Iranian domination leads to questions, some explanations

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Take a sport which has been through the mill in terms of doping scandals. Add in utterly dominant performances by riders hailing from a country with a very different culture and several past positives. It is perhaps inevitable that questions will be asked; what’s harder is to answer them.
CyclingTips spoke to two people with very different viewpoints on the matter. One is a manager who saw his riders given a hammering at the recent Tour of Singkarak, while the other is a current coach and past international rider who lived in Iran, saw the culture close up and believes there may be logical reasons for the success. As the Tour of Iran plays out, they give their thoughts on a complex subject.

No wonder debate is raging; rarely has a level of domination by one country’s riders been seen so prominently as at the recent Tour de Singkarak. Three teams of Iranian riders were amongst the field in the 2.2 Indonesian event, and they utterly decimated the field.

On stage two all but one of the top ten were from Iran; Hossein Alizadeh (Tabriz Shahrdari) won from a break ahead of Pishgaman Yazd trio Arvin Moazemi Goudarzi, Amir Zargari and Rahim Emami plus two other Iranians; the next riders – three out of four of whom were from that country – were five minutes back, with the peloton a further one minute 17 seconds in arrears.

On stage four Emami, Zargari and their Pishgaman teammate Ramin Mehrabani Azar took the top three places; the top seven were all Iranian, bar the Australian Matthew Clarke (Avanti Racing, sixth).

Stage eight was another prominent showing, with five out of the top seven from Iran. On this occasion the win went to a rider from elsewhere, namely Morocco’s Soufiane Haddi (Dubai Pro Cycling), but the prominence of the others settled the general classification and saw a staggering first through to seventh sweep by Iranian riders.

Pishgaman Yazd landed the top three places, via Zargari, Emami and Mehrabani. The first non-Iranian, Spain’s Oscar Pujol, was a very distant 13 minutes 39 seconds back in eighth.

He’s certainly no slouch, having previously raced with the Cervélo Test Team and Omega Pharma Lotto squads in Europe.

So what to make of the dominance? This question has arisen before in events such as the 2013 Tour of Singkarak, where Tabriz Petrochemical duo Ghader Mizbani and teammate Amir Kolahdozhagh finished eight minutes clear on stage five. The question was also asked in last year’s Tour of Borneo, where Mizbani and Mirsamad Pourseyedigolakhour took the queen stage over six minutes ahead.

On both those occasions their competitor teams and others questioned if the performances could be down to doping; whether those suggestions were fair or not, Pourseyedigolakhour had just returned from a two-year ban for EPO, fuelling concerns.

And he isn’t the only one to have been caught by the testing system. Another Tabriz Petrochemical rider, Hossein Askari, tested positive for methylhexaneamine in the 2013 Tour of Singkarak, where he had taken stage one and led the race for two days. He received a one-year suspension and was eligible to return to competition on June 2.

The performances of some of those in this year’s Tour of Singkarak also contain a footnote for past positives; Mehrabani Azar received a two-year ban for Metenolone in 2011, while Emami incurred a similar suspension in 2011 for Clenbuterol use.

A number of other riders from the country have also been busted in the past, increasing suspicion.

Questions justified, but what are the answers?

The dominance in Singkarak led to questions on the ground, according to Avanti Racing Team manager Steve Price. He said that many of those up against the Iranian riders found the gulf to be concerning.

“A lot of people were unhappy. There was a general consensus amongst the more prominent teams that were there that it was pretty unbelievable,” he told CyclingTips.

“It was fairly unfair for the organisers to invite one of them, let alone three of them. It made it pretty ridiculous. If you go through the results from each of the stages, especially the hillclimb stages, you can see just how ridiculous it was.”

Price said it was impossible to make firm pronouncements about the source of their strength. “I can’t sit back and say categorically that I think they are using performance enhancing drugs, because I clearly I don’t know that. All I can say is after 20 years experience as a bike rider and manager, it is very rare you see an individual dominate the way they do, let alone multiple people from the same place. And that’s knowing the quality of some of the other riders.

“If you look at the results in the teams this year, the yellow jersey’s team Pishgaman won the teams competition as well, but the rest of the teams were so far behind it wasn’t funny. They weren’t even in the same league. That to me is suspicious.”

One issue with racing on the Asian circuit is the difference in anti-doping testing carried out there when compared to Europe. Some races, such as last year’s Tour of Borneo, had no tests at all, while many of the others have urine testing but no blood examinations.

