A sports doctor who has worked with leading Spanish cycling teams including Xacobeo-Galicia is among ten people who have been arrested in connection with a police investigation codenamed Operacion Skype targeting an international network supplying ‘next generation’ performance enhancing substances TB-500 and AICAR - described at the weekend by one anonymous ex-pro as "the new EPO."
While no cyclist has yet tested positive for either substance, their use in the peloton has been suspected since at least 2009, and news of the arrests suggests that the sport may have to brace itself for yet another doping scandal,
According to a statement issued yesterday by Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, six people were arrested in Catalonia and four in Madrid, with the doping ring said to have supplied products that resulted in failed drugs tests at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Vuelta a Espana in 2010, among other events.
Listing details of those who had been arrested, the statement referred to “Alberto B.N., 48 years of age,” adding that he is “Spanish of Colombian origin and with domicile in the Sultanate of Bahrain.” It stated that he is the presumed head of the organisation. He has subsequently been identified in the Spanish press as Alberto Beltrán Niño, the former Xacobeo-Galicia team doctor.
The Mossos d’Esquadra said that the suspect had been arrested on 5 March at Madrid’s Barajos aiport where he was attempting to board a flight to Colombia. Vials of AICAR and TB-500 were found in his luggage. A laptop and USB drives were also taken by police.
In 2009, Pierre Bordry, former chief of the French anti-doping agency, the AFLD, said that he believed that AICAR – in full, 5-Aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide ribotide – which acts on muscular tissue to burn body fat and boost circulation of the blood, had been used during that year’s Tour de France, saying he was shocked at how thin some riders appeared to be during the race.
Bordry said at the time that the AFLD planned to re-test samples, but as yet no cyclist has ever tested positive for AICAR, although as an article in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf today points out, under the current testing regime it is near impossible to trace.
The newspaper says that at least three World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratories, including DoCoLab at the University of Ghent, are working on a specific test for the banned substance, which De Telegraaf describes as an “untraceable superdrug.”
Professor Professor Peter Van Eenoo, the head of DoCoLab, told De Telegraaf that since, like testosterone, AICAR is a substance occuring naturally in the body, it differs from say, clenbuterol, which does not. Since some amount will therefore always be present in the body, a minimum threshold therefore needs to be established, adding, “we are close to the solution.”
He added that the test would then need to be refined to establish whether the detected substance originated from a pill, and the the WADA-accredited laboratory in Cologne is working on that issue.
On Saturday, De Telegraaf published quotes from an unindentified former professional cyclist who spoke about what he claimed was widespread use of AICAR in the peloton, who said: "there are riders who have been using this for two years now," and explained how small quantities could be ordered via the internet, adding: ."AICAR is the new EPO and it works!"
The newspaper also quoted a team manager, again not identified, who maintained that according to what he described as 'radio peloton' - gossip among the riders and others at the heart of the sport - AICAR has been used during the past couple of years by cyclists including "several top names."
TB-500, which promotes growth of muscle mass and is said by the Mossos d’Esquadra to be a veterinary drug used on horses, is the substance former Lotto-Predictor rider Wim Vansevenant was reported to have purchased online prior to last year’s Tour de France, where he had been due to drive the VIP bus for Omega Pharma-Lotto. The team swiftly distanced itself from Vansevenat, who claimed the product was for his own use, and cut all ties with him.
Others arrested by the Spanish authorities under Operacion Skype and from whom substances such as EPO, human growth hormione and anabolic agents were seized include former Café de Colombia professional cyclist Carlos Andrés Ibáñez Melchor, suspected of having distributed banned substances in Madrid, and the ex-trainer of former world steeplechase champion Marta Dominguez.
The latter was herself implicated in Operacion Puerto after the codename on a bag containing blood seized as part of that investigation was linked to her mobile phone number, and charged but subsequently acquitted in connection with Operacion Galgo, which broke in 2010.
Operacion Skype was jointly carried out by officers of the Policia Nacional and Mossos d’Esquadra who began co-operating on the investigation last year when they discovered that they were both working on separate doping enquiries that turned out to be connected.
It is reported by Spanish sports daily AS to have been based partly on evidence provided by David Garcia Dapena, the now retired former Xacobeo-Galicia rider who tested positive for EPO and hydroxyethyl starch during the 2010 Vuelta. His initial two-year ban was reduced by six months as a result of the assistance he provided.
His team mate at the defunct former UCI Professional Continental outfit, Ezequiel Mosquera, runner-up to Vincenzo Nibali in the 2010 Vuelta, also tested positive for hydroxyethyl starch from a sample taken during the race and is serving a two-year ban.
News of both his and Dapena’s positive tests broke the same day that it was revealed that Alberto Contador had tested positive for clenbuterol during that year’s Tour de France.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.