A long way to go in the race to nab the cheats

A long way to go in the race to nab the cheats

If cycling does not change within weeks, it never will. So said French rider Richard Virenque 12 years ago at the conclusion of a trial into the 1998 Tour de France.

Virenque's Festina team had been kicked out of the race after a large quantity of drugs were discovered in one of their cars. The cyclist was banned for nine months.

"I hope that this trial will help, that the sport will become healthy again," said Virenque. "If it does not change in the coming weeks, it will never change."

The Frenchman's words have come back to haunt his sport after the USADA’s report on Lance Armstrong.

During the Festina trial, riders described an organised doping system including injections and drip feed bags attached on hangers.

The stack of testimonies compiled by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in the Armstrong case hardly look different, with former team mate Jonathan Vaughters stating that he witnessed Armstrong inject himself in the stomach "after brushing his teeth".
Who, in authority, knew?

In 2000, then International Cycling Union (UCI) president Hein Verbruggen was accused of knowing what was going on in the peloton. Similar allegations have been made in 2012 against his successor, Pat McQuaid. Both have vigorously denied covering up an Armstrong positive test on the 2001 Tour of Switzerland.

"It is understandable now for people to look at any results in cycling and question that," said Team Sky principal David Brailsford, who led Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to a remarkable Tour de France one-two this year.

Some things have changed, especially since 2007 and 2008, with blood transfusions and the presence of the bloodboosters EPO-CERA now detectable.

"The peloton is cleaner, on some races," a source with deep expertise on anti-doping told Reuters on Thursday.

But the source said some "big teams" tried to interfere with testing process on races by deliberately failing to identify the riders' hotel rooms, making the testers job a lot harder and giving riders the time to possibly tamper with their blood using saline drips.

The UCI has also introduced the biological passport which tracks changes in riders' blood.
Jonathan Vaughters, a former Armstrong team mate and also team manager of three riders who like him have testified, said two years ago that he and his employees would cooperate with authorities if questions were to be raised.

And most of the riders who testified to USADA, such as George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton or Michael Barry, have nothing to lose.

Since EPO-CERA became detectable and blood manipulation easier to uncover, cheating has become a much riskier game. However, World Anti-Doping Agency regulations on the use of corticoids were relaxed in 2009, opening the flood gates again, even if corticoids have a much less spectacular effect on performance than blood manipulation.

"The winners of the grands Tours are coming out with physiological values which are normal, the blood values are very normal. That's a big change from where it was 10 years ago," said Vaughters. Some riders, such as David Millar, have turned into anti-doping campaigners, while others prefer to look the other way.
 

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