What teams can learn from the Tiernan-Locke case

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The Tiernan-Locke case – and, also, the Roman Kreuziger situation – have shown that there are risks to teams in signing riders from other squads. With the UCI biological passport potentially taking a couple of years to detect anomalies, there is a chance that one team will have to deal with the repercussions of what took place under the contract of another. CyclingTips looks at the Tiernan-Locke case, pinpoints errors made and asks what can be learned from it.

In the spring of 2012 Jonathan Tiernan-Locke forced his way onto the radar of Garmin- Sharp and other teams with a number of career-best performances.

The-then Endura Racing Continental-level rider won two stages, the overall classification and the points competition in the Tour of the Mediterranean, then went to the Tour du Haut Var and dominated there. He followed those rides up with second overall behind Nairo Quintana in the Vuelta a Murcia.

Given that he was racing against much bigger teams and better-known riders, the performances stunned. They also ensured the attention of some of those same squads, including Garmin-Sharp.

The CEO of the latter team, Jonathan Vaughters, was interested in Tiernan-Locke and saw him as a possible addition to his WorldTour squad for 2013. However, as per team policy, he required that any riders without biological passports do a series of blood tests in order to build up a profile and show they are clean.

“If we are in contact with a rider and they want to come to the team, we will send them a plane ticket and basically say, ‘come down to Girona tomorrow,’ or even that afternoon, or whatever it is,” he told CyclingTips.

Under the protocol, the rider is then collected at the airport, brought straight to a lab in Girona and asked to provide blood and urine samples. After food, he is then asked to do an intensive hour and a half physiological test; an additional blood test may follow later.

According to Vaughters, testing riders around high performance periods should both illustrate their physiological capacity and also give an idea of their haematological [blood] profile at those points in time. Three different tests are done at short notice over different periods in the season.

If the team is satisfied with the figures and believes they look credible, it can then decide to offer the rider a contract.

“The thing with Tiernan-Locke was that we tried to do that in February or early March of that year, when he was in a real high performance period, but he wouldn’t come down to Girona,” Vaughters said. “We kept saying, ‘okay, you need to be here tomorrow for the test,’ but he would say, ‘oh no, I’m busy, I have got this or I have got that.’ He would always put it off, put it off, put it off.

“Finally he agreed to come down. We did the test on March 28. At that point in time all I can say is that the haematology was normal but his power test was average at best. It certainly wasn’t the guy who was ripping Philippe Gilbert and Dan Martin off his wheel at the Tour of Med. It was a power test of a very average professional rider.

“That to me that was sort of inconclusive. We were going to try to do a second and third test, but at that point in time he didn’t show a whole lot of motivation for doing any more testing because he had pretty much decided to ride for Team Sky anyway.”

Tiernan-Locke’s results cooled off for a period and the rider then suffered a broken collarbone at the Lincoln Grand Prix in May. He bounced back in July 2012 with two stages, the overall classification plus the points and mountains competitions in the Tour Alsace, then copperfastened Sky’s interest when he won a stage and the general classification in the Tour of Britain.

He was offered a two year contract on September 20th of that season. On September 22 he underwent his first-ever biological passport test as he was going to be part of the WorldTour the following season.

One day later he finished 19th overall in the world road race championships, notching up another fine ride in what had been a superb season. Tiernan-Locke returned to Britain and did a medical exam for Sky on September 24, then took some well deserved rest and built up for what would be his first season in the top level of the sport. Things looked upbeat, but that was as good as it got.

Lack of form followed by anti-doping case:

Had things gone to plan, Tiernan-Locke would have gone on to clock up another series of strong performances in 2013. However it didn’t work out that way; his results were very muted and his health mixed. He blamed the workload he was under while racing for and training with Team Sky, and said he would return to his previous lighter training programme.

That didn’t pay off in time for the Tour of Britain, where he was passed over for selection, but he was picked to ride the world road race championships again.

Then, disaster. Tiernan-Locke unexpectedly returned home prior to the worlds and then, on the morning of the elite road race, the Sunday Times reported that he was under investigation for suspicious biological passport levels.

He was sidelined by Sky for the 2014 season and then on July 17, the UCI confirmed that he was facing a two year ban. He opted not to appeal this and the sanction was confirmed on August 18 by UK Anti Doping.

Game over, at least until 2016.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the case emerged at that point. UKAD released its full ruling and details of the case came to light. It showed that Tiernan-Locke’s suspicious biological passport test on September 22 2012 showed a haemoglobin concentration of 17.9 g/dL, with the percentage of reticulocytes, or immature blood cells, at just 0.15%. [Editor’s note: the former reading equates to a haematocrit reading of approximately 53.7%, while standard reticulocyte levels are approximately 1%.]

Those two values combine to produce a calculated measurement called OFF-score. According to UKAD, Tiernan-Locke’s figures led to a ‘highly abnormal’ OFF-score value of 155.8.

In addition to that, the medical test carried out by Team Sky two days later was also unusual. His OFF-score value then was 127.8; according to anti-doping expert Robin Parisotto, who is one of the UCI’s biological passport experts but who was speaking to CyclingTips separate to that capacity, both values would raise red flags in his book.

“An OFF-score of 155.8 is ‘off the scale’,” stated Parisotto. “I cannot ever recall such a high value and I have reviewed many profiles from many athletes from other sports.”

