Bio Hazard

biohazardTodays big doping news is that the UCI has opened disciplinary proceedings against Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. I’ve written some positive things about him in the past, hopeful things, wishing that his performances in 2012 were plausible, that he hadn’t betrayed Brian Smith, that he may be clean. As proceedings have progressed from a period where Tiernan-Locke could explain the changes in his blood values, onto the disciplinary phase, the probability of him being clean diminishes. The proceedings simply getting to this point means the bio-passport irregularities can’t be explained away with a simple reason, where any probable explanation can carry an element of doubt, even if he’s cleared. We’re heading into the grey area.

The Bio Passport

If you’re not aware of exactly what this is, here’s a brief description in lay mans terms, as I’m no blood expert myself I had to look into it to find out what some of the terms mean. Basically blood is taken at various periods throughout the year, the purpose of this is to determine a baseline of biological markers for each rider. This is then cross checked against pre-determined permissible levels (which I believe are quite generous, so to fail these is pretty disastrous). The markers look at blood cells, specifically at the age & percentage of them in the test sample. So in very simple terms, you biological markers should stay relatively the same, as shown by decades of medical research on the general public. A change in these can show you’ve been a very naughty boy, for example, if your sample shows older blood cells suddenly increase in percentage, then you may have transfused a bag of blood you’ve kept in the mother fridge for the last month “It’s pigs blood for my black pudding mum”. Or if you have a large concentration of very new blood cells, you may have injected the substance that stimulates red blood cell growth, EPO.

So the blood passport is an indicator of manipulation, but several things can change the percentages of the measured biological markers, such as dehydration, illness etc. For example, riders don’t have a bio passport blood samples taken from them directly after a race, to allow their bodies to regain semi-normal levels, otherwise any rider would have vast differences after a stage. We know that to try & balance levels, riders have been known to micro-dose EPO along with taking a transfusion, to attempt to balance their marker levels, even using their own testing machines, so it all gets a bit silly sometimes. If somebody wanted to maintain a boosted level all the time & set their baseline at this, it would be incredibly hard to maintain that for several years while in the testing pool, as your body would constantly be trying to return to its natural level, so it’s hard to imagine this is possible, but you never know.

Just Cycling?

You may ask why this just affects cycling, why not other sports. The answer to that is that most of them don’t do it yet. Yet again, cycling has implemented additional testing to its competitors in order to stamp out doping, or to be seen to be stamping out doping as may have been the case with the old UCI regime. WADA will be attempting to roll it out to other sports very soon, cross-country skiing is apparently already taking samples & tennis started taking samples this year, notably at Wimbledon a large amount of seeded players decided they were suddenly injured after bio blood tests were announced, while others underperformed dramatically. Introducing bio passports across other sports could have a huge effect of the top players & competitors, as testing has generally been lower than in cycling, plus in many of these sports the earning power is much greater & adds to the incentive to cheat. A commonly held belief in sport is that the higher the reward, the greater the risk that is taken & this includes the added chance of doping to exist in these sports. If it’s in cycling, it’s in just about every sport.

I’m all for tennis & football to introduce the bio passport, but whether they will or not is another matter. Cycling is predominantly an aerobic sport, so blood manipulation had a huge effect on results, it made a mockery of them for about 15 years in pro cycling. Skill based sports also benefit hugely from EPO use, blood transfusions & other types of manipulation.

Lets take an example of two hypothetical twins who both play football. As modern footballers now require a high level of fitness, they require a pile of endurance training to achieve this. Lets suggest that one of our twins decides not to do this, he takes a shortcut & inject his fitness with an EPO programme, the other twin trains aerobically for 2 to 3 hours per day, on top of his skills training. The short-cut twin is able to spend that training time on skills, set pieces etc & becomes a much more skillful player as a result. The clean twin is fatigued from the endurance training & has less time to train his skills. Which player results in being the best one, if there is no sufficient testing, bearing in mind they have both achived the same fitness level but one has 2 to 3 hours per day more skills training?

Virtually any sports person, who competes in a sport that requires any underlying fitness level can benefit fraudulently from doping, the bio passport needs implemented across the board for us to have any belief that what we see is clean, or at the very least, has minimal manipulation.

The Gist Of It

JTL is now tarnished whether or not he’s clean, we don’t really know yet, but the forthcoming ‘verdict’ will be debated, I expect there will be no dominant opinion on this, a bio-passport verdict is a polarizing subject. The bio-passport is a good thing in sporting terms, the allowances are very large, so if something is detected we can assume that there is a very valid reason for it being brought to a disciplinary proceeding.

