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Lance Armstrong never tested positive during his cycling career. Based on what his former teammates say, perhaps that’s because he was given lots of notice before tests. (ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS)
Lance Armstrong never tested positive during his cycling career. Based on what his former teammates say, perhaps that’s because he was given lots of notice before tests. (ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS)

DOPING

Seven tricks cyclists use to cheat drug tests Add to ...

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which governs the sport worldwide, eventually determined that racers would not be allowed to compete if their hematocrit (red-cell count) was more than 50 per cent. This was billed as a health measure instead of a positive test. Anyone scoring above the threshold was suspended for two weeks.

DELAY, DELAY, DELAY

The problem, critics say, is that it is short work to get a cyclist back under the threshold. A quick transfusion, although against the rules, takes less than 30 minutes.

The report points to Armstrong’s team constantly assessing and tweaking their hematocrit levels, boosting them with EPO and reducing them when necessary. In his book, Hamilton recalls his blood being spun in a portable centrifuge “the size of a toaster” to see what his level was and that other riders “talked about hematocrit all the time, as much as they talked about the weather or the road conditions.”

According to the USADA report, former Armstrong teammate Jonathan Vaughters said in a sworn affidavit he was present when a drug tester was observed setting up nearby. He said a team doctor went to “retrieve a litre of saline which he put under his rain coat and smuggled right past the UCI tester and into Armstrong’s bedroom. [The doctor] closed the bedroom door and administered the saline to Armstrong to lower his hematocrit, without alerting the UCI tester to their activities.”

Vaughters explained that a simple strategy to outwit testers was to “have the guys with lower hematocrit be tested first.” This way, the riders with higher hematocrit would have time to manipulate it downward by the time their turn came.

USADA says that “there were occasions when Armstrong did not immediately submit to testing.”

INTELLIGENCE GATHERING

With cyclists able to manipulate their system in short order, surprise testing was the only way to catch them.

But the USADA report shows how difficult that was.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) noticed that some cycling teams, which were not identified, kept a lookout at the 2010 Tour de France. People were watching the parking lot from hotel windows and a team member posted at the entrance “immediately used his mobile phone” when he saw the drug testing team, the report notes. It adds that prominent identification badges and race branding made the arrival of testers “at times so conspicuous as to provide advance notice to those about to be tested.”

And the USADA report cites riders on Armstrong’s team who say they seemed to be getting even more of an early warning.

In a sworn affidavit, former Armstrong teammate Dave Zabriskie said that team director Johan Bruyneel “always seemed to know when drug testers were coming at races. His warning that they’re coming tomorrow came on more than one occasion.”

Other times, the report alleges, the notice was shorter but still effective. Vaughters said that the team had an “outstanding early warning system” for drug tests.

“We typically seemed to have an hour’s advance notice prior to tests,” he said in his affidavit. “There was plenty of time in advance of tests to use saline to decrease our hematocrit level. There were at least three or four occasions during [1999] where I and other riders used saline after receiving advance warning of a doping control.”

BLOOD DOPING REAPPEARS

The appearance of an EPO test in 2001 prompted new approaches, including the reapperance of blood doping.

“From my conversations with Lance Armstrong and experiences with Lance and the team I am aware that Lance used blood transfusions from 2001 through 2005,” former Armstrong teammate George Hincapie said in a sworn affidavit.

Blood doping, in which a racer’s blood is withdrawn and then reinfused after his body has replaced the missing red cells, had largely been discarded as not as effective as EPO. But after 2001 its big advantage was that there was no test for it. Police raids in 2006 that turned up scores of blood bags in Madrid proved that the old method had come back in a big way.

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