Independent Anti-Doping Programmes

Operación Puerto may not have been the most enjoyable of experiences in recent cycling history, but like every cloud, it had a silver lining. Yes, a lot of cyclists caught up in the inquiry got away without serving any form of a suspension. And yes, athletes from many other sports got away without even having their reputation tarnished by association with Fuentes. But even if nothing else had come out of it, then we ought be grateful to Puerto for pushing cycling into the embrace of the Team Clean principle. If nothing else, that gave us some hope to cling to as the sport tried to drown itself in one doping scandal after yet another.

Post Puerto, Bjarne Riis, Jonathan Vaughters and Bob Stapleton quickly saw the benefits of being able to claim to be clean and being able to back up their words with some science. Riis and Stapleton had to show existing and potential sponsors that the past was the past and that, going forward, their squads would be cleaner than clean. Vaughters had his own reputational problems from his USPS days but also saw - and reaped the rewards of - the marketing potential of running an independent anti-doping programme. All three teams went into the 2007 season claiming to be cleaner than clean, with ACE vouching for Slipstream and Team High Road and Rasmus Damsgaard vouching for CSC. The following year, Damsgaard was also able to vouch for Johan Bruyneel's Astana squad. Damsgaard also acted as a consultant to Milram and BMC signed up to ACE's programme. And when, during the 2008 season, Damsgaard's analysis of test results at Astana called into question the performance of Vladimir Gusev, it seemed clear that independent anti-doping programmes might actually have a future in the sport.

That alas was probably the high-water mark for independent testing. Within months ACE had gone bust and the business model of the independent testing organisations was being called into question. Through 2009 the independent testing model was replaced by the independent review model - Don Catlin (who replaced ACE at Garmin and Columbia - though not at BMC, who appear to have abandoned the Team Clean project) would rely on the UCI to carry out tests and merely provide his own analysis of the results of those tests. Damsgaard's programme for Astana and Saxo Bank similarly changed to being review only. And then as last year ended, so too did Damsgaard's involvement with Saxo Bank (and, presumably, Astana).

That the general public - and even die-hard cynics like me - saw some value in independent testing programmes has been demonstrated time and again over the last three-and-a-bit years. When Ivan Basso returned from his Puerto-induced ban, he demonstrated his godliness by coming up with his own programme. Upon his return to the pro peloton, LA armed himself with the shield of "the most advanced anti-doping program in the world" and got a bye from the media, even after he failed to deliver on his promise. And when Euskaltel-Euskadi ran into some doping problems last year, they decided that an independent anti-doping programme was just the thing to wash away their past sins.

The question of course, is whether we should believe in these programmes. From the get-go they've had their critics, the prime argument being that - like the auditing profession which has been so successful at not finding errors in the banks they've audited - these programmes are far from independent. Damsgaard's own independence was called into question last year when it was revealed he'd accepted the gift of a bike from Riis.

But what if the real problem with independent anti-doping programmes is that - just like retrospective testing - they just aren't all they're cracked up to be, the Gusev experience notwithstanding. Consider, for instance, the experience of Rock Racing. They were another squad to try and hide their sins - well, sinners - behind the shield of an independent anti-doping programme. Within months of the plug being pulled on it last year, Tyler Hamilton was busted. Maybe Scott Analytics would have caught Hamiltom's use of DHEA if they'd still been on the payroll. Then again, maybe they'd already missed it when they were.

More worrying though is the case of BMC's Thomas Frei, who has admitted to doping while at Astana in 2008 - during which time Damsgaard gave him a clean bill of health. In fairness to Damsgaard, even Anne Gripper acknowledged that the UCI's blood passport has difficulties spotting micro-dosing (directly contradicting previous claims by Robin Parisotto, one of the anti-doping experts appointed by the UCI to analyse profiles and determine which ones are suspicious). But Damsgaard is a man who has a lot of faith in his own results and - unlike Gripper - hasn't publicly pointed to any weaknesses in his programme.

The Frei experience alone is unlikely to bring about the end of independent anti-doping programmes. But while it's not as bad as a current member of one of the Team Cleans being caught with his hands in the cookie jar - or a syringe in his arm - it does suggest that such programmes may not have deserved the faith gullible fools like me have so willingly invested in them in the past. Even so, the cynic in me says that it's unlikely to impact on the publicity value Garmin and others will continue to get out of such programmes.