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by Shane Stokes
April 3, 2015
Photography by Cor Vos
Speaking about a misuse of cortisone which was highlighted in the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report, UCI president Brian Cookson has said that the UCI is concerned by the use of this and other grey area products and will try to eliminate any abuses.
The CIRC report looked into historic and current doping practices and while it concluded that there was evidence that the widespread use of hard substances were reduced nowadays due to elements such as the biological passport, it highlighted various concerns.
Microdosing EPO was one; another was the use of cortisone and corticoid products in training to burn off body mass while preserving power.
“One doctor stated that it was impossible to lose the weight that some riders achieve without assistance, and that the TUE is taken advantage of to enable this practice,” the report said. “He stated that riders use corticoids to “lean out” i.e. to lose weight quickly, and keep it off, without losing power.
“By way of example he explained that to lose 4kg in 4 weeks by using corticoids would provide a 7% power/weight improvement. He added that when used in large quantities and in conjunction with other substances, they supported performance gains.
“Another doctor stated that some quite recent big wins on the UCI WorldTour were as a result, in part, of some members of the team all using corticoids to get their weight down to support the individual who won (who also used the same weight-loss technique). It was reported that this had been a planned approach by that group’s management.”
Asked what the UCI could to try to eliminate such manipulations, Cookson said that it was one that he wanted to try to tackle.
“I think we should take note of what is being told us by CIRC in respect of cortisone and potentially other medical and quasi-medical abuses,” he told CyclingTips as part of a long interview. “Again, this ties up with our ethical processes and so on.
“I am anxious to look at the TUE regulations, for instance. TUEs are allowed under the WADA Code, as you know. If we have a set of particular circumstances that are facilitating the use of substances which are in the rules but perhaps ethically challenging, then I think we ought to try to exceed the WADA Code if we can.
“But I want to makes sure if ever get challenged under those circumstances, that we are in a position that is legally defensible.”
Although he and the UCI have voiced some concern about the MPCC organisation’s additional anti-doping measures in the past, Cookson told CyclingTips that it may be the case that voluntary agreements such as those used by the MPCC were good.
MPCC teams have strict limitations on the use of cortisone and corticoids, and require teams to rest riders from competition for a period of time if they have had to take such substances as part of medical treatments.
One issue, though, is that seven WorldTour teams including the likes of Sky, Etixx-Quick Step and the BMC Racing Team are not members of that organisation. That means that there are two levels within the sport; MPCC teams with tighter controls versus non-members who follow the WADA Code but fall short of the additional standards adopted by the other squads.
“Perhaps we can strengthen our delivery of the WADA Code as well, and our rules within and around it,” Cookson said. “I am really anxious to look at that.
“I think that although we have hugely reduced the amount of doping within our sport – and the CIRC report confirms that – I think what is worrying is that doping is still going on. It is at a much lower level, it is under the radar, it is not organised in a way that it was ten, fifteen years ago by teams, for instance, but it is still happening and there is still this abuse of things that are strictly allowed under the regulations but might be perhaps ethically challenging in other ways.
“So I want to try to de-medicalize – if I can put it that way – the practices of professional cycling and cycling of all levels.”
That naturally leads on to the subject of Tramadol, another grey area product in the bunch. While cortisone and corticoids are expressly forbidden in some circumstances, no such limitation currently exists for Tramadol. However it is believed to be a big problem, with some riders stating that using the powerful painkiller causes dangerous effects such as risk-taking and disorientation.
It has been blamed for an increase in crashes in the bunch.
“There was a body of opinion that if a rider needed to take the product, the rider should not be riding,” stated the CIRC report, highlighting that this product too was a topic for concern. “It was also thought that Tramadol could cause impairment of judgement in a rider, which in turn could cause crashes.”
However, as Cookson points out, at this point in time it has not been banned. This complicates things.
“Tramadol is a substance that is on the WADA watch list. Before my time [as president], the UCI referred it to WADA to have a look at,” he said. “They are doing studies. In their view, for whatever reason, they don’t feel at the moment that it is sufficiently proven that it should be on the banned list.
“I think we need to take the anecdotal evidence that we have been given about its use in the peloton, the effect it has on riders and risk-taking behaviour and those sort of things. Perhaps we need to look at that.”
Cookson said that the moment WADA puts it on the banned list the UCI will move to do the same. He said he feels curtailed somewhat by its absence from that list, not least because he fears any move by the UCI to ban it without WADA’s support could lead to any suspended riders being able to appeal.
He hopes that WADA will change its stance; in the meantime he said he is very pleased that the MPCC has a rule against it. “I noticed that a number of other teams that are not part of MPCC have said they won’t use it either,” he added.
However, given that the MPCC don’t automatically receive the results of anti-doping tests, the reality is that the organisation has no way of knowing which riders are persisting with the painkiller. Teams or riders could claim they are not using it, but without the results of tests neither the MPCC nor the UCI know.
As Tramadol is on the WADA watch list, the agency is itself presumably receiving information from anti-doping tests as to those who are using it. CyclingTips asked Cookson if the UCI could request that WADA share that information with the UCI, thus helping the governing body have a better idea if a rider or a team are ingesting Tramadol.
If this happens, the UCI would then be in a position to approach those using it and try to put pressure on them to stop.
“That is a good suggestion and I think that is something we can look at for the future,” Cookson answered. “All I do know is that when WADA reported on it, they said that the vast majority of instances where they had found tramadol were in connection with cycling. That is sad, but I think it tells us a story.
“What we need to do I think is to look at whether that is still the case some months on from that and whether the teams that are saying that they won’t use tramadol are actually living up to that commitment. That’s something we can look at.”
Cookson noted that the CIRC report included a range of suggestions about the prevalence of doping, with one unnamed rider claiming it could be as high as 90 percent. This has been questioned by some commentators, particularly as others who spoke to CIRC said the number is considerably lower.
Either way, he acknowledges that there is work to be done. “An important point is that nobody that the commission spoke to would have given cycling a clean bill of health at all, in terms of doping,” he said.
“I think that is a pretty telling statement. So even if it was 20 percent, which was the lower level of estimates…even if it is ten percent, that is still 20 guys lining up at the start of the Tour this year that are doping, that are cheating. And that is ten percent too many.
“We have got to try to find ways of tightening that net more and more.
“That said, one encouraging thing that came out of the CIRC report is the statement that it is now possible to win in cycling without doping. Clean riders are succeeding, the levels of improvements from doping are much, much less than they were a few years ago and there is plenty of evidence to support that.”
One issue raised about the CIRC report is that a very low number of current professionals spoke to the commission. It means that it is difficult to get a full insight into the current reality of professional cycling, and that there is a risk of a lack of perspective.
Cookson rues the missed opportunity, but states that any rider complaining about the report now had the chance to have their say and didn’t take that up.
“I think it is regrettable that more people didn’t feel that they should come forward and talk to it. But I can understand why if they feel that it is nothing to do with them, then maybe they wouldn’t want to.
“What we are going to do now is a prevalence study. We are going to analyse our own data to look at what we thing is happening. We are going to talk to more riders and more teams to get a better picture and we will be doing that over the course of this season.
“But I have got no time for people who say ‘they never asked me to contribute.’ They knew where this commission was, they had 13 months to talk to it. If they didn’t talk to it, it is a bit rich complaining afterwards.”
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