Price confirmed that this year’s Tour of Singkarak had urine testing and that the yellow jersey was scrutinised daily. Three of his riders were tested during the event and he said that the controls appeared to be carried out properly. However he felt there was still room for manipulation to take place.

“I don’t proclaim to be any expert in performance enhancing drugs, but I think a lot of the benefit these days is gained in training and then competing after having received the benefit, as opposed to actually doping while you are racing,” he said.

According to WADA’s 2012 statistics, the Iran national anti-doping organisation carried out three tests that year, all in competition. The UCI also carries out testing, but a request by CyclingTips to the governing body about what tests it conducts in Iran was not answered at the time of writing.

Price said that he had not heard any statistics, but had tried to find out. “I know there has been a lot of positive tests in all sports in Iran. I’m led to believe from the reading that I have done that most pharmaceuticals in Iran are made by government owned pharmaceutical companies due to international sanctions against the country.

“Pharmaceuticals in general are readily available and very, very cheap. But I don’t know what that means [for sport].”

Another explanation?

Australian coach and international rider Brad Hall spent time living in Iran in 2010, riding with one of the national teams there. He cautions against the presumption that the top performances seen in races such as this year’s Tour of Singkarak are down to doping. He said he can’t rule it out, but he feels that there are very plausible reasons why the country’s riders are stronger than many of their competitors.

“Cycling there is incredibly advanced,” he told CyclingTips. “It is probably the greatest domestic cycling league in the world. The president of the Iranian cycling federation is an avid supporter of cycling as a sport. He is also one of the top five wealthiest people in Iran, being involved in oil. He is incredibly wealthy and does it for no other reason than the fact that he loves it.

“In Iran they have an internal cycling league that consists of about ten different teams. You have teams like Tabriz Petrochemical, Azad University, various others that put in money to have an internal league that compromises road racing, tours, track events, so on and so forth through a year-round calendar, where all points are accumulated to an overall ladder for each one of these cycling clubs.”

He said that this means the country has a very large pool of riders to draw upon and to develop; in addition to that, their high level of pay allows them to focus entirely on their sport.

“Each of the members of the cycling clubs get paid between ten and up to 40 to 50,000 dollars US a year,” he explained. “In Persian terms, that top end is probably about the equivalent of 200,000 US dollars. So even those on a 10,000 dollar a year paycheck can live quite comfortably and just ride their bikes full time. That’s very different to the situation with many of the riders they are competing against.

“Having raced in France at an amateur level and Belgium at an amateur level and seeing what is given those riders, then you look at what exists over there…you can race against the likes of Ghader Mizbani or Hossein Askari week-in and week-out, over these incredible mountain passes, where everyone is getting paid at least the equivalent of 30,000 dollars a year in an organisation that is run by one of the wealthiest people in the country.”

Hall also points to the training environment there as being another explanation for the strong Iranian performances, particularly on climbing stages in races.

“There are incredible mountains behind Tehran which extend all the way north to Azerbaijan and to the sea. That’s where a lot of the riding is done, on this incredible terrain. All of it is at altitude; Tehran sits at about 1,400 metres, I think, and they have mountains over 2,000 metres within 20 kilometres of the city. It is quite a unique training environment, so to speak.

“I don’t think living at altitude necessarily affects sea level performance, but it certainly affects adaptation rates at altitude. So if you take those guys and put them in Qinghai Lake, you can see the benefits. I have seen Hossein Askari ride away from a 30-man group that was chasing him right up at Qinghai Lake, at 3,000 metres.

“He went away in the last 40 kilometres and they just could not bring him back…and we are talking about 30 of the world’s better riders. You put them at altitude and then there are physical explanations as to why they succeed as well.”

Cor Vos Archives

Prejudice or reasonable doubt?

Hall gives those reasons as showing why performances can be both dominant and credible; equally, he accepts that questions will be asked, given the nature and history of the sport.

“Within the context of contemporary cycling, I don’t think it is unfair,” he said. “I think most exceptional performances – even Chris Froome at the Dauphiné – can raise eyebrows after you see dominance from the Armstrong era. I think that scepticism is something that is highly relevant to the context with which sport is viewed presently.

“That said, I do believe that a large portion of the scepticism is attributable to the West’s poor understanding of Iran as a country and the Persians in general.”

He points out that Iran is a country which has been under strong sanctions from the West. There have been long-running political tensions between the country and others such as the United States, meaning Iran’s reputation is different to that of many other places.

