June 30, 2006
New York Times
Doping Scandal Looms Over Tour de France
By EDWARD WYATT

Not since Lance Armstrong emerged from cancer treatment in 1999 and embarked on a record-breaking string of seven straight victories has the Tour de France offered such a wide-open field of contenders, with increased intrigue over who might prevail rather than how Armstrong will make his opponents succumb.

At least a half-dozen riders, and perhaps as many as twice that, have a legitimate shot at winning the world's richest and most prestigious bicycle race when it starts its three-week, 2,270-mile jaunt on Saturday in Strasbourg.

But this year's Tour is threatened by another, darker presence not seen in nearly a decade — a sprawling doping scandal. Even before riders began to arrive for the start of the three-week race, Tour officials asked a Spanish team to withdraw, citing police raids in Spain that found banned performance-enhancing drugs and other items that were said to have implicated dozens of top riders and coaches.

The latest situation brings echoes of the last Tour to start without Armstrong: the 1998 race, which nearly imploded during a doping scandal similar to the current crisis. One team was expelled after a team official was caught with EPO and other performance-boosting drugs in his car. Riders staged a sit-down strike, delaying the start of one day's racing stage by two hours, and five other teams quit the event to protest police raids of riders' hotel rooms.

The current doping investigation comes at a time when more and more questions are being raised about the reliability of tests to detect EPO, one of the most commonly abused drugs. And the situation threatens to cast a pall over the entire enterprise, just as racing aficionados were anticipating one of the most exciting races in decades.

"These are the Tours you wait years and years to see," said John Eustice, a former United States pro cycling champion and now a television commentator and race promoter. Jonathan Vaughters, a former teammate of Armstrong's and now the race director of the United States-based TIAA-CREF team, echoed that, adding, "This race is going to be unpredictable — and very chaotic."

A court for sports arbitration in Lausanne, Switzerland, ruled yesterday that Tour officials could not force the Astana-Würth team to withdraw from the race. So Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, who finished fifth last year and third in 2003, will remain in a field that has no clear favorite. Ivan Basso, the Italian rider for the CSC team who finished second last year, was the only man who could consistently keep pace with Armstrong last year on the Tour's steepest climbs. But some riders say Basso's form has suffered since he won the Giro d'Italia.

Jan Ullrich, the German anchor of the T-Mobile team, was third last year, has finished second five times and won only once, a record that seems to have created its own psychological burden. Two Americans, Floyd Landis of Phonak and Levi Leipheimer of Gerolsteiner, seem to have the fitness and the ability to win. And no fewer than three of Armstrong's former teammates are thought to have a shot at the podium when the 21-day race finishes in Paris on July 23.

Whoever wins, that rider is almost certain to face the questions that have dogged Armstrong since 1999, when he stunned with world, returning from death's door not only at peak physical condition but also with a seemingly different body — nearly 20 pounds lighter and with the lithe build of an expert in climbing mountains, rather than the muscular structure of a power rider, as Armstrong had previously been known.

In 1999 and over the six subsequent years, Armstrong was never found to have used a banned, performance-enhancing substance. In the interim, a seemingly reliable test was developed for EPO, or erythropoietin, which had become the illegal drug of choice for cycling cheats. Although a handful of riders have tested positive and been thrown out of the race in recent years, never has a drug scandal as widespread as this year's threatened the Tour.

Considerable controversy exists around the test used to detect EPO, a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone that increases oxygen-rich red blood cells and allows athletes to recover more quickly from the effects of strenuous exercise.

Experts in the doping-control measures used by cycling and other sports say that since a urine test for EPO was devised by a French laboratory in 2000, many athletes whose tests seemed to indicate they made use of the banned drug have nevertheless been given a passing grade.

Don Catlin's role as the head of the drug testing laboratory at U.C.L.A., the only American site accredited by the World Anti-Doping Association, makes him an authority on doping by athletes. Catlin said his lab saw many EPO urine tests that indicated illegal doping by an athlete. He passes most of them, however, because the evidence is not, in his estimation, overwhelming.

"I don't call them because I know I will be faced with a phalanx of scientists and experts who are there to say I'm wrong," he said. "The false negative rate is very high."

Diagnostic tests that detect the illegal use of steroids, amphetamines and other substances banned in cycling and most other sports are relatively simple: a machine spits out the scientific equivalent of a plus or minus sign. The EPO test, in contrast, spits out a Rorschach blot, with results that must be interpreted by someone skilled in the art.

"The test is actually a very good one, but it's technically complicated," said Steven Elliott, the scientific director of Amgen, the biotechnology company that invented the pharmaceutical form of EPO. "If done properly, it works extremely well. But it's not just something that can be done by any lab."

Some athletes have managed to successfully challenge their positive results. A more troubling development came recently when researchers at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium reported in the medical journal Blood that the widely used EPO urine test can produce a false positive result when urine is taken from an endurance athlete within an hour after exercise.

At the Tour de France, the riders selected for testing after each day's stage — the race leader, the winner of the stage and several other riders selected randomly — have an hour after the finish to report for testing.

Incidentally, the very experiments designed to strengthen the reliability of the EPO test have raised even more questions about it. Last year, the French newspaper L'Équipe reported that recent tests of urine samples provided by Armstrong during the 1999 Tour had tested positive for EPO use. The tests were performed by the French lab that invented the EPO urine test and is the primary site used for drug testing by cycling officials during the Tour.

But the doubts around the reliability of the EPO test also raise considerable questions about whether seven-year-old urine samples could produce a legitimate result. An independent researcher hired by professional cycling's governing body studied the French lab's procedures and found several flaws. Specifically, he said, the samples tested appeared to have been used several times for numerous tests, and there was no documentation verifying that the samples had been properly preserved over the seven-year period — meaning they could have been contaminated.

Armstrong called the researcher's findings a vindication of his claims that he never used performance-enhancing drugs. Then, just weeks later, further charges were leveled against Armstrong after news media reports surfaced that a former teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife had both testified that Armstrong had admitted using performance-enhancing drugs before he contracted cancer. Armstrong again denied the accusations.

Defenders of cycling say that so many riders have been caught doping because the sport has one of the strictest drug policies.

"I don't mean to say that we don't have problems," said Bob Roll, a former professional cyclist and Armstrong supporter who now serves as a commentator on the cable channel OLN's Tour de France coverage. "But look at football, tennis, track and field, not to mention baseball. The more aggressive we are in testing, the worse our reputation becomes. It's incongruous that we are the one with the worst reputation."

Doping Scandal Looms Over Tour de France - New York Times