Team Sky's Sergio Henao currently off active roster for altitude tests says team hope he can race Tour de France

British team is investigating effects of being born and raised at altitude on Colombian rider following winter test results

by Simon_MacMichael   April 28, 2014  

Sergio Henao on 2012 Vuelta Stage 2 (copyright Graham Watson:Unipublic)

Sergio Henao, taken off Team Sky’s active roster last month due to concerns over test results, says he is hopeful of making his Tour de France debut in this year's race: “It’s what both I and the team hope for,” he revealed. “Hopefully I can be in the best condition to make my case to be named in Sky’s line-up. We’ll see about that in the Tour de Suisse, but I am absolutely sure that I’ll be at a high level since I’m living every day with the hope of riding the Tour [de France].”

Last month Henao was taken off Sky's active roster and returned to his native Columbia with management saying it wanted to conduct further research into athletes born and raised at altitude, says he is hopeful of returning to racing at the Tour du Suisse in June and of racing the Tour de France the following month.

The 26-year-old, who was second in the 2013 Fleche Wallone and finished ninth overall in the previous year’s Giro d’Italia, is in Colombia along with his cousin Sebastian Henao, who joined Sky this season, and the team’s performance co-ordinator Oli Cookson.

The latter is the son of UCI president Brian Cookson, speaks Spanish fluently – he used to live in Madrid – and has worked for Team Sky since 2010, reports the website of the Colombian magazine, Revista Mundo Ciclístico.

He said that he accepted that the tests he is currently undergoing are “part of my job,” adding, “I’m training every day as if I were to compete immediately and I travel to [Colombia’s capital] Bogota twice a week to undergo tests at the Coldeportes laboratory with a view to furthering our understanding of the effects of altitude on athletes such as ourselves.”

Asked when he might return to racing in Europe, Henao said: “Assuming everything is in order once I’ve gone through this and I get the go-ahead to return to competition, I hope to be at the Tour de Suisse,” which takes place from 14-22 June.

Following that, he is hopeful of riding the Tour de France, which would be his debut in the race.

 

Speaking of Cookson’s presence in Colombia, he said: “He’s not here so much for the tests but more to learn to understand about our surroundings, our environment, how we live, and about the question of altitude – he trains with us each day.

“I think he is gaining a real impression of our region, Oriente Antioqueño, and I’m hope that the information he is getting might open the doors for the team to plan training camps in Colombia as it does on Tenerife.”

Henao added that Cookson was also there to assist with securing visas for himself for the Tour de France, which starts in Yorkshire in July, and his cousin for next month’s Giro d’Italia, which begins in Belfast a week on Friday.

When Sky stood Henao down from its active roster last month, team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said: "We have strong monitoring and compliance processes in this team, with the full co-operation of riders and coaches.

“In our latest monthly review, our experts had questions about Sergio’s out-of-competition control tests at altitude – tests introduced this winter by the anti-doping authorities. We need to understand these readings better.

“We contacted the relevant authorities – the UCI and CADF – pointed to these readings and asked whether they could give us any insights. We've also taken Sergio out of our race programme whilst we get a better understanding of these profiles and his physiology.

“We want to do the right thing and we want to be fair. It’s important not to jump to conclusions.

He added: “Sergio was raised in the mountains, goes back in winter and lives and trains at different levels. We’ve looked as far as we can at the effects of this, but our own understanding is limited by a lack of scientific research into ‘altitude natives’ such as Sergio.

“We are commissioning independent scientific research to better understand the effects of prolonged periods at altitude after returning from sea level, specifically on altitude natives.

“The independent experts are looking to use WADA-accredited laboratories and Team Sky will make the data and findings available to WADA, the UCI and CADF.

“Sergio will help with this programme and we expect him to be out of the race schedule for at least eight weeks. Once we have completed our assessment, we’ll decide on the right steps and give a full update.”

Speaking to Lionel Birnie for a Cycle Sport article in 2011, when his father was president of British Cycling and also on the board of Tour Racing Limited, Team Sky’s holding company, Cookson was at pains to point out that nepotism had nothing to do with his securing the position with the team.

“I just wanted to say I didn’t get this job because of my dad,” he said.  “In fact, I nearly didn’t get the job because of who my dad is and how it might look.”

