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by Shane Stokes
June 25, 2015
Photography by Cor Vos
Over a year after Team Sky pledged that a research paper would be published in connection to Sergio Henao’s blood values, specifically the University of Sheffield’s conclusions that high altitude natives had different biological passport responses than other riders, the University has provided clarification on the situation.
CyclingTips has been in contact with Team Sky for several months seeking an update. In response to that Dr Eddie Hampton of Sheffield University has said that work is continuing and that the research paper is pending.
“The research around this case has been taken very seriously and we undertook a large amount of complex scientific analysis before giving our recommendation for Sergio to be allowed to return to racing,” he stated on Wednesday.
“It’s still our intention to publish the results in the scientific literature. There are many processes to take into account when you write and publish scientific papers and delays of over a year are not unusual in these cases. We hope it can be done as soon as possible.”
In March 2014 La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the Colombian rider had been sidelined due to unexplained blood readings. In response to the story, Team Sky issued a statement acknowledging this was the case.
It said that the experts assessing data for the team had raised questions about the rider’s out of competition results at altitude.
Commenting then, Team Principal Dave Brailsford said the team had contacted the UCI and the Cycling Anti Doping Foundation [CADF] over the matter, and that independent scientific research would be commissioned to ‘better understand the effects of prolonged periods at altitude after returning from sea level, specifically on altitude natives.’
He added that the results from the study would be made available to WADA, the UCI and the CADF.
Last June the team then announced that experts from the University of Sheffield had carried out a ten week assessment. It began in Europe at the end of March 2014, included a six week period at altitude in Colombia and then concluded with tests at sea level in Nice.
Brailsford said that the experts had given ‘the highest level of confidence in Sergio’s previous data and profiles.’
The team said that it believed the study would give important insights into the physiology of altitude natives, and that a full scientific research paper would be published in the months ahead.
The delay in that publication prompted CyclingTips to seek clarification about the situation.
A number of additional questions were also put to Hampton, including one asking if he could summarise the passport differences which exist for high altitude natives.
He was also asked to clarify which situations could trigger changes which differ to non-high altitude natives.
“There are two factors here,” he answered. “Firstly the effect of altitude in the first few days or weeks is known, but the effects of residing at altitude for over a month is not well studied.
“Secondly, certain populations in the Andes, Himalayas and African highlands are undergoing adaptation to live at altitude. The literature indicates these populations have used different genetic and biological methods to adapt to living at high altitudes.
“In this particular case we studied an altitude native from the Andes and the scientific literature suggests that an increased haemoglobin in response to hypoxia is more pronounced in Natives from the Andes than in other populations.”
Once the scientific paper is published – and, particularly if its findings are backed up by other experts – a big question will exist for the UCI, WADA and others.
If it is proven that the usual biological passport patterns which pertain to most athletes might not apply for those who are high altitude natives, it will likely require a rethink about how to accurately monitor these sportspeople.
Hampton was asked if he believed the passport will be able to be used on such athletes.
“That’s really a question for the UCI,” he said. “The algorithm used for the ABP is not in the public domain. Certainly information about time spent at altitude is collected when ABP samples are taken so it is reasonable to assume this information is taken into account, but exactly how is unknown.
“It would be our view that if testing is to be carried out at altitude in future, further research in this area is necessary.”
This year Henao was runner-up in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and placed third overall in the Tour of California. He is expected to be part of Sky’s Tour de France lineup which is aiming to help Chris Froome win his second Maillot Jaune.