Tuesday July 22nd, 2008

Tough day in the Alps for Christian Vande Velde, the 32-year-old Garmin-Chipotle team leader who, despite losing 2 ½ minutes to the race leaders, remains one of the biggest revelations of this Tour.

Tuesday's Stage 16, from the Italian town of Cuneo to Jausiers, back on French soil, featured "one of the most intense stretches of climbing in Tour history," according to Velonews: a pair of hors categorie beasts that throw 11,000 feet of climbing at the riders over the final 83 kilometers. The slog up the Col de la Lombarde lasts 21km, with the most obscene pitches at 13 percent. Next up was the Cime de la Bonette, which drags on for an interminable 26.7km, its final 10 checking in at a cruel 9 percent. It was on the Bonette that Vande Velde, for the first time in this Tour, couldn't hang with the "Heads of State" as Versus' Paul Sherwen refers to the overall contenders.

Vande Velde, the former US Postal rider and Lance Armstrong errand boy, has nevertheless shone brilliantly in his first chance to ride as a team leader. But the three minutes and change by which he trails race leaders may be too much to make up between now and Sunday's final stage in Paris. If he rebounds and follows the right wheels throughout tomorrow's Marquise de Sade-inspired Stage 17 -- the parcours features a hors-categorie hat trick: the Galibier, the Croix-de-Fer and l'Alpe d'Huez -- there's still an outside chance he might elbow his way onto the podium. CVV is a formidable time triallist; the Tour's last meaningful stage is Saturday's flat 53km time trial in the middle of the country.

Wherever he finishes -- he's a shoo-in for the Top 10 -- the 32-year-old native of Lemont, Illinois has ridden the race of his life.

"He's one of those guys who always had it in him," says Jonathan Vaughters, director of the GarMen. "But he'd never been in a position to show it. He'd never been a team leader, and he'd never been in a race where everyone was ... on such even terms."

Read: clean.

The absence of the dirty riders from Saunier-Duval has made the Tour not just more fair, but infinitely more interesting. Sunday's electrifying thrust and parry on the Prato Nevoso -- the mountaintop finish of Stage 14 -- reflected a delicious parity among the lead group. As the astute Joe Lindsey pointed out in his engaging live blog, "These are the kinds of moves you expect to see, not bomb drops like the Saunier-Duval guys did. None of these guys has much more than a half a percent more on the others. It's a real dogfight, a tactical duel ..."

Funny how that works: get rid of the cheaters -- I should say some cheaters; a few rats may yet be caught out -- and the Tour is suddenly much more compelling, dramatic, human.

Rather than wring his hands over the three positive tests in this Tour so far, Vaughters welcomed the news:

"It depends what you want. If people want only positive headlines, if they want to keep [doping] out of the public eye, then don't test at all, and you won't have any scandals. The NFL model of making sure doping is a non-issue." (That's not completely fair: the league does test its players. It is fair to say that cycling goes much, much further than any of America's mainstream sports to strike at the roots of its drug problem.)

"If your want to push the science and the technology to the limits, and do serious, sophisticated testing, well, you're gonna catch some people off guard. And that's what happened here.

"What I would say now," he continued, "is that, for the first time in cycling, the number of people going positive is actually close to the number of people who are doping."

Vaughters' optimistic outlook was countered by an unsettling story from the BBC on Monday. Science correspondent Matt McGrath makes a convincing case that WADA is essentially ignoring positive EPO tests.

The number of EPO positives declined by two-thirds between 2003 and '06, according to McGrath. That seems to be a consequence of increased laxity in interpreting test results.

He interviewed Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard, who runs the anti-doping programs of both the International Ski Federation and the Astana Cycling team. "Earlier this year," writes McGrath, Damsgaard "sent five samples from skiers to a WADA lab for analysis. They all came back negative. But when Dr. Damsgaard demanded the gels or electronic printouts on which the determination of guilt or innocence was made, he was astonished to see what he believed was clear evidence of EPO use. "

"From a little work with a lot of blood profiles," says Damsgaard, "I found maybe five positives. I wonder that maybe hundreds, maybe even thousands of positive samples are lying around in WADA accredited labs."

Damsgaard's concerns overlapped with those expressed to me on Sunday by Dr. Michael Ashenden, project coordinator for Science and Industry Against Blood Doping, an Australia-based research consortium. (Velophiles will remember him as one of the experts who politely shot down Tyler Hamilton's contention that his positive test for homologous blood doping was the result of having shared his mother's womb with a "vanished twin.")

I phoned Ashenden to find out more about Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator, the so-called "third generation" EPO product found in the blood of the three riders tossed from the Tour so far.

Ashenden told me that just as his project, SIAB, works to anticipate blood doping trends, so did WADA and the Swiss Anti-Doping agency anticipate that the relatively new drug CERA would be abused. Working with Roche, the company that makes the drug, they developed a test for it, and sprung that test on the riders of this Tour.

"I think serious kudos are due to WADA and the Swiss lab," he said.

In this case, the system worked to perfection. Yet, when I asked Ashenden if he was optimistic that cycling was healing itself, he paused.

"Sometimes I'm quite optimistic, sometimes I get sort of disheartened," he finally said. He spoke of his frustration at being handcuffed by bureaucratic restraints and turf issues with WADA's 33 accredited labs around the world and recalled how, seven years ago, he was certain that "biological passports" were the way to go in catching cheats. (The UCI has spent some $8 million and drawn gallons of blood from hundreds of riders to establish a passport program).

Now, he says, athletes are skirting such longitudinal testing by using "microdoses" of EPO to subtly manipulate test results. "Because they know we're looking for these sudden, large fluctuations, he says. "They've become more clever in the way they take their drugs."

I asked for a primer on the EPO test. Ashenden obliged: "The urine sample is applied to one end of a gel, which then has an electric current applied to it. That drags the EPO molecules through this jelly -- it is literally a jelly -- and those molecules stop in different positions, depending on whether it's normal human EPO or recombinant EPO" -- the kind that gets you thrown out of the Tour.

"Then you take a photograph of this gel, and that's the basis of the test. When an athlete provides a urine sample, and an EPO analysis is conducted in the lab, they get this gel image of the EPO isoforms. They're essentially like the rungs of a ladder. And what we look for as a positive test is when those rungs are in a different position on the gel than where they should be.

"With micro-dosing, those ladders disappear before you get a chance to see them. But what you do see is an unusual pattern. It's not positive, but it's unusual."

These "suspicious" and "unusual" results are what, if Dr. Damsgaard and others are correct, WADA has decided to ignore. Many athletes aren't even making the effort to dodge unusual profiles, says Ashenden, "Because they know we're not doing anything about them."

If WADA lacks the nerve to call a positive a positive, Ashenden would at least like to include those gel images in the athletes' biological passports -- the baseline profiles on riders being compiled by cycling's governing body, the UCI.

"I would love to see those EPO gels on all of the athletes, because it would tell you who's doing something suspicious and who's not. Even when the blood profile looks relatively normal, you're still going to see these unusual patterns in the EPO gel. These gels exist, they're collected every time, but the labs refuse to disclose them. There's all this information sitting there that could help us identify who's suspicious and who's not. And it's not being used. To me it's nonsensical. We're in this uphill battle, but we're not using everything that's available to try and help us."

What's the hang-up? Why won't labs release those photos?

"It's their turf," he answers, simply, "and they want to protect it. They fear that if they start giving these gels out to the federations, than they lose power and influence. Because right now, they're the only ones who can declare a gel positive. No one else even looks at it, or is allowed to look at it."

Maybe some labs just aren't that eager to have their incompetence exposed. Ashenden points to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Eight male university students were injected with EPO over a four-week period. Their urine samples were sent to two different IOC-certified labs. One lab successfully identified positive samples; the other decreed none of the samples to be positive.

"These were the same samples!" Ashenden exclaims. "At the moment, if the lab director chooses, he can call a gel negative and no one can do anything about it. No one can go in and double-check. It's an issue of transparency. If it's incumbent upon the teams to be transparent, it should be incumbent upon the labs."

It was an enlightening, sobering interview. Between McGrath's story, the JAP study and Ashenden's take, I'm forced to conclude that cycling still has a mountain to get over in its quest for a clean culture. The climb may not be hors categorie, but it's definitely steep.

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