20 user comments

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The Henao situation is completely unprecedented in cycling - if Henao hasn't failed an official drug test why isn't he loudly complaining in public that the team won't let him race? If he's clean he would have every right to be outraged. Bizarre that a professional racer is happy to be benched when he hasn't broken, or been caught breaking, a single rule of the sport.

Its even more bizarre when you consider Sky are basically robbing him of the ability to accumulate UCI Points, points that are vital to any kind of career progression should he have to change team.

Very much feels like Sky are worried they might have caught him red handed, and are trying to manage the infraction themselves without the huge negative press another doping issue would bring, especially with the JTL situation so fresh in people's minds.

posted by giobox [234 posts]
28th April 2014 - 19:25

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Whatever Sky did in this situation they'd have been criticised.

Henao seems OK with it, but the internet jury seem less so.

posted by Super Domestique [1592 posts]
28th April 2014 - 19:29

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If you hadn't doped, but your blood passport values were all way off then you'd keep fairly quiet. If you didn't you'd be worried that the standard UCI rules would apply and you'd be guilty of doping.
Either he has doped and is waiting for his tests to return to normal, having been caught by his team before the UCI can get involved; or he is innocent, and needs a good scientific explanation to fend off the critics when he returns to racing.

posted by tao24 [40 posts]
28th April 2014 - 19:58

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He has had some adverse findings, not a failure of a drugs test.

No doubt some will put 2 and 2 together and get "drug cheat" or "sky cover up".

I'm sure someone will correct me if i'm wrong but if a rider fails a drug test whether in or out of competition then the relevant authority have to be informed and an enquiry is launched.

If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it. Gaius Julius Caesar.

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posted by stumps [2664 posts]
28th April 2014 - 19:59

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This is all very strange.

I think this quote from Henao suggests we're not being told everything about this carefully managed situation:

"Assuming everything is in order once I’ve gone through this and I get the go-ahead to return to competition..."

As an aside, those Cooksons have a few fingers in a few pies!

posted by daddyELVIS [375 posts]
28th April 2014 - 21:09

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I'm more concerned with the potential conflict of interest of employing the son of the man who runs the governing body. Isn't that asking for trouble?

posted by GREGJONES [111 posts]
28th April 2014 - 21:54

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stumps wrote:
He has had some adverse findings, not a failure of a drugs test.

No doubt some will put 2 and 2 together and get "drug cheat" or "sky cover up".

I'm sure someone will correct me if i'm wrong but if a rider fails a drug test whether in or out of competition then the relevant authority have to be informed and an enquiry is launched.

Absolutely, if it is an 'official test'. The point here is Sky appear to be conducting their own testing to avoid inquiries, hence why the whole thing seems a bit suspect. One could argue Sky have "sin-binned" Henao pending their own investigation to avoid UCI sanctions.

I agree people should be careful when speculating, but on balance, especially given Henao's very timid response, it is difficult not to conclude that he has been caught by sky management doing something he shouldn't. Especially when Brailsford, in his own words, says "We want to do the right thing and we want to be fair. It’s important not to jump to conclusions." What sort of conclusions could he be referring to? Clearly the tests are indicative of, but not proof, of some malpractice on Henao's part.

posted by giobox [234 posts]
28th April 2014 - 22:31

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What we do know is that there is peer reviewed research into populations that live at high altitude shows they can have higher natural erythropoietin and higher hemocrit levels than a 'normal' population. This has been seen in research on the Tibetan and Nepalese Sherpa populations; and Quechua people from South America.

So to dare some guesswork, and risk the wrath of the chat...
This could mean that someone like Henao could score at levels that we would think mean doping...but hemocrit, for example does vary a lot between individuals and the 50% level is a level chosen but not absolute in proving drug use. There have been cyclists permitted to be higher after review of their physiology, and proof of higher than normal levels. This is actually a likely distinguishing feature of naturally gifted athletes. Their base physiology allows them to effectively transport more oxygen in their blood.

