“We can’t take cookies from strangers.” With ever more precise anti-doping tests, Cannondale pro speaks about everyday concerns about accidental positives.
Regarded as a rider with a strong anti-doping stance, Phil Gaimon has spoken up for former Cannondale teammate Tom Danielson, who is currently fighting a case in this area. Danielson tested positive last year for the banned substance DHEA and recently issued a statement saying that he believed the source was a supplement that he had used for several years without an issue.
Some have been sceptical about this, given Danielson’s previous admission that he had used banned substances earlier in his career. However Gaimon has given his public support to the older rider, and has now elaborated on this with CyclingTips. He’s also raised broader questions in relation to the tests riders undergo and the fear of accidental positives.
“The situation sucks,” he said. “From the fans’ perspective, a lot of people have used the same excuse in the past and in many cases, it is an obvious lie. I think the community is jaded and Tom is a past doper. I get it, I get why he doesn’t have a lot of credibility. But I lived with him and I know him. None of this adds up to the human that I knew.”
Prior to speaking to CyclingTips, Gaimon wrote several tweets expressing support for Danielson. He knows that the easiest thing for him to do would be to keep his head down and not get involved, particularly as the topic of doping cases is a minefield.
— Phil Gaimon (@philgaimon) June 8, 2016
And Zirbel wasn't doping, either. Doping does happen. Do thousands of tests, and odds are you find tainted stuff, bad luck, and weirdness.
— Phil Gaimon (@philgaimon) June 8, 2016
However he feels strongly that the rider he competed alongside in 2014, and with whom he lived with in Girona that year and in 2015, would not have deliberately broken rules.
“The guy that he was [in the past] did dope,” he explains. “But the guy that I lived with, the guy that I knew, the guy that helped me train…his whole message was, ‘this is what we used to do, and here is what we do now, and here is how you do it. You just go train really hard.’
“I lived with him. I saw nothing. I think I knew him better than anybody for those years. And he wasn’t that kind of guy.”
Danielson was one of several former US Postal/Discovery Channel riders who admitted doping while racing with that setup. Their evidence was part of the case used by the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) in pursuing Lance Armstrong, and was part of what eventually resulted in a lifetime ban.
He, Christian Vande Velde and several other riders received reduced six month suspensions and with these running in the off season, served very little time out of competition. However, a sanction for his 2015 positive would be regarded as a second offence and could result in a long suspension.
At 38, he’s fighting for his credibility, but also for his career.
Gaimon believes that Danielson’s case is not one of deliberate doping, but also isn’t optimistic about him competing again.
“I think that would be a crazy uphill battle,” he said. “I mean, he loved racing and I think if anyone would have him he would do it, but it is hard for those guys to get jobs, and especially now. He would have to clear his name to an extent that I think would be really difficult.
“He was of an age and of a generation that it was tough for him to come back from. And that is kind of a bummer. I get that, it was going to be hard for him to find a job, anyway. That is sad.
“All he had at the end is his reputation, and that sort of got buried as well.”
“He fucked up…but not in terms of doping”
The battle may be an uphill one, but Danielson plans on fighting it anyway.
According to him, the source is likely a supplement. In order to be able to prove this, his counsel has asked the American Arbitration Panel overseeing the case to postpone the arbitration hearing originally scheduled for this month.
On June 7 USADA announced that the panel had granted this motion. The hearing will move to a yet-to-be-determined date in the fall. Danielson will remain suspended in the meantime, but by the time he faces the AAA he hopes to have greater clarity about what happened.
Yet Gaimon fears that there is a chance that this clarity might not be found. “I don’t think he will ever know [how it happened]. It is like the Kennedy assassination. I think he knows that he didn’t take DHEA, that he wasn’t doping with whatever. I think he knows that. But he is never going to get satisfaction from where it came from.”
By way of an example, he speaks about another rider who served a suspension for DHEA, Tom Zirbel.
“Tom did blood tests, he sent everything into the labs. And he had a degree in chemistry. Yet eventually he was just like, ‘I don’t know.’ At some point you have to just make peace with that and hope your life catches up.”
One aspect of the case that Gaimon believes could have been handled better was the original announcement. On August 3 of last year Danielson made the news public via Twitter, and immediately got things wrong.
“Tonight has been one of the worst nights of my life,” Danielson wrote then. “While I was eating dinner with my team the night before Tour of Utah I received a call [from] USADA notifying me that a out of competition test I gave July 9th has tested positive for, from what I understand, synthetic testosterone.”
