Cycling and the athlete biological passport

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This week Team Sky, the poster boys of the new clean cycling, have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Firstly John Tiernan-Locke (JTL), a British rider who won the Tour of Britain in 2012, was charged with an offence picked up by the athlete biological passport.  Last night it was disclosed that Mick Rogers, who left Team Sky following revelations from the Lance Armstrong affair, has been charged with doping after clenbuterol was found in his urine.  I will perhaps take a look at clenbuterol in a later post as there are some interesting previous cases, but for now I will park that case.

The case of John TL is the first and so far only case this year to be pursued in cycling using the athlete biological passport (ABP).  The charges relate to a sample taken in late 2012, before JTL joined Team Sky.  I have been asked why it has taken so long for the positive test to be pursued and what it means – so I thought I would jot a few thoughts down here.

What is the Athlete Biological Passport?

Cycling was the first sport to introduce the ABP in 2009.  The passport is an electronic record of various ‘biomarkers of doping´ from an individual, updated each time a sample is analysed. Currently the ‘Haematological Module’ is in operation, aimed at picking up blood doping or other manipulation of the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles, such as EPO use.  The ABP does not directly find doping substances and is not a substitute for traditional tests, rather an additional tool in fighting doping.


How does it work?

Blood samples are collected from the athlete at various times, during competition and outside.  These samples are analysed for a range of blood constituents such as haematocrit, haemoglobin and red blood cells. As more samples are taken and analysed from an indiviudal the passport builds up, showing trends in how the body reacts to various stresses and strains of competitions and rest periods of an athlete.

When the analysis is complete the numbers are plugged into the passport and a statistical analysis is completed to determine whether samples are suspect or not.  As a new sample is analysed each previous sample is also reconsidered in light of the new information available.  Over time the system adapts to an individual and variations away from that athletes normal are noted and investigated.


Why does it take a year to find a positive sample?

This has been very frequently asked – why is he now being charged for offences occuring in September last year?

There are a few common misconceptions.  I previously noted several athletes had posted online the results of their testing with the title ‘passed’ next to blood samples collected and analysed.  This is not correct – you never really pass the ABP test, it is an ongoing process.

Only after a year or so has it beceome clear that the samples taken last year from JTL are significantly different from his own normal range.  As each subsequent sample was taken the range of normal for JTL was getting narrower and narrower until this one (or more than one, it isn’t clear) stand out from the rest.


Who will be investigating JTL?

First step – an expert panel APMU (see video below) investigate each profile and decide whether to flag as suspicious.  This file is then passed onto the UCI who will decide if the athlete has a case to answer.  If they agree to do so then the file is sent to the national governing body, in this case British Cycling.  Under UK arrangements British Cycling will pass the task of prosecuting the case on to UK Anti Doping (UKAD).  This is where we now stand – UKAD are investigating.

Here is an interview with the Cycling Anti-doping Foundation (CADF, UCIs anti doping arm) Director, Dr Francesca Rossi, explaining a little of the process.


Could he have been doping without Team Sky knowing?

Without a doubt it is possible.  Whilst he had an agreement in place to ride for SKy in 2013, in 2012 he was riding for the Endura Racing team.  This team is not one of the ‘World Tour’ teams, which means they do not have to abide by the same stringent anti doping regulations.  Before joining Team Sky JTL was not on the list for frequent blood samples.  He would have had a few bloods taken and analysed but not many or frequently.  As soon as he joined Sky the frequency of such samples would have been increased.  As the net gradually tightens using the ABP those first samples taken last year began to look more and more suspicious.


Has the ABP been used successfully in the past?

Yes, several other high profile cases have been bought by the cycling authorities. The UCI website, listing riders suspended over the past few seasons list two cases: Franco Pellizotti and Tadej Valjavec.  There are many more than that I am aware of so I am not sure why those are the only two listed. 


Could it be due to anything other than doping?

This is a moot point of the biopassport.  The blood parameters being tested can change for entirely innocent reasons.  Spending a considerable time at altitude (as cyclists often do) can change some parameters.  Being very dehydrated or suffering from some illnesses can change things too.  Part of the investigation procedure allows athletes the chance to mention anything that may have affected their blood readings.  This time has gone for JTL, and he presumably didn’t an explanation that convinced the panel his profile was no longer suspicious.

The future for ABP?

Starting in January 2014 WADA are introducing a second module to the ABP – namely the ‘Steroidal Module’.   This will monitor variations in the naturally occurring steroids in urine, such as testosterone, over time and look for any unexpected variations.  The two modules combined are a very good weapon in the fight against doping.


Has cycling finally eaten itself?

Maybe.  There have been so many ‘corners turned’ and ‘new generations’ over the past 15 years that it is hard to know what to beleive.  The main hope currently seems to be that the new head of the international cycling union (UCI), Brian Cookson, will lead a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ type committee and get everyting out in the open, allowing a new start for all.  Will this work?  Let’s hope so as people are turning off pro cycling in their masses….


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.