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Juan Jose Cobo, winner of the 2011 Vuelta a Espana, has been found guilty of an Anti-Doping Rule Violation by the UCI’s Anti-Doping Tribunal. The case is based on abnormalities in his Biological Passport between 2009 and 2011.
Cobo was the surprise winner of the 2011 Vuelta, finishing ahead of Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins after taking a stage win, and a chunk of time, atop the Angliru. Should the decision stand, pending a possible appeal by Cobo, it would make Froome the winner of that year’s Vuelta, and thus the first British grand tour winner.
Cobo, who retired in 2014, has been handed a three-year period of ineligibility. He has one month to file an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Cobo has long been considered one of the most startling winners of a grand tour in recent history. His career was one filled with ups and down, with glimmers of brilliance followed by periods of anonymity. He won Pais Vasco in 2007, then the Hautecam stage of the Tour de France in 2008. He took a Vuelta stage in 2009, then another in 2011 on his way to overall victory.
The strength of the passport
The Biological Passport tracks key blood and urine values over time, and is designed to detect abnormalities that are linked to the use of various doping methods. It was first implemented in 2008 and is seen as a turning point in professional cycling’s fight against doping. In theory, it allows the UCI to sanction a rider without that rider ever returning a positive test.
In reality, the results have been mixed. The legal strength of the passport has been tested numerous times in court, and it’s come out on the losing end in high profile cases like that of Romain Kreuziger. Kreuziger was cleared by his national federation, claiming his abnormalities came from hypothyroidism and excessive fatigue. The UCI and WADA filed an appeal with CAS, but later retracted it.
Most recently, the Passport was used to suspend Colombian rider Alex Norberto Cano Ardila. It has also been used to aid targeted testing. Abnormalities in a rider’s profile that aren’t egregious enough in and of themselves to warrant a suspension may still result in extra tests for that rider. In the first three years of the passport, 20 of 26 EPO positives were a result of targeted testing based on the passport, according to the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report issued in 2015.
Passport cases are always somewhat drawn-out affairs, due to the time required to gather and analyze an athlete’s values. But the delay in Cobo’s case is unusual. The UCI made no indication as to why Cobo’s sanction comes eight years after the period in which the abnormalities occurred, and declined to comment when contacted.