I’ve been through some of these issues before, the phenomenon of the sudden disappearance of the majority of those riders who come from high altitude environments during the major EPO years. It’s quite possible we still have a hangover from this in the current bio-passport policed environment, where riders can no longer go ‘full gass’ on the substances that make the most difference to aerobic performance & recovery. Could this be why some riders are currently able to produce incredible performances without drugs, could we be experiencing the aerobic talent that was missing all those years starting to drift back into the peloton?
I firmly believe that during the major EPO years we never saw the most talented cyclists reach the top of the sport. I suspect that some of that era’s finest riders never even made the pro ranks, they were left unable to proceed in the sport, outgunned by dopers & unwilling to participate in a gunfight while carrying a knife.
To illustrate this, we hear about the ‘good responders’. These individuals reputedly had low natural hematocrit (HCT) levels. The UCI limit, which was set at 50% (but 51% was the accepted target) ruled out many riders from the pro peloton. Prior to a valid test for EPO, riders were able to boost their levels from what is considered a ‘normal’ european sea level dweller value by over 10% in some cases. The worldwide HCT average value is considered for sedentary individuals is said to be around 42% to 54%, an athlete may be expected to be a bit lower due to training stress. This obviously creates an automatic disadvantage to athletes who live at altitude, or who spend time at altitude.
A study in Italian helicopter pilots who spend plenty of time high-in-the-air at altitude showed that their average HCT was 55%. This illustrates the huge variation that environmental factors have on HCT, we hardly saw a high altitude Colombian in a major race for several years. As I’ve said before, I don’t suppose that Colombians are less prone to doping than any rider from any other country, but their ability to improve ability from a very high natural HCT level was almost impossible, compared to the low-land dwelling individuals. Some Colombians would have been over the 51% level naturally, they had no hope of competing in those times. Charly Wegelius explains in his book about a constant worry of keeping his HCT level below the level it would trigger a break from racing ‘on health grounds’, as even though a European, his whole family had higher than the population normal HCT %’s.
This leads me to imagine that riders similar to those who would previously have been the top performers in cycling may now have returned. We may be unfairly tarring them with the same brush as riders from the past, but similar athletes may not have been capable of taking a place in the top flight of cycling when no EPO tests were available. They could be a few percent below the previous performances, but had they been in the peloton before, they would have been in the 2nd or 3rd groups on the climbs, not leading them. Without EPO, I find it hard to imagine any substance that could create these kinds of performances from ordinary riders, this is the crucial piece that is missing from doping accusers. What exactly is it they are taking that is making their performances better that anybody else, I’ve yet to hear a valid argument for this.
Currently, we have at least one Colombian rider undergoing tests due to questions about their bio-passports. One of these is Sergio Henao of Team Sky. As far as I’m aware, the majority of the data collected for the bio-passport project was predominantly carried out specifically in the sport of cycling, around the time that a test for EPO had just been rolled out & an era we know was tainted. I’d suggest that at this time, some of the test sample consisted of ‘good responders’. This leads us to the big question, perhaps we have a data issue right now, where the high altitude riders are suffering further issues with the bio-passport due to the original sample of data that was taken from the riders at the time.
The Gist Of It
I’m no expert on physiology or blood, I’d be very interested to hear from anybody who is, who can maybe shed some light on whether or not the above is a correct hypothesis. That the previous sample population that was tested isn’t relevant to the current sample population. The current riders are subject to the data gathered from a potentially abnormal group of riders who fitted a specific low HCT requirement during the major EPO years & had just abandoned major EPO use due to a test being developed. That there may be clean riders suffering from the hangover from an era that cycling was blown apart & the culture of widespread EPO use was reduced massively over a short period of time due to better testing & the bio-passport. I had forgotten all about this post, but in light of recent rumours of questions being raised informally regarding another Colombian rider, this issue may rear its head yet again, obviously in the week before the Tour, as usual.