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Biological Passports: Cycling's Great Leap Forward

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[Aside: I've started reading a biography of Zhou Enlai, so for the foreseeable future all headlines will contain an element of Chinese Communist Party lingo. The "great leap" has a nice mix of hope and failure to it, though I actually think the UCI's big plans have a better chance of succeeding than starting a steel industry from melted farm tools.]

CN reported yesterday that the UCI says its planned Biological Passport system will be ready for launch next week. The story's "on time, on budget" portions are being treated with great skepticism; after all, the Passports require blood and urine testing of every cyclist planning to enter Pro Tour events... some 4200 tests in all. Nobody seems to think the UCI can handle such a logistical challenge without a hitch. Me neither... surely some delays and issues will crop up.

But the January 1, 2008 deadline is not the story; as long as the system is up and running by the start of Grand Tour season, fans and critics shouldn't have much to complain about. The story is whether or not Biological Passports will defeat doping.

The UCI's website has a description and explanation of what the passports are. In short, they establish each rider's "normal" haematological values (from blood tests) and steroid profile (from urine tests) aimed at detecting EPO or steroid use. Historically Cycling and other sports have relied on instantaneous testing: if your hematocrit exceeded 50% that day, or steroids were detected, you were bounced. But the tests were inadequate: riders learned how to keep their hematocrit just under 50 while still pumping their bodies full of EPO.

The Death of Marco Pantani book is really useful in describing some of the situation. Never does the author describe Pantani taking EPO, but he does establish that Pantani traveled with his own centrifuge (the same instrument used by the testers) and tested his own blood to monitor his hematocrit. On the night before he was bounced from the 1999 Giro, everyone pretty much figured out that there would be tests the next morning, and Pantani was among the most likely to be tested. It's a mystery why he still got caught, but basically a rider whose values were in excess of the 50% limit could drink a lot of fluid shortly before the test and briefly depress the red blood cell density enough to pass muster.

Somehow Pantani failed and registered a 53, though he administered his own test (a 49% result) and argued for years that the Italian authorities must have screwed up their procedure. But had he gotten down to 49.9 that day, the evidence would still have demonstrated likely EPO use: here he was entering the 19th stage of a very demanding three-week race, and his hematocrit was holding steady or creeping up, as if he'd been laying around the Riviera all that time. People might argue about whether this shocking anomaly can only be explained by EPO use, but as explanations go, that's by far the most sensible one.

So the Biological Passport gives the UCI the chance to determine if a rider appears to be manipulating his/her blood by seeing how the values change after days, weeks and maybe even months of racing. If the values don't respond the way normal humans' would, then there's evidence of cheating... even if the rider never crossed the 50% hematocrit threshold or had EPO or steroids detected in their blood. This is a HUGE new enforcement tool, with a best-case outcome of making EPO use almost impossible. Moreover, Cycle Sport reports this month that it enables the UCI to catch micro-dosing as well: apparently prior testing advanced enough to catch 1990's-style massive dosers but hadn't effectively deterred cheating by smaller portions. Micro-dosing is rumored to be pretty prevalent still.

The challenges include, at a minimum, logistics, cost, and enforceability. The former two are obvious; the latter has to do with the Hamilton-style legal challenge that will come from the first rider to be kicked out despite never having tested positive and never having tripped the 50% wire. The UCI states clearly that they believe they can open a doping case against a rider based on anomalies in the blood or urine values or trends, and to succeed they'll have to convince a judge that there's no other reasonable explanation for a rider's blood values besides doping. Presumably they won't be tossing out riders with close cases; for now they'll focus on picking the lower hanging fruit. But humans, like snowflakes, are all different, and just setting the "normal" baseline to compare the tests to will be a challenge in itself. From the riders' perspective, this has to be controversial, and I'm not sure there's a way to conduct the program which they'll fully trust. Acceptance will take time, to be sure.

Disclaimers: I know almost nothing about the steroids monitoring. Also, I can't tell if the UCI is just using hematocrit for the blood values; the Pantani book describes several other values (red blood cell count, hemoglobin, soluble transferrin receptor, etc.) which create the full blood profile of a normal, clean athlete versus a doping one. Finally, I'm not a medical professional (gee, ya think?) so please feel free to expand on or correct what I've said here, as you always should anyway.

Yep, 2008 is going to be an interesting, potentially historic year for the sport. And not just because of the Angliru.