by Justin Davis
PARIS, June 11, 2009 (AFP) – Pledges to take the battle to the drugs cheats at next month’s Tour de France are likely to be kept in check by a painful reality: the lack of a detection test for autologous blood doping.
After years of battling doping scandals the Tour is again hoping for a scandal-free edition next month, backed by a newly-improved battery of anti-doping tests with specific targeting of potential cheats.
UCI president Pat McQuaid and the French Anti Doping Agency (AFLD) were cautiously optimistic on Wednesday after unveiling wide-ranging anti-doping measures for the July 4-26 race.
But despite the net seemingly closing in, the fact there is still no test to detect whether an athlete has taken out his own blood to, at a later date, re inject it in a bid to boost his performance, remains a problem area.
McQuaid admitted as much, but the Irish president of the International Cycling Union (UCI) believes the scientists will pioneer a test in the near future.
And he is confident that the physiological parameters gathered on a regular basis by the UCI in each rider’s biological passport can provide enough evidence to lead to sanctions for the banned method of autologous blood doping.
“We currently have a validated test for homologous blood transfusions (where athletes use blood from a compatible donor) but putting your own blood back in is the difficult one,” he told AFP.
“Seemingly Lausanne and some of the other laboratories are working on that (detection test) and there will come a time, fairly soon, when they will have a very efficient test for that. It’s on its way.”
He added: “In the meantime, with the biological passport we can see evidence of that type of behavior. And it’s pretty solid evidence.
“When you see a sharp decrease in certain blood parameters – and we see that happening – on its own it can’t stand up, but if we look at the previous tests we’ve done on a particular rider and we then do some more tests after wards as well then we can start the process against him.
“Then the experts will stand up and say, ‘there’s only one explanation for this, he took blood out’.”
If ever proof were needed that blood doping works, Bernard Kohl is the perfect example.
Arguably Austria’s biggest cycling star, until the summer of 2008, Kohl has been forced to retire, at the age of 27, after he was revealed as one of seven riders to have tested positive for EPO Cera from last year’s race.
Kohl admitted in a controversial interview with L’Equipe on Tuesday he had taken EPO prior to the Tour and that the only doping he resorted to during the race was two autologous blood transfusions.
The result was an unlikely third place finish, and the King of the Mountains jersey for a man who is not known as a specialist climber.
While alterations in blood levels can indicate that a blood transfusion has taken place, AFLD president Pierre Bordry admitted: “Autologous blood transfusions are difficult to rule against because we don’t have a validated test.”
However that will not stop the UCI from acting upon suspicious evidence.
“Action will be taken,” pledged McQuaid.
“If there’s a decrease of certain (blood) values on a certain day, then there’s only one reason for that and that will be that blood has been taken out. On that basis we can begin proceedings towards an anti-doping violation.”