With a reference [i.e. ‘normal’] range for male athletes lying between 55.4 -110.6, Tiernan-Locke’s two values were far higher. According to Parisotto, the September 22 value of 155.8 results in a probability of a false positive of between one to 100,000 and one to one million.

As for the September 24 reading from Sky’s own blood test, the level of 127.8 had the risk of a false positive of between one to 1,000 and one to 10,000.

“As an OFF-score of 129.2 is the 1:10,000 cut-off. I would be very concerned about this score,” he said.

Tiernan-Locke’s defence was that a 33-unit drinking bender carried out on September 20th plus a decision not to eat or drink the following day caused both extreme dehydration and also a suppression of his reticulocytes. This was rejected by the UKAD, which concluded instead that he had blood doped.

Due diligence vital for teams:

Vaughters’ statements prompt important questions about the extent of the due diligence shown in this case. They also provide lessons for the future, not just for Team Sky but also for other squads in the same position.

As the Garmin-Sharp example shows, there are ways for teams to be proactive in verifying riders without passports are on the level. Carrying out blood tests prior to offering any contract enables them to have a greater degree of certainty about who they are dealing with.

According to the Sky spokesman, Tiernan-Locke attended two training camps with the team in the months prior to being offered a contract, namely in March and May of 2012. [Note: this was one camp more than previously acknowledged]. Asked if the team should have run its own series of blood tests, the Sky spokesman appeared to accept that, in retrospect, things could have been done differently.

“Clearly, if we ever have doubts about a rider we would not recruit them,” he said. “Everyone’s able to look at this case now with the clear benefit of hindsight. When we became aware of the issue last autumn, senior management did look fully into the rider recruitment process and, of course, the specifics for this case. It’s well known that we’re always looking to improve in everything we do and, with the support of a Head of Compliance, we’ve continued to look at ways to further strengthen all of the team’s practices.”

Asked if the new rider recruitment included testing along the lines of what Garmin-Sharp says it does, he didn’t wish to elaborate further. He said that the Head of Compliance might decide to outline the current recruitment process at a later date.

Like Parisotto, Vaughters sees red flags with the OFF-score from the Sky medical test. He said that a value of 127.8 would ‘absolutely’ be of concern, and that if his team found a rider to have this level, he would do follow up tests.

“Jonathan Tiernan-Locke could be a guy who was consistently at that 125, 127, 130 range, or he might not be,” he said. “Typically speaking, if I had a rider who came in that I was testing in 127 or thereabouts, I would certainly want to do a lot of follow-up because that is a very, very high off score.”

Asked about this second test, which took place two days after the extraordinarily high biological passport reading, the Sky spokesman was categorical that the two tests were not connected. He said that Sky had no access to the first reading, and that the second taken in Manchester was pre-arranged and part of the regular medical exams.

“On signing him, the team carried out its own medical with blood tests – normal procedure for us – for health screening. Those tests are not used for any doping controls but there was nothing that raised any concerns for us at that time and over the following months there was nothing in his performance, behaviour or the official testing that raised any doubts,” he said.

He accepted that the OFF-score reading [which, again, is a relationship between mature and immature red blood cells] was not calculated.

He said that this reading only came to light when it was worked out by the experts working on the rider’s case.

Had Sky done its own longitudinal testing prior to signing the rider, or indeed looked closely at the blood levels from the September 24 test, it is likely that the contract would never have gone ahead.
So what do the UCI and its Cycling Anti Doping Foundation have to say to teams considering signing riders without passports?

At this point in time, not much.

“It is not the UCI/CADF’s policy to give any recommendation to teams on their recruitment,” it told CyclingTips. “Clearly teams should do all they can to satisfy themselves that their riders and/or potential recruits are competing honestly.”

It’s unclear what that means in relation to riders without passports, but at least for teams who have been part of the system, there is a clear suggestion. “A rider who wants to sign with a new team can authorise the CADF to share his blood results with his potential new team,” it states.

The latter occurred with Roman Kreuziger, who went from Astana to Tinkoff Saxo prior to the start of 2013. In June of this year it emerged that passport values from 2011 and 2012 had been red-flagged; the rider will face a disciplinary hearing this month and if found guilty, will be handed a lengthy ban.

Tinkoff Saxo is angry that it took so long for those irregularities to come to light; time will tell if it was careful enough in evaluating Kreuziger’s profile, however, or if the variations were so subtle that additional time was needed for them to come to light.

According to Parisotto, the latter can sometimes be the case. In other occasions, though, teams have been able to decide not to sign riders due to concerns with their passport profiles.

So what of Tiernan-Locke? The rider said recently that he maintained his innocence but didn’t have the money to lodge an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He continues to insist that he hasn’t used banned products and repeated that the huge levels of alcohol he drank hours after signing his two year deal with Team Sky were responsible.

He pointed to the September 24 OFF-score reading of 127.8 as proof that his levels were still high but gradually returning to normal; it’s something he argues is consistent with his claim of extreme dehydration.

The obvious question about that argument is this: if he was severely dehydrated on September 22 and still affected by the same issue on September 24, how did he finish a career-best 19th in the Elite men’s road race championships on September 23?

Whatever answer you believe, it’s clear there’s plenty to be learned from this case by any teams bringing untested riders on board.

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