With all the blood transfusions, casual EPO in the fridge, and an acknowledged code of silence, it certainly seemed like Lance Armstrong and '90s cycling culture had an untouchable monopoly on doping brazenness. But against the odds, one Venezuelan underdog managed to trump them all — by having way, way too many red blood cells.
Before signing Venezuelan Yimmi Briceño, Italian cycling squad Androni performed a routine biological passport test, which establishes baseline physiological numbers so anti-doping agencies can monitor suspicious bodily changes. According to El Diario de Los Andes, after the team found an insane 63 percent volume of red blood cells in his blood — the metric, hematocrit, usually comes in around 45 — they promptly removed any offers to the Venezuelan, who hoped to compete on the European level.
“It’s madness,” the team’s’ general manger, Gianni Savio told Cycling Weekly of Briceño’s 63 per cent hematocrit reading. “For me, it’s totally crazy. It’s not a question of sport, but with 63 you are at risk, you could have an embolism, you could not wake in the morning.”
To really put these numbers into perspective: The UCI, cycling's governing body, forbids athletes who test over 50 percent from competing, because racing with blood that thick is incredibly dangerous. When Armstrong, Hamilton, and Landis used to dope, it was about getting right up to that 50 percent line, but never crossing it. But though Briceño long-jumped over the line, he isn't suspended — just stuck without a contract. The hematocrit test is simply a proxy for doping, not a positive indication of a banned substance or blood transfusion. Still, with today's anti-doping crackdown and dwindling number of second chances handed out, it might be as good as a lifetime ban.