That's my hypothesis of what could be behind this. ie, results show he is at doping risk levels, but there is a strong hypothesis that this could be genetic, and or environmental.

posted by brackley88 [68 posts]
29th April 2014 - 1:40

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I completely agree with you brackley88, but again I think Henao's choice of language speaks volumes. All his statements about returning have been qualified, "Assuming everything is in order once I’ve gone through this", "Hopefully I can be in the best condition to make my case" etc, doesn't exactly read like a man confident in his situation. One wouldn't imagine a rider like Cavendish or Wiggins being quiet in such circumstances if they were certain of being clean and being prevented from racing by team management. Look too at Contadors loud protestations over his Clenbuterol steak saga. Then again perhaps that's just Henao's nature. The whole business is both unprecedented and strange.

posted by giobox [234 posts]
29th April 2014 - 2:44

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Let me hypothesise. Normal Hematocrit within individual variability is about 3%, however differences in testing techniques mean that 15% is not considered extraordinary. There will be a natural fall in hematocrit levels for a person moving from living at high altitude moving to low altitude after the acclimatisation period of, on average, about 7 percentage points. If, for example, Henao exhibited a 60% HCT level while at home and, when retested at sea level, had a level of 48% it would raise suspicions but would be within the 95% limits for variability. Sky have probably repeated tests at sea level and are now doing the high altitude tests. If his HCT does not go back to the level shown in the winter tests then it will be considered as 'unusual' and will result in elongating the suspension, but is still not certain proof of doping. That is the scenario that Henao is wary of.

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posted by Tovarishch [44 posts]
29th April 2014 - 6:05

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Quite. The issue here with blood passports is that they measure both the change in values and also the maximal values. The point being is that they cannot test for artificial hormones in a meaningful way - once a doper has doped the window to catch him with artificial chemicals is quite small. What is not small and far more measureable are the changes that a rider might have as a result of doping.

I can't say I know the tolerance factors (% difference) or what they are actually looking for, but taking regular tests of your own riders means that you can make sure that they don't have sudden performance spikes which lead to a failure on the basis of the blood values which is what appears to happen hear. The problem is that the Sky program can, single handedly, claim to be both testing for doping and at the same time ensure that they avoid detection.

You perhaps have to put this in context. Out of competition testing is the single biggest deterrent to doping in professional sport. Athletes don't turn up at events with synthetic chemicals coursing through their veins, but it doesn't mean they didn't dope beforehand and will reap their benefits. So the blood passport tries to build up that stock of information to prevent them spiking for an event. The thinking is that athletes are now doping little and often to keep their levels higher for longer and appear to be consistent.

The WADA tolerances are set so that infractions are not humanly possible. They have to be that way to include outliers with unusual, but beneficial physiology. From this aspect I just don't think Hemao 'abnormal reaction' was through altitude effects.

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1079 posts]
29th April 2014 - 7:01

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I think this talk of 'people of high altitude' is smoke and mirrors. What they refer to is a gene pool of people, who, after centuries living at high altitude, have developed physiological adaptations. I don't think Henao comes from those gene pools.

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1079 posts]
29th April 2014 - 7:07

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Not quite sure why people are being so picky about his use of language, his english is by far better than my spanish, I'm sure if I were trying to explain something in my non native language I may struggle to get my point across precisely as I intended (hell it's hard enough for a native english speaker sometimes)
It does seem a bit odd, but if Sky were trying to cover it up surely they'd have said that he had a virus and was heading back to Columbia to recover rather than getting other agencies involved and flagging it up?
I think the benefit of the doubt might be applicable here, at least for a little while.

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posted by RobD [91 posts]
29th April 2014 - 8:04

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RobD wrote:

It does seem a bit odd, but if Sky were trying to cover it up surely they'd have said that he had a virus and was heading back to Columbia to recover rather than getting other agencies involved and flagging it up?

.....unless other agencies were already involved - I don't think is has ever been established if the initial tests that they 'had questions about' were true internal tests or if they were external (or at least had to be reported externally). The following quote from the article makes me think there is an external element to the tests:

"our experts had questions about Sergio’s out-of-competition control tests at altitude – tests introduced this winter by the anti-doping authorities."

posted by daddyELVIS [375 posts]
29th April 2014 - 9:03

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Colin Peyresourde wrote:
I think this talk of 'people of high altitude' is smoke and mirrors. What they refer to is a gene pool of people, who, after centuries living at high altitude, have developed physiological adaptations. I don't think Henao comes from those gene pools.

