
Why an “A” and “B” test anyway and how often does the second test negate the first?
The two-step testing process is supposed to remove any chance of human error from skewing test results, but rarely does a second “B” test return a negative result.
A few exceptions
In 2001, Bo Hamburger earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first cyclist to fail the EPO urine test after it was introduced into cycling. His “B” test also confirmed the result, but a second counter-analysis – a highly unusual breach of protocol – revealed lower levels of the banned blood booster and the Dane was eventually exonerated.
Two more riders failed the EPO test in 2001, including Spanish track gold medalist Juan Llaneras and Italian Massimo Strazzer, but both were cleared of doping charges after “B” samples came back negative.
Since then, the noose has gotten tighter around doping cheats.
No major “B” samples returned a negative result until 2005, when a new, “two-dimensional” baseline was introduced in EPO detection methods.
That year, Fabrizio Guidi – an Italian rider on Phonak – failed a urine test for the banned blood booster ahead of the HEW Cyclassics, but his “B” sample came back negative and he was cleared to race.
Triathletes also suffered a spate of EPO test controversies in 2004-05. Belgian triathlete Rutger Beke failed both “A” and “B” tests, but later had his 18-month competition ban lifted by Flemish officials after he argued successfully there was a bacterial infection of his samples.
Last year, Virginia Berasategui and Ibán Rodríguez both failed EPO tests at a Lanzarote Ironman only to have charges dropped against them because of inconsistent readings of urine samples.
Despite a rally of calls criticizing the validity of the EPO test, WADA officials continue to voice confidence in the current testing methods.
Mishandled or miscommunicated?
One of the most famous “B” sample saviors involved 2004 Olympic time trial champion Tyler Hamilton, whose “A” sample tested positive for homologous blood doping – the illegal injection of another person’s blood.
Lab officials at the anti-doping lab in Athens had operated under the assumption that the new test would require a minimum percentage of foreign red blood cells to trigger a positive. Since Hamilton’s “A” sample showed signs of exogenous blood, but not at the level the assumed minimum level, laboratory staff froze the “b” sample – along with a urine sample – for storage.
WADA and Olympic officials, however, had earlier eliminated the minimum, saying that a binary test – foreign blood is either there or it’s not – needed no minimum. Once frozen, however, the blood cells were rendered unsuitable for counter-analysis. Hamilton kept his Olympic gold medal, but he was caught up in the same net three weeks later after winning a time trial stage at the Vuelta a España.
Despite vigorous arguments denying the allegations, Hamilton was slapped with a two-year racing ban that ends next month.
Other athletes have dodged sanctions after botched processing and handling. Two-time Olympic middle distance runner Bernard Lagat was cleared of EPO charges in 2003 after the “B” sample wasn’t properly refrigerated.
In 2001, Russian runner Olga Yegorova failed an EPO test, but required parallel blood tests were not commissioned and charges were dropped.
Long after the fact
While most testing occurs immediately after a sample is supplied, a heated dispute arose in the summer of 2005 over the review of stored samples from an event that had occurred six years earlier.
In August of 2005, the French sports daily L’Equipe obtained lab test results suggesting that about a dozen urine samples from the 1999 Tour de France were shown to be positive for signs of EPO.
The samples had been stored at the French anti-doping laboratory at Châtenay-Malabry since the 1999 Tour, an event held two years prior to cycling’s full adoption of the urine test for EPO – a procedure developed at that same lab.
L’Equipe reporters managed to obtain release forms tying the anonymously numbered samples to individual riders. Using those forms, L’Equipe asserted that six of the “positive” samples came from that year’s winner, Lance Armstrong of the U.S. Postal team.
The ensuing uproar, triggered a pair of follow-up investigations. The UCI appointed Dutch lawyer Emile Vrijman last October to review the case. Vrijman issued his report in May, faulting the lab, the newspaper, WADA and the UCI for violating riders’ privacy rights, releasing the results and violating established procedures.
WADA, however, continues to investigate, noting that Vrijman never addressed the core issue, whether or not the samples were in fact positive for EPO. No matter what the result, current protocol would not allow a sanction, since all of the 1999 samples tested were themselves “B” samples and will, therefore, not be subject to counter-analysis.
A long process
Assuming that Landis’s case is not resolved by a “savior ‘B’ sample,” it could be several months before the case is ultimately resolved, although there is considerable pressure from both sides to move the matter through the system as quickly as possible.
According to sources at the UCI, the entire process could take several months, with the final CAS appeal not likely to be concluded “until sometime this autumn.”
So far, the test results are moving much faster than in a similar case involving Roberto Heras, whose positive doping test for EPO was not revealed until two months after the conclusion of the 2005 Vuelta a España.
Heras was eventually stripped of his Vuelta crown and banned for two years by the Spanish cycling federation in February 2006. Like Heras, Landis would also face an additional two-year exclusion from riding on a ProTour team, meaning that the American would be nearing the end of his career before he could ride in another major Tour.
VeloNews.com editor Charles Pelkey contributed to this report