“I have not taken this or any other banned substance.”
Over ten months later, his statement last week named a different substance, namely DHEA.
“He made some mistakes in how it all came out,” says Gaimon now. “When he announced his positive, he didn’t even have the substance right. He just fucked up. But he didn’t fuck up in terms of doping.
“Statistics-wise, if we believe that some people get away with doping, the way testing works we can also believe that there are tests that are positive that aren’t. I think that is sort of like basic maths of the odds.
“Obviously the system isn’t perfect. If it was perfect, then no one would get away with doping either, right? So there are flaws.
“It makes sense that the riders have to be responsible for what they ingest, that makes sense, but I think there are a few unfortunate victims out there. There are some stories that kinda don’t add up. I think Tom is one of those.”
Scared of a street taco
It’s easy for people to criticise athletes who test positive. In many cases, that is justified: for years athletes have claimed to be clean and then, after being sanctioned, have later admitted to taking the substances in question. Several post-career autobiographies of riders have ended up being one long mea culpa.
However there is a small number who do test positive through contamination. The policy of strict liability puts the onus on them to be responsible for everything they ingest but, even if riders are careful, Gaimon said that many still fear that they too could end up in the same position.
“What I liken it to is when you are at the airport and dog is sniffing your bags,” he explains. “And you know you don’t have any drugs in there, but you are like, ‘you know, I was at a party, and maybe some smoke got on it…’
“It’s the same thing – you get a test and you are like, ‘fuck, I had a street taco the other day.’
“I take some vitamins, I am careful with what I take, we all are. But every time I get the letter [with test results], your breath goes for a second…and then it is fine.
“But I don’t get tested a thousand times a year. I think the odds go up for the guys they are suspicious of, those who are tested more often.”
The dilemma is that the smallest trace of substances can lead to a positive test. However precise anti-doping examinations are needed in order to pick up residual traces from athletes who may have used a banned substance a week or two (or more) earlier.
The incredible precision and sensitivity of the controls is the reason why any contamination could show up and, potentially, end a career.
Gaimon, and others, are acutely aware of that.
“You are talking about millimoles [a miniscule scientific measurement – ed.],” said Gaimon. “A really tiny amount. Like, two of them is legal, four of them is doping…but the difference is nothing.
“Zirbel told me that his test was a partial. What that means is that if you can’t pee the full 70 ml, you stop and then you have take another one, basically, pee again in a different cup. But all that really means is your pee is more concentrated.
“Literally, if Tom had drunk another bottle during the race that day or whatever, he wouldn’t have gone positive. The difference was a bottle of water. That is what it comes down to, and that is scary.
“That is kind of what our wellbeings hinge on. The tests are necessary, and they are doing their best, but it is ugly and there are victims out there.”
However, asked what could be changed and he pauses before saying that he doesn’t know what the solution is.
“I mean there is some stuff on the list that maybe doesn’t have to be,” he says after thinking. “That said, DHEA is something that people could cheat with so, no…that needs to be banned.
“Strict liability is a tough thing as they don’t have the resources to do better than that. It would be cool if they could afford to actually do the research afterwards. Like, if somebody had a vitamin and they could prove that the thing was in there… In such cases, generally those people get reduced sanctions.
Gaimon is torn between the need to fight the dopers and also seeing those who he believes are clean failing tests.
“I think the whole system, they are pretty much doing their best and it is not going to be perfect, that is all.
“The only way they could do better is bug our houses,” he continues, likely a little tongue in cheek. “Put a Go Pro in the corner, check my email. If USADA just had access to our text messages, they would be able to catch more cheaters.”
Right now, though, his conviction that Danielson was not doping brings home how careful riders need to be. Gaimon paints a picture of athletes who have real concerns about the source of much of what they ingest.
That extends to what people give them – usually in good faith – at races.
“My big thing is cookies,” he states, referring to something he has become known for on social media. “People bring me cookies at races. Everyone is always asking me, ‘do you eat the cookies from strangers? What if…?’
“I am like, ‘what is in it for them to spike my cookie?’ But no, I can’t eat it from a stranger. If it is someone that I don’t know at all, I say thank you and I look at it. That’s it.
“So we are in a situation where you can’t eat a cookie from a stranger. That is our lives. People hand you water at the top of climbs…but it would be real easy to just fuck someone’s career if they felt like it.”