As has been mentioned before, there is already evidence for genetic factors leading to hematocrit adaptation. There is also plenty of work showing some of the gross environmental effects (temporary adaptation, CMS and excessive hematocrit levels, adaptation periods and links to altitude). What perhaps there is less of, is research in the combined effect of genetic, environmental and training influences. This appears to be what Sky and the researchers are looking at, at least that's what coming across to me from what i've heard and read.

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posted by fukawitribe [296 posts]
29th April 2014 - 9:10

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giobox wrote:
I completely agree with you brackley88, but again I think Henao's choice of language speaks volumes.

It's not clear to me how you reconcile this with your statement

Quote:

I agree people should be careful when speculating, but on balance, especially given Henao's very timid response, it is difficult not to conclude that he has been caught by sky management doing something he shouldn't. Especially when Brailsford, in his own words, says "We want to do the right thing and we want to be fair. It’s important not to jump to conclusions." What sort of conclusions could he be referring to? Clearly the tests are indicative of, but not proof, of some malpractice on Henao's part.

...I think that last sentence pretty much contradicts the point about variability, but if i've mis-interpreted it please let me know.

giobox wrote:
All his statements about returning have been qualified, "Assuming everything is in order once I’ve gone through this", "Hopefully I can be in the best condition to make my case" etc, doesn't exactly read like a man confident in his situation. One wouldn't imagine a rider like Cavendish or Wiggins being quiet in such circumstances if they were certain of being clean and being prevented from racing by team management.

Not sure if they'd be the same or not, seems unusual to condemn someone for being a bit quiet though surely ? I know sane people aren't saying that's the only reason but it does appear to be a tipping point for some.

giobox wrote:
Look too at Contadors loud protestations over his Clenbuterol steak saga. Then again perhaps that's just Henao's nature

Absolutely.

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posted by fukawitribe [296 posts]
29th April 2014 - 9:32

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RobD wrote:
Not quite sure why people are being so picky about his use of language, his english is by far better than my spanish, I'm sure if I were trying to explain something in my non native language I may struggle to get my point across precisely as I intended (hell it's hard enough for a native english speaker sometimes)

Interview was with a Colombian magazine. He was speaking in Spanish. Translation is mine.

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [7894 posts]
29th April 2014 - 9:51

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giobox wrote:
All his statements about returning have been qualified, "Assuming everything is in order once I’ve gone through this", "Hopefully I can be in the best condition to make my case" etc, doesn't exactly read like a man confident in his situation. One wouldn't imagine a rider like Cavendish or Wiggins being quiet in such circumstances if they were certain of being clean and being prevented from racing by team management.

I see what you're getting at, there's a significant difference between being quiet in such circumstances, and being absolutely fuming BUT remaining professional about it and not discussng with the media. They might, however, look like the same thing to us.

If I could have, say, 6 bikes, would it stop me drooling over others that I don't have?

posted by notfastenough [2929 posts]
29th April 2014 - 10:24

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You know his ancestry and genotype then right? that he has no variation in the EPAS1 gene, and other variations? OK, I fully declare I don't, and I am not saying this is why he isnt a doper...what I meant is that this my ill informed hypothesis as to why they are looking at it more closely than just taking readings at face value. However, to indicate it's not smoke and mirrors, but some facts here if you look at the Columbian ethnic groups, those living in mountains have a much higher likelihood of having native columbian ancestry rather than European (who are higher in coastal and urban areas). And Sergio comes from the mountains. All conjecture I know...but enough to say, 'hey, let's look at this before we crucify him' If there proves to be no good answer then we will, I think, see him not riding for Sky again...and rightly so, if there is no good answer.

Having said all this....I think I may form a Team Sherpa Shimano....just imagine them climbing hills...!!!

posted by brackley88 [68 posts]
29th April 2014 - 11:23

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brackley88 wrote:
All conjecture I know...but enough to say, 'hey, let's look at this before we crucify him'

I'm not sure the internet is ready for that yet... Wink

brackley88 wrote:
If there proves to be no good answer then we will, I think, see him not riding for Sky again...and rightly so, if there is no good answer.

Hear, hear.

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posted by fukawitribe [296 posts]
29th April 2014 - 11:28

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