22 Aug 12

Carlos Barredo: a man of letters

A letter from pro cycling's governing body demands an explanation. In more ways than one...
Barredo letter

Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo has been notably absent from results listings this season so far. He broke his arm in March at the Grote Prijs E3. Despite a rapid return to health, he has not raced since the Dauphiné, where he finished 66th overall. Team officials cited further injuries sustained in training.

A Tour de France berth hardly seemed likely but when Rabobank left him out of San Sebastian and the Vuelta selection, a raised eyebrow might seem an appropriate gesture.

Today we have an explanation from Rabobank: the team won’t let Barredo race again until a response arrives from the UCI. A response to what?

You’ve got mail

It transpires that earlier in the year the UCI wrote to Barredo demanding an explanation for fluctuations in his blood values on the ABP for the years 2007-2011, only the last of which he spent with the Dutch team. Presumably having duly responded, the Spaniard must now await an official response.

What this affords us is a brief, flashlight glimpse of the voluminous administrative processes associated with an increasingly complex athlete monitoring programme. Set apart from all the hubris, soundbites and petty scandals of doping culture, these lengthy paper trails represent the more prosaic fallout of drugs in sport.

Blood simple?

The ABP scheme is managed by WADA, which describes the system as …

… [the] monitoring of selected haematological variables measurements (markers of blood doping) … as a means to define an individual’s haematological profile …

In recent years, doping regimes have become much more scientifically planned and have
taken full advantage of the weaknesses in traditional protocols. This underscores the need for a more sophisticated and complementary strategy to effectively fight doping

WADA, Athlete Biological Passport Operating Guidelines – Version 3.0, p. 5

The ABP has often been the subject of controversy, especially in cycling, the sport which has long acted as a guinea pig for it. At the time of writing, six of the UCI‘s panel investigations based on ABP values have ended with a rider being sanctioned with a seventh now pending.

It is no easy task for an examination panel to conclude that a rider is doping from his/her ABP values, as former UCI ABP panel member Michael Ashenden recently explained. Human biology is complex and different interpretations are possible, even among a quorum of experts such as Ashenden.

Hence ample opportunity given, once the panel has flagged up a profile, for athletes like Barredo to offer explanations. Straightforward due process, right?

Barredo letters

The ‘index of suspicion’

However the Barredo story also recalled a UCI internal list leaked to L’Equipe in May 2011 and floridly branded an ‘index of suspicion‘.

Here was an instance of ABP data being used to ‘risk score’ the peloton, to target individuals whose blood data looked questionable. To facilitate the planning of doping controls, officials had boiled down the huge scientific complexity of human biological profiles to a scale of zero to ten.

When formatted with impeccable taste in the format of a colour wallchart more common to sports event previews, the natural conclusion of most readers was that X dopes and Y doesn’t. Zero is a saint, ten is the Devil.

Carlos Barredo, we now remember, scored a perfect ten.

The horse’s head

As tends to happen when first we read casual evidence of the mechanics of an hitherto unknown or unsung UCI process – the index of suspicion itself was one example – cycling’s avid doping commentators are happy to extrapolate.

Some wonder aloud if this sort of “letter writing” could explain recent lacklustre performances of riders, especially in the recent Tour de France.

The idea behind such questions is that a rider receives a letter whose very receipt is significant. Like waking up next to a horse’s head, it’s the unequivocal warning that the heat is on and it’s time to lay off the stuff that drives up the blood numbers.

The difficulty with this idea is that such a letter demands explanation for jumpy values from the past. It does not immediately relate to what the rider is doing in the present. There is a considerable delay between the registration of values and the ominous letter.

An illustration of this delay can be found in the statistics: of the seven bio-passport cases made public, only two have been announced in the last three years, the facts suggesting a turnaround between dodgy data and suspension of about two years.

Let’s assume anyway that our suitably freaked rider does take the heavy hint and takes action to regularise his/her numbers. That drawdown will need to be managed every bit as carefully as the upswing, since a sudden drop is as questionable as a sudden spike. Any sort of significant fluctuation is suspect.

Return to sender

In this latter regard, the ABP represents a considerable advantage for anti-doping authorities: even if an UCI letter might query an arbitrary snapshot of time – a season or two, for example – the analysis is ongoing and if interpreted as a warning, heeding it after the fact does not preclude future letters.

Against that advantage we present the quis custodiet ipsos custodes argument: who will guard the guards? The effectiveness of the ABP as a tool against doping in sports depends on the quality of the expert panel and when armed with drastically simplified data and expert recommendations, perhaps most significantly of all, the quality and consistency of the governing body’s actions. No scientific opinion can help with that.

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