The bio-passport can stop riders doping as much as they used to, perhaps a fraction of what they may have done before. In cycling, we have had the 50% haematocrit ceiling in the past, which other sports didn’t have, so when it’s rolled out across other sports we’ll see a much more dramatic change in the top performers, much greater than a previous multi grand-tour winner not quite firing on all cylinders as we’ve seen. If anybody watching from the experienced seat of a cycling fan, sees young footballers having heart attacks on the pitch, it reminds us of early 90’s reports of Belgian cyclists dying in their sleep, with their hearts finding it impossible to pump their EPO boosted treacle-like blood around their bodies.

The bio passport needs introduced in all sports, not just for sporting ethics reasons, but for public health reasons, we need to make sure our athletes, players & competitors in any sport don’t have to risk their health to be on the same playing field as everybody else. Would you want your son or daughter competing in a sport where they refused to implement a biological passport system?

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Decaf’ JTL

Some things are not quite the same when you add an extra process, like decaffeinated coffee, skimmed milk & Sky’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. There’s a very good interview with him on Velonation HERE. It’s the first I’ve seen since he started riding with Sky in 2013, there have been plenty of rumours that he may not be happy, but nothing concrete, this interview fills in a few gaps & hopefully allows some insight into exactly what happened with the tricky transition to the big time.

Where did it go wrong?

Lets first look at 2012, his performances were Record, but his circumstances were Athena, he performed well above what would be expected from a lower level UCI Continental categorised rider, beating high quality riders from the top UCI World Tour teams. He won the tour of Alsace, the Tour Méditerranéen, Tour du Haut Var & the Tour of Britain, taking stages along the way, a winner through & through, performing in the best races he could start at the level the Endura team was riding at in 2012.

Roll-on 2013, now signed for the Sky team, things just didn’t come together for JTL, better explained in the Velonation piece linked above. Rather than following his successful self-trained approach of previous years, he was now doing things the Sky way. Some types of training just don’t suit every type of rider, you can imagine a rider stepping up to World Tour level, they are going to go along with what is asked of them by the sports scientists who prepared riders to finish in 1st & 2nd places in the Tour de France. It’s all very well any of us saying we’d have tried what worked for us previously, but you’re not going to argue with the guidance from a team of this stature, you just have to read Charlie Wegelius’ book to understand why you’d toe-the-line (read ‘Domestique’ by the way, it’s excellent). The method didn’t work.

Sports Science

Sky are experts at identifying a certain type of rider, well, not Sky as such, but the British Cycling system, where many of the Sky coaches have progressed from, they are very very good at this. But they missed Dan Martin, they almost missed Cav, & they originally missed JTL himself, so there is something not quite perfect with talent identification, the normal power ‘buckets’ they use to decide the talent of a rider require to have some other characteristics added so they don’t miss anybody else. So could this lead us to the view that if you’re not used to that type of rider (a more punchy aggressive style that a pursuit specialist or a long mountain climber), you probably don’t have too much experience of training their strengths correctly for road racing. This looks like what has happened with JTL, he’s obviously supremely talented, his 2012 results speak of that, he’s also presumably not thrown up any odd blood results, otherwise Sky’s alarm bells would have been ringing last year when they were in talks with him.

Where Now?

Sky’s method isn’t perfect, but it works a treat for some riders. We can safely assume that Tiernan-Locke has thrown up a good number of questions, questions which we know are being researched & answers formed methodically & with a clearly defined solution. My prediction, Sky have learnt loads from this experience, they can produce Grand Tour winners, they made a mistake with one rider in 2013, I think they’ll remedy that in 2014. The teams poor classics performance requires a rider such as the 2012 Jonathan Tiernan-Locke to spearhead it, so he’ll be taken off the original 2013 programme, to be turned into a mountain lead-out metronome, that’s not how he rides. They’ll play on his strengths next year, high short-term power output, but perhaps a rider not able to generate the Grand Tour winning aerobic power required for the long mountains, they’ve not had a rider like this before, it could be crucial. He’s got a very bright future as a classics rider, last years Worlds showed that we may see him again in that protected role at Pontferrada in 2014, but this time, he may have had a year of the correct & type of tuning for his physiology, something he’s not had up to now, even during 2012.

I expect bigger things next year, JTL’s been decaf’d this year, next year he’s getting it back, but it’s going to be a double espresso.

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