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Cheats likely to be micro-dosing without team knowledge; UCI helped protect and defend Lance Armstrong

Doping remains widespread within professional cycling, but with smaller gains in performance than at the height of the EPO era, and most likely done by riders acting without the knowledge of their teams. That’s one of the chief conclusions of the report of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC), published today, which also says the UCI “defended” and “protected” Lance Armstrong and gave the disgraced cyclist preferential treatment, despite “strong reason to suspect” he was cheating.

The 227-page report follows a 13-month investigation costing £3 million paid for by the UCI, whose current president Brian Cookson established the commission early last year in a bid to establish how the culture of doping came to permeate the sport, and what improvements can be made to help win the war against the drug cheats.

The three members of the commission –Swiss former state prosecutor Dick Marty, German anti-doping expert Ulrich Haas and Australian former army officer and criminal investigator Peter Nicholson – examined internal UCI documents and also conducted 174 interviews as part of their enquiry.

Armstrong, plus former UCI presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen were among those to appear before the panel, which returned a damning verdict on the governing body’s leadership during the time he was racing.

UCI gave preferential treatment to Lance Armstrong

The report says that the UCI’s leadership was aware in the late 1990s that the sport was “infested” with EPO and seized upon Armstrong, the cancer survivor who won the first of seven successive editions of the Tour de France in 1999, “as the perfect choice to lead the sport’s renaissance after the Festina scandal” the previous year.

It gives examples of preferential treatment favouring the American, ranging from the acceptance of a backdated therapeutic use exemption (TUE) when he tested positive for a corticosteroid during the 1999 Tour, to letting him race at the 2009 Tour Down Under on his comeback in 2009, even though he had not been in the testing pool for the required time.

But the panel determined that donations totalling $125,000 made by the rider to the UCI were not undertaken in connection with the governing body agreeing to cover up his doping, as former team mate Floyd Landis had alleged.

They were highly critical though of the UCI's attempts to derail the 2012 investigation of Armstrong by the United States Anti-Doping Agency that led to him being banned from sport for life and stripped of results including those seven Tour de France wins.

It also says that until between six and eight years ago, the organisation’s own actions “served to undermine anti-doping efforts” and that “the governance failures and specific actions of [the] UCI’s presidents/management seriously undermined UCI’s credibility.”

Today's drug cheats turn to micro-dosing ...

The report acknowledges that the situation appears to have improved with regard to the extent of doping in the sport compared to the late 1990s. But it says there is a belief that riders who are cheating have adapted to the athlete biological passport programme, and are micro-dosing with EPO.

While that gives smaller gains in performance than those achieved at the height of the EPO era - between 3 and 5 per cent now, compared to 10 to 15 per cent previously - but allowing them to keep their blood profile within parameters that enable them to avoid detection.

At the same time, the report notes that those smaller potential gains through cheating do give encouragement to riders who are clean that they are able to win races without resorting to doping.

"This has had a significant impact on the doping landscape today because by reducing the performance gains, riders will start to believe that they can have a career riding clean," said the report, which described it as "a key development in the fight against doping."

... but away from the eyes of their teams

The report adds: "Today the situation in cycling is likely still changing, and, certainly, it has become more opaque as riders have now been forced to dope 'underground'."

In contrast to the widespread organised doping of previous years,"A common response ... when asked about teams, was that probably 3 or 4 were clean, 3 or 4 were doping, and the rest were a 'don’t know'."

It added: "A number of top riders, and others in the sport, discussed other rider’s top performances, or changes in appearance due to dramatic weight loss, and were unable to explain how they were achieved."

But the commission said riders who do cheat are now likely to be using performance enhancing drugs under their own initiative, with the help of doctors outside their teams.

It outlined a number of reasons why doping could still be prevalent. Those include the pressure to get results and keep sponsors happy and ensure contract extensions, plus the fact riders regularly train away from team supervision and may employ their own doctors.

Other potential factors include the presence in team management of people who rode in an era when doping was endemic, and a continued reluctance to flag up suspicions of doping.

Night testing and encouraging whistleblowing among recommendations

Recommendations to the UCI were grouped under four headings – legislative framework, operational, governance and changes to the sport.

They include that the UCI co-operate more closely with governments and national anti-doping agencies, that testing patterns should be less predictable – including at night – and whistleblowing encouraged, that the UCI’s electoral process be overhauled and greater accountability put in place, and that there should be greater financial stability for teams and riders.

Former riders interviewed by the CIRC included a number now in management roles at WorldTour teams, such as Tinkoff-Saxo’s Bjarne Riis, Jonathan Vaughters of Cannondale-Garmin, and Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov.

Besides Armstrong, other riders who consented to have their names published included Britons Nicole Cooke and Chris Froome, the latter the only current athlete listed, plus Tyler Hamilton, Michael Rasmussen and Riccardo Riccò.

Others appearing before the commission included representatives of anti-doping organisations and a variety of sporting governing bodies including the UCI itself – Cookson and predecessors Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen were all interviewed – plus sponsors, race organisers, and journalists including David Walsh.

Cookson reaffirms commitment to reform

UCI president Cookson, who had said ahead of the report’s publication that it would prove “uncomfortable reading,” maintained that it demonstrated poor leadership of the governing body on the part of his predecessors, outlining some of their shortcomings.

He said: “It is clear from reading this report that in the past the UCI suffered severely from a lack of good governance with individuals taking crucial decisions alone, many of which undermined anti-doping efforts; put itself in an extraordinary position of proximity to certain riders; and wasted a lot of its time and resources in open conflict with organisations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

“It is also clear that the UCI leadership interfered in operational decisions on anti-doping matters and these factors, as well as many more covered in the report, served to erode confidence in the UCI and the sport.”

He added: “I am absolutely determined to use the CIRC’s report to ensure that cycling continues the process of fully regaining the trust of fans, broadcasters and all the riders that compete clean.

“I committed to this process before I was elected president and I'm pleased to see the CIRC complete its work. I shall be giving some more detail on how we will implement recommendations from the report during the course of this week.”

USADA boss Tygart laments "tragic loss" for clean cyclists

Among the first to react to publication of the report was USADA CEO Travis Tygart, who led the investigation that brought down Armstrong, which set in motion the chain of events that resulted in Cookson successfully challenging McQuaid for the UCI presidency.

In a statement, Tygart said he welcomed the report, which he said “confirms that, for more than a decade, UCI leaders treated riders and teams unequally – allowing some to be above the rules. The UCI’s favouritism and intentional failure to enforce the anti-doping rules offends the principles of fair play and is contrary to the values on which true sport is based.

“Sadly, the report confirms that greed, power, and profit – not truth – motivated UCI leaders and allowed the ‘EPO’ and ‘blood doping’ era to ride rampant. This is a tragic loss for all cyclists who sought to compete clean during that era, and their loss can never be forgotten.”

He went on: “As noted by the CIRC report, under President Cookson’s leadership the UCI is engaged in promising reforms of its anti-doping operations. We are encouraged by President Cookson’s commitment to strong partnerships with independent national anti-doping organisations whose only mission is to ensure a level playing field for all athletes.

“The clear message of the CIRC Report is what we have always said – sport cannot effectively both promote and police itself, without the support of independent anti-doping organizations. As the past story of the UCI demonstrates the race for power and profit by sport leaders can overrun integrity, fair play, and the rights of clean athletes.”

Tygart added: “USADA has been working closely with the UCI this year to implement a series of reforms that we believe hold promise for the future of clean cycling.

“Ultimately, the success of cycling’s transformation will be measured by how successfully the UCI implements these reforms to bring about new accountability, independence and transparency into its processes. 

“The CIRC Report is a strong first step in moving past the failures of the past, and USADA remains committed to working with the UCI to bring about a brighter future for clean cycling.”

You can download the full report below.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.