The Lance File

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This site is about scientific evidence – so what’s the evidence versus Lance Armstrong then? ‘ Isn’t it all a witch hunt?’ ‘Where’s the smoking gun?’ ‘It’s all hearsay’… I hadn’t intended to talk doping this week but these are the comments I have had this week from students, colleagues and friends. So I thought I would set out the evidence here!

Late in October the US Anti Doping Agency released their ‘Reasoned Decision’ document detailing their investigation into Lance Armstrong and his cycling team. The report was several hundred pages and included hundreds more in individual affidavits and other paperwork. Don’t worry – you won’t have to read them all – I will present a summary of the key evidence below.


The report is mainly based on witness testimony, but also contained the section ‘Scientific evidence that corroborates Lance Armstrong’s doping violations’. This is only around five pages out of the whole report and details the following:


Athlete Biological Passport violation


Introduced in 2008 by the Union Cycliste International (UCI, cycling’s governing body), the Athlete Biological Passport monitors certain blood parameters over time. Whilst the human body is extremely complex and not entirely predictable, there are certain things you would expect to see in the blood samples from a rider during a three week cycling Tour.  Lance’s 7 Tour victories were all achieved before the introduction of the ABP but his comeback in 2009 was after its introduction.


2009 and 2010 Tours de France – There were two items of interest in the 2009 and 2010 Tours. Firstly his blood samples showed suppressed production of red blood cells (measured immature blood cells decreased) which is a marker of blood doping. This pattern was repeated during the 2010 Tour. There were seven samples from these two Tours which showed this pattern. An Australian expert, Professor Christopher Gore, estimated the likelihood of this pattern occurring naturally was less than one in a million.


Secondly the blood samples showed an odd pattern with regard to the plasma volume. Plasma (the liquid part of blood) has been shown to increase in volume during extreme endurance events. Mid way through the 2009 Tour Lance’s plasma volume decreased over several days, reversing the usual trend. This is not normal.


The actual data for this has not been published so has not been verified. Armstrong did publish several of the values on his personal website (since removed) and it was commented on by several experts that they did not appear normal.


‘If it were confirmed that he was doping in 2009–10, then he can get fucked, completely.’  Brad Wiggins


EPO Positive samples


These relate to samples from two years – 1999 and 2001.


1999 Tour de France Samples

There were no EPO tests in 1999. The French lab (LNDD) froze samples from the 1999 TdF and re analysed them in 2004. Six of the samples that tested positive for EPO were linked to Lance using the doping forms. These tests were conducted on the B sample only (the reserve portion of the sample) and were for research purposes, which is why they did not result in a sanction.


2001 Tour de Suisse Samples

During the 2001 Tour de Suisse at least one of the urine samples taken from Lance was labelled as ‘suspect’ by the lab. The standard in 2001 required the exogenous (‘foreign’) parts of EPO measured to be greater than 80 % of the total EPO present. Under today’s standard these would be considered positive as the procedures allow some discretion as long as certain criteria are met.  WADA Technical Document – TD2009EPO.


Another interesting detail in the file is the debunking of the ‘tested 500-600 times and never tested positive’ spin heard from the Lance camp.  The report indicated it is more likely to be 260 or so times, with not all of those being full drug screens.



The evidence is enough to lead USADA to conclude he doped.  There are pages and pages of team mates and other eye witness testimony. Eye witness testimony is admissible in a court. As for science, the evidence they present is incomplete but telling. They do not present the full data they have available for the ABP, which would allow independent scrutiny.

Would this be enough in a court of law ‘beyond reasonable doubt’?  How about a sports tribunal at ‘on the balance of probabilities’?  I’ve read it all and I am convinced.  How about you? Let me know in the comments below…


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Photo credit: placid casual / Foter / CC BY-ND

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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.