In addition to that, though, he said there is also a regional perception which may be misleading. “If you look at a villain in a Western movie, they always have Arabic type features and a foreign accent. So I just think it falls very easily into our perception of someone that could be sinister or dishonest. And when someone from Iran does go positive, it weighs heavily in the favour of the notion, ‘they are all doping.’

“I think that there are other factors at play here. What I think they are is, one, it is very poorly understood country. There is a lot of research which shows that with more information about a target group or a target people, prejudice tends to decrease, just through the mere exposure of being around that target group. But we have very little contact with Iran in that sense.

“Two, Iran’s cycling federation is very well run, is very affluent and their cycling league really does, in every way, support its riders. It is just incredible what they have over there. I could have gone and ridden there full time for more than what I was going to earn with a professionally registered team when I was riding.”

Still, as much as he found the Iranian people to be very warm and at odds with what the international perception might be, he is also open to the possibility that at least some of its riders could be doping.

“I remember speaking to a high profile Iranian rider who is still racing now, who has ridden top five in Langkawi in the past. I asked him if people in Iran dope at this level. He goes ‘yeah, I think so.’

“So certainly it exists. He was quite forthcoming with that answer. But doping is not attributable to their success. Their success as a country is also down to other factors. They have an incredible Olympic committee that is incredibly wealthy, and sport is very important in the country.

“And if you can peel back the filter by which the western population view Iran, you would actually see that the people themselves are incredibly friendly and incredibly passionate and driven individuals.

“I have trained with these guys and they are clinical in what they do. Their success is all credit to the work that they put in, and that is true for all riders.”

While he has a more sceptical stance than Hall, Price also accepts that a lot of hard work is being done. “You can see by looking at their legs that they are bike riders. They are fit guys. It is not like they are rank amateurs who are injecting themselves with drugs. They clearly work hard.”

However he said he still struggles to comprehend how much better they are than many of the other riders and teams competing on the Asian circuit.

“These guys may be in better form, may be on really good days, but to put that amount of time into Matt Clarke, one of our guys who would be one of the top ten climbers in Australia, is just unheard of.

“Look at what is probably a better measure – last year in the Tour of Borneo, two Iranians put seven minutes into Nathan Earle, who is now with Team Sky.

“They had been on the front since day one, all of them riding. Nathan hadn’t done a tap all week, and was in great form. When they attacked on the climb, he immediately tried to follow. He said, ‘Pricey, they just rode away from me like I was standing still.’

“Everyone knows how good he is and to think that these guys are that much better is just…that to me was unbelievable. I openly said it.”

‘I’ve seen speeds and performances that I think are capable of WorldTour victories’

Price’s comments are likely indicative of many team managers on the circuit. As Hall’s comments show, though, it is a complex, emotive subject. It’s hard to tell which viewpoint is closer to the truth.

Irish road race champion Matt Brammeier competed on some Asian circuit races with the Champion System team in 2013 and again this year with Synergy Baku. He was sceptical before on Twitter about some of what he saw; contacted by CyclingTips, he said some of what he seen is equivalent to the best riders in the world.

“I’ve seen speeds and performances that I think are capable of WorldTour victories,” he stated. “Whether they are clean or not I don’t know because I don’t live with them. If they are really riding honestly maybe they should venture into some higher class Euro events and maybe even at WorldTour level. Personally I think they would give the Froomes and Contadors a run for their money.”

It’s clear that there is a lot of uncertainty about the situation. An argument can be made that a lack of testing furthers suspicion. When races such as the 2013 Tour of Borneo have no controls at all, or when other races on the Asian circuit don’t carry out blood testing, there are gaps which could be exploited. The lack of information about out of competition testing in Iran is also something which fuels distrust.

“I definitely think they need to be doing out of competition testing,” said Price. “It is alarming to me…if you go on to ProCyclingStats and look at these guys results, at certain time they are killing it, then at other times – particularly when through the accumulation of a lot of UCI points they get picked up by WorldTour teams – they can’t get out of their own way. That is alarming to me. The fact that you do have a lot of these guys who have had positive tests before is alarming as well.

“I think blood testing at races would be a deterrent, but I think there definitely needs to be out of competition testing too.”

Although Hall lived there in the past, he said he doesn’t know how much of the latter examinations are carried out. “I can’t answer that with any objective data,” he said.

However he cautioned against thinking this would necessarily be the solution to the questions.

“All I can say is I have never had an out of competition doping test in Australia. So if that is the premise for argument, then we are all damned.”

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