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Commenting after a recent statement by the World Anti Doping Agency that it will once again decline to ban the potent painkiller Tramadol, Brian Cookson has said that the UCI itself is looking into potentially tackling the issue.
“This is very frustrating for us, and this is something that I have asked our legal people to look at,” he told CyclingTips, speaking during a sit down interview at his president’s office in the UCI headquarters in Switzerland.
“We are pretty clear that this is something that is being abused. It is years now, it goes back before my time, my predecessors asked WADA to look at this. It has been on the watch list for all that time. They looked at it again this year and have concluded that there is still not sufficient evidence to put it on the list.
“That is very frustrating for us and we are going to look at it again with WADA. But as of now, it is still not on the proscribed list.”
Tramadol is a powerful opioid pain medication. Serious side effects can include seizures, decreased alertness and drug addiction.
American rider Taylor Phinney spoke at length on the subject to this writer three years ago. His interview was a wake up call on the dangers of the use of powerful painkillers, yet the situation is the same now as then.
“Some people find it surprising that riders would take pain killers or caffeine pills in races, but it is actually really, really common,” he said in October 2012.
“You see so many late-race stupid crashes that I almost wouldn’t be surprised if some or most of those crashes are caused by people taking these hard-hitting painkillers at the end of races.
“There is widespread use of finish bottles, which are just bottles of crushed up caffeine pills and painkillers. That stuff can make you pretty loopy, and that is why I have never tried it. I don’t even want to try it as I feel it dangerous.
“Another issue is taking something for an improvement, getting into that mentality. You have to ask why are you taking a painkiller? You are doing that to mask effects that riding a bike is going to have on your body…essentially, you are taking a painkiller to enhance your performance.
“But the whole reason we get into sport in the first place is to test our bodies, to test our limits. If you are taking something that is going to boost your performance, that is not exactly being true to yourself, not exactly being true to your sport.”
In 2014 former pro Michael Barry said in his autobiography that it was used by riders when he was part of Team Sky. He said that he frequently saw them being administered it prior to his retirement in 2012.
WADA has been aware of the Tramadol issue and put the substance on a watch list several years ago. However, while this means that it is tested for, there is no sanction against those using it.
A WADA spokesman confirmed to CyclingTips last month that nothing will change for next season.
“Tramadol is on the monitoring programme, on the watch list,” he said. “It was there for 2015, and it is remaining there in 2016. So it won’t be on the prohibited list.”
Cookson’s frustration is in relation to this. He confirmed that the UCI would like to see if it could introduce a tougher rule that the WADA Code, but he also admits it could be complicated. As a result of that, he is unsure what the UCI’s legal department will advise.
“We could in theory go higher [tougher] than the WADA Code,” he said. “But I am nervous about this because I want to have the strength of WADA behind us. I have said this before in other cases.
“If we try to go above and beyond the WADA Code, then you can bet your life that whoever falls foul of that, their lawyers will say, ‘you know what, this is where we will go after them. We will challenge that.’”
Because of that, he is being cautious. “We have to be sure that if we were challenged, that we would win. I don’t want to set a negative precedent, I want to set positive precedents in that sense.
“So we need to look at it very carefully and we are going to do that. Ideally, I would like tramadol to be on the banned list and ideally I would like the cortisol issue to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction as well.
“But at the moment, I want to make sure that WADA is 100 percent behind us.”