It's always a new twist in Tour de France doping

Jul 18 2008 Published by under Cycling, Doping

Okay, with Stage 13 on the books, where are we with the doping cases? Well, first we had Manuel Beltrán nailed for erythropoietin (EPO); his team Liquigas pulled him out of the Tour and suspended him. Next up was Moisés Dueñas as the second rider with a "non-negative test" for EPO. Number three is Riccardo Riccó, also nailed on suspicion of EPO.
Here is where it gets interesting.


Riccó's team, Saunier Duval immediately pulled out of the race, reminiscent of last year's abrupt departure of Astana after Vinokourov tested positive for autologous blood doping. Nothing too new here except one might draw certain suspicions from the fact that another top Astana rider Andrey Kaschechkin also later was busted. More on that in a bit.
At any rate, page down on this page for some analysis from doping-control experts:

Daniel Friebe: In the last twenty minutes we've heard that Riccardo Riccò has tested positive for an EPO-like product. The early reports suggest that Riccò used CERA or Micera. a so-called third generation EPO. What's your reaction?
Michel Audran: Wow. I'm stunned. I'm amazed they're saying it's Micera, simply because there's no validated test for that yet. The World Anti-Doping Agency is working on a test, but it certainly doesn't exist yet.
DF: What exactly is CERA, or Micera to give it its commercial name?
MA:It's a delayed-action EPO, which has a different molecular mass from EPO. It's only been commercially available since the start of the year. We can tell when someone's used it but we can't declare them positive. In that respect it's like Dynepo, another EPO-like product. We know that Micera was being used on the Giro, so I'm not surprised that it's also turned up at the Tour. But I would be very surprised if they AFLD had declared Riccò positive for Micera, for the reasons I've just mentioned. Maybe they searched Riccò's room and found the product itself...

Aha! So the dopers thought they had a new product that could beat the system. And you know what that means......this is just the tip of the old iceberg. Hmm, and furthermore, you will note that these chaps thought they were being very clever because they were submitting pre-Tour samples that already looked a bit suspicious. I.e., probably a high hematocrit. The idea being, if you think you can't get nailed for EPO, you could even lay down a trail of high hematocrit values absent evidence of EPO use, to excuse later high hematocrit. "I just have a naturally high hemaotocrit!", they'll cry.
Okay, back to our story. Saunier Duval next fired Riccó...and teammate Leonardo Piepoli (who had not yet tested positive):

Piepoli, the winner of stage 10 to Hautacam, is not reported to have failed a drugs test, but the team decided to fire him after conducting an internal investigation. "[Gianetti] did a personal investigation and consequently lost faith in Riccò but also in Piepoli because of a violation of the team's ethics code," read a team statement.

Yup. Dopers a-plenty. Dopers who win stages and even if they don't are major players in the race. Players who screw up the validity of the race six ways to Sunday. You can't just award the race stage to the next guy in cycling stage races. I mean, you can. But the integrity of the race is screwed up. Because what an individual rider does, doped to the gills, affects everyone else. It affects the guy who went on break with them and just sucked wheel. It affects the non-doper who was put over the limit and cracked because he couldn't hang.
Oh man, stay tuned. No doubt more doping drama to come. [And maybe we'll learn a little more about this "Micera/CERA"...]

6 responses so far

  • Neural T says:

    There's no way to stop this. It's like spam. In an increasingly globalized economy with exponentially improving science and technology, people will always find a way. The number of ways to cheat the system is ever expanding.
    Sports are just going to have to come to terms with performance enhancement as a way of life.

  • OriGuy says:

    One thing I never hear about is the rate of false positives for these tests. The media and the WADA would have you think that they are 100% accurate. Aren't there other substances that can cause these tests to trigger?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    landis apologists'blog it: http://trustbut.blogspot.com/2008/06/oops-department-epo-test-is-broken.html
    Hmm, I swear I looked at the original article when I first saw this and couldn't find the false positive. I'll have to go back and re read that article which is here:
    http://jap.physiology.org/cgi/content/abstract/90529.2008v1
    other exchanges:
    yes:
    http://bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/cgi/content/abstract/107/12/4711?ijkey=21d1ba35cd714ba2d187805624167fdc4417614a&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha
    no, not possible:
    http://bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/cgi/content/full/108/5/1778

  • Rhea Miller says:

    So what do you think about Slipstreams's anti-doping claims and new testing methods?? :
    The Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE) independently administers the program. ACE tests Slipstream riders 20 times more often than is required by the Union Cycliste International (UCI), pro cycling's governing body. True to its dedication to total transparency, Slipstream provides access to the riders testing results to approved 3rd parties.
    The ground-breaking testing program breaks away from trying to play catch up with the latest drug. By testing attributes unique to each rider-blood composition and hormone levels-the program establishes baseline biological markers for each rider. Once established, any variance from this baseline can be immediately identified without needing to detect a specific banned substance.

    Do you think this form of testing will work??

  • Markk says:

    It sounds like WADA (world anti-doping authority) worked with Roche before the release of CERA to get some kind of markers in or have them use some substrate that would make it detectable. CONI (the people who run the Giro) said that they had found some unknown substance in Ricco, and asked ASO (the people who run the Tour) for help. ASO is using tests developed with Roche. I guess they are now putting 2 and 2 together.
    I am sure there will be false positives at some point. But basically the Tour organizers have said that this is it - no more gentleman's agreements. All the riders knew this as ASO had kept last years winner out - not because of anything specific about him, but because his team was dirty in the year before. I like what ASO is doing right now. Some riders will be hurt, but if you are positive the police come and arrest you and you are questioned. Think what the NFL or MLB would be like if that happened!
    Re "passports" and Garmin (Slipstream.) I think that is actually the right way to go. Teams will have to be more open with new training methods. Nothing will be 100% perfect. But with an ongoing monitor you know if something is going way off at least.
    I don't think its coincidence that three teams with outside bio-monitoring
    Slipstream - now Garmin
    High Road - now Columbia
    CSC - now Saxo
    all successfully got new sponsors - while others are leaving. The fact that big Russian dollars are coming in to pro cycling through Tinkoff does make me uneasy unless those teams adopt similar open controls.

  • Micera is simply a pegylated (actually, methoxy polyethylene glycol) EPO-beta. Polyethylene glycol has long been used as an excipient to aid in drug dissolution. But covalent conjugation of it to protein drugs improves half-life and decreases immunogenicity. In my field, pegylated E. coli L-asparaginase (pegaspargase) is used in some leukemia regimens to counter the high asparagine requirements of such hematologic malignancies. I think that pegylation was used even earlier for another drug product.
    Although PEG conjugation is meant to disguise the protein drug from immune detection, one can still generate antibodies to PEG in the lab. In fact, anti-PEG monoclonal antibodies are