Rogers cleared but questions about clenbuterol remain

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The UCI announced on Wednesday that Tinkoff-Saxo rider Michael Rogers would not be sanctioned for an adverse analytical finding for clenbuterol following the Japan Cup Cycle Road Race late last year. Rogers won the race on October 20 – only three days after he left China following the Tour of Beijing – and thus told the UCI that clenbuterol in his urine was from eating contaminated meat in China.

While Wednesday’s news came as a relief to Rogers, the decision leaves a lot of unanswered questions about clenbuterol contamination and how cycling’s governing body, the UCI, is handling the issue. Jono Lovelock explains.

At first glance, the Michael Rogers case appears analogous to that of his now-teammate Alberto Contador who claimed the same defence following a clenbuterol positive at the 2010 Tour de France (a victory he was stripped of). At second glance, the UCI appears to setting an odd double-standard, sanctioning one rider while pardoning another. You should reserve taking a third glance until all the facts are present because it’s obvious, right now, that we don’t have all the information we need.

There are many elements surrounding the Rogers case that have been discussed repeatedly:

“Why would a cyclist take a drug used for stripping fat so late in the season?”

Some riders will use anything, and a powerful anabolic agent is always handy when trying to win a race.

Why would a cyclist in their right mind actually eat beef when they’re in China. We’ve been told about the risks many times before, right?

Yes, but it isn’t just beef; it’s pork and chicken as well. And have you seen a stir-fry in China? Even the rice porridge at breakfast has bits of pork in it.

But what about the rumours that riders were told they would not be tested for clenbuterol?

And that’s where the story is at. Rumours, questions, and no answers. Rumours have circulated since the Rogers’ positive test in Japan, that riders were not being tested for clenbuterol in China. Velonews asked the UCI the question, and the UCI stated that all samples at the Tour of Beijing were being tested for clenbuterol as per World Anti-Doping Agency standards. But something just doesn’t add up.

Studies in clenbuterol contamination

With the topic of inadvertent clenbuterol ingestion on everyone’s lips following the Contador saga in 2010, and with increased reports of clenbuterol misuse in livestock — in China and Mexico specifically — researchers at the German Sport University in Cologne decided to conduct their own study.

The lab rounded up 28 volunteers — 19 travellers and 9 residents — who had been in various regions of China for between four and 23 days. They were told to eat what they wanted — meat included — and their urine was tested for clenbuterol immediately upon return to Germany. Some 79% of participants returned positive findings. The only vegetarian participant returned a negative result.

And then there’s another study from 2012.

In this study, also conducted at the German Sport University in Cologne, researchers asked: can we tell if clenbuterol in urine came from food ingestion, or doping? Their answer was a definitive ‘no’.

“The ingestion of contaminated meat produced until slaughtering under clenbuterol-based growth-promoted farming might contain nearly racemic mixtures of clenbuterol and thus mimics a drug administration in the presented assay,” the study stated in its conclusion.

The researchers did state that they had a starting point for a test that properly discriminates between sources of clenbuterol, but they are still a long way off from being able to clearly determine clenbuterol from doping and clenbuterol from contaminated sources. This also detracts from the argument that clenbuterol should be re-classified by WADA and treated as a threshold substance, whereby minute amounts would no longer trigger a positive test.

The logic is that minute traces of clenbuterol found in urine are indicative of contamination, not deliberate doping. That is, who would dope but take such a minute amount? But as the researchers found in the first study mentioned above, urine samples from those who consume contaminated meat look much the same to researchers as urine samples from those who doped with clenbuterol.

Quite simply, if researchers cannot tell the difference, anti-doping testers won’t be able to tell the difference. All that can be said definitively is that there is clenbuterol where there shouldn’t be.

So, going back to the first study, if 79% of participants sent to China can return a positive test, how come we are not seeing more positive tests from riders at UCI races in China? Doing some sums on the past five years alone brings up some interesting numbers.

Last year there were 45 UCI race days in China. Assuming protocol was adhered to and three tests were conducted per day — GC leader, stage winner and a random — over the last five years that’s 675 tests. Even if we make a drastically conservative assumption and assume that just one test was conducted per day, that’s 225 tests that (as the UCI assures us) were tested for clenbuterol.

If we combine Jonathan Breyne (who tested positive for clenbuterol at the Tour of Taihu Lake last November) and Rogers’ adverse findings, that gives a grand total of two out of 225 tests; or 0.88% of tests returning a positive finding. Compared with the 79% hit rate from the Cologne study, this figure seems odd.

Of course behavioural changes need to be factored in — it is clear that many riders take steps to avoid consuming meat at races in China for fear of contamination. But CyclingTips understands from those who were in the food hall at Tour of Beijing — but who were unwilling to go on the record — that there were riders eating meat at the race.

What aren’t we being told?

Compared with the Contador case, the Rogers case is fascinating. In its official statement the UCI claimed that:

“Upon careful analysis of Mr Rogers’ explanations and the accompanying technical reports the UCI found that that there was a significant probability that the presence of clenbuterol may have resulted from the consumption of contaminated meat from China.”

But what are these technical reports and what does a significant probability equate to? Additionally, what are the explanations that Rogers was able to present that differ so greatly from the Contador case? For the UCI to make such definitive claims they must have secure knowledge that Rogers’ analytical finding was inadvertent.

For precedence on the matter, the U17 Football World Cup in Mexico makes an interesting case study (as cited in the second paper mentioned above). Only five of the 24 teams participating in the World Cup did not have a player return a positive test for clenbuterol. The one team on a vegetarian diet returned negative results across the board.

However, the sport’s governing body, FIFA, was prepared for the situation, owing to the reputation of clenbuterol misuse in Mexico, and the organisation kept samples of meat served at every team hotel. Fourteen out of the 42 samples collected returned positive results for clenbuterol, but most interestingly, there was an even spread of positive findings across all locations. Consequently the positive tests were annulled and, soon after, 14 livestock markets in Mexico were shut down.

Is the UCI following the precedent set by FIFA? Do the UCI’s ‘technical reports’ show positive clenbuterol findings either from rider urine samples at the Tour of Beijing or from meat served at race hotels?

So far these questions have gone unanswered, and many of them will most likely remain unanswered. We will keep pressing to get answers, but in the meantime, the above studies present the reality on what is a difficult situation for the UCI and WADA.

Clenbuterol misuse in China and Mexico is real and it is a problem. How anti-doping authorities can handle this problem in a consistent manner in coming years is unclear.

Update: We posed a number of follow-up questions to the UCI, including a request for more information about the “technical reports” that helped the organisation decide not to sanction Rogers. We received the following response: “The UCI has publicly updated its position through today’s press release and will not further comment.”

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