Welcoming Testing, Team Battles Cycling’s Image
JULIAN, Calif. — On these mild, clear winter days in the mountains east of San Diego, one professional cycling team is trying to set itself apart from the doping scandals that have shaken its sport.
Like most teams, Team Slipstream is training on roller-coaster roads, sometimes more than 120 miles a day for more than six hours at a time.
But there is a visible difference between this team and others: at the crook of the riders’ arms are a series of dark needle marks. They are the results of repeated blood tests, part of a drastic and innovative anti-doping program the team began here last month in an attempt to prove its riders are clean.
Antidoping scientists say the program, which includes blood and urine testing, is the new paradigm in the fight against doping because it tries to close loopholes in the current system. Cycling is not alone among major sports in trying to stem its doping problems, but none of them use programs as aggressive as this one. Instead of relying on drug tests or police investigations, this method tries to weed out those who use performance-enhancing drugs by catching them before they win a trophy or wear a race leader’s yellow jersey.
Each Slipstream rider is tested not for the illegal substances, but for the body’s reactions to doping. To do that, riders are blood-tested 50 times a year, at least five times more than usual. In the program, they are also urine-tested 50 times a year.
“It’s an absolute severe pain for us to do, but I’ll do anything to keep from being lumped with the guys accused of cheating,” said Danny Pate, 27, a former under-23 world champion and one of Slipstream’s top riders. “I’ll give DNA. I’ll post all of my information on the Internet. I’ll do anything to help save the sport.”
The team, which is one step below the top level in cycling, is composed of young men who aspire to ride in the Tour de France or in the Olympics. Slipstream is scheduled to compete in races throughout the world, including the Tour of California, which begins Feb. 18. The team hopes to receive an invitation to the 2008 Tour de France.
Doug Ellis, a private investor from New York City who owns the team, said he wanted it to win, but for now, he is willing to celebrate the smaller victories, such as winning a stage of a race.
The team has a main secondary sponsor in Chipotle, a chain of Mexican restaurants. Still, the problem of finding a primary sponsor remains. Discussions with potential sponsors last summer fell apart after the 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis tested positive for synthetic testosterone, Ellis said.
Slipstream’s antidoping program would serve as “an insurance policy” for a potential sponsor that might be skittish about getting involved in cycling, Ellis said. “I’m really committed to reaching our end point, and that’s having a clean team compete in the Tour de France,” he said. “But if we got there, and no sponsor showed up, and if we finished last in every race, then I think it would be hard to stick with it.”
Slipstream, which was formed in 2003, put in its radical testing program last month as a way to counter the sport’s recent history of cheating, with top riders caught using EPO and testosterone as well as banned methods, like blood transfusions.
The fallout from those scandals has touched nearly every team member.
Riders falsely accused of using performance-enhancing drugs have felt helpless in proving their innocence.
One cyclist lost his job because his team folded after it was riddled by positive tests.
The team director and former United States Postal Service rider Jonathan Vaughters said it was his mission to start what he called “a clean team” after his retirement from racing in 2003. Throughout his career, he said, riders battled the ethical question of whether to use performance-enhancing drugs. In the 1990s, he said, the use of the blood-boosting drug EPO was rampant and teams felt pressured by sponsors to win at any cost.
“I don’t have a halo over my head; I made some mistakes when I was a rider,” said Vaughters, who would not directly say whether he had used performance-enhancing drugs. “I don’t want to have any of the riders under my direction to have to face the decisions I did. I’ve made that my responsibility.”
Initially, riders asked Vaughters how they could be successful under such a strict antidoping program. In response, he told a story about the Tour de France in 2001, when he rode for Crédit Agricole, a team he believed was clean. Though not expected to be a contender, Crédit Agricole won the team time trial, after the top teams crashed or had flat tires.
“I tell my guys, ‘You can beat someone using EPO but you can’t do it overnight,’ ” said Vaughters, who was on the team that helped Lance Armstrong win his first Tour de France title, in 1999. “You just have to do everything perfectly and you need a little bit of luck.”
An organization called the Agency for Cycling Ethics runs Slipstream’s testing program. It is an independent agency formed by Paul Scott, a former chemist and client director at the U.C.L.A. Olympic drug-testing lab, with people dedicated to antidoping.
The agency pays for the collection and testing of the blood and urine samples. But money is running out, and it is looking for sponsors for the costly enterprise.
Testing each rider each season would cost about $20,000, a price tag of $400,000 for a team.
Ideally, there would be no financial relationship between the agency and the teams it tests, Scott says, so the entire process remains impartial. If money does run out, Ellis said he would pick up the cost of the frequent testing.
Normally, cyclists are drug-tested if they win or finish near the top of a race, or if they are selected at random. They are also tested out of competition by their international federation or by the World Anti-Doping Agency. But that model is changing.
In Slipstream’s program, each rider’s blood and urine samples would be tested by an outside lab, then sent to an independent agency to be analyzed. That agency would then compile a biological record of each rider, including his levels of hemoglobin, naturally occurring steroids and red blood cell count. Over time, the information gathered would show what was normal for each individual. Team management has asked WADA to audit those results.
If any part of a rider’s biological record changes markedly — for example, if his natural steroid level skyrockets — it could be an indication of doping, or of a drug for which there is not yet a test. In that case, the athlete has agreed to sit out for two weeks to undergo further drug testing to see what caused the anomaly.
If those numbers remain consistent, however, it could mean a rider is clean. But no conclusion is guaranteed — yet.
Antidoping scientists say that this testing method is more complicated than it seems. Testers need to determine what they monitor and for how long before an athlete in that system can definitively be stamped as a clean athlete, they say. Still, those officials applauded Slipstream for making an effort to be at the forefront of a program that rewards athletes for being clean.
“I see this as a baby step, but an important step, in trying a new approach,” said Don Catlin, director of the U.C.L.A. testing lab.
Other professional cycling teams, like Team CSC and T-Mobile, have instituted rigorous in-house testing programs, but Slipstream’s is different because it is independent of the team and does not test for banned substances. Instead, the riders’ biological report cards are analyzed in conjunction with physiological testing, so scientists can see how the body changes when the riders work out, travel or when they are ill.
To take the testing a step further, Vaughters has asked WADA to receive the results directly from the drug-testing laboratory and to use those results as research.
So far, the agency has not made a decision, but it has showed interest in the program. It has financed a research study in France on a method of testing similar to the one used by Slipstream, said the agency’s science director, Olivier Rabin. That program will test athletes who volunteer to be tested for a longer list of biological data.
To the 23 riders on Slipstream, it does not matter how many similar projects get under way. Theirs is among the pioneering ones.
They arrived at this training camp in mid-January, some skittish about giving blood, most eager to do their part to help restore their sport’s reputation.
Pat McCarty, a 25-year-old Texan and Slipstream rider, was swept up in the biggest doping scandal of the year last summer because he rode for Landis’s team, Phonak, in the Tour de France. When the team folded, McCarty lost his job.
He felt helpless defending himself as a clean rider, he said. An antidoping program like the one Slipstream has put in would be a way for him to prove his innocence and to build trust among teammates, he said.
“We’re doing something to help pull cycling out of the ditch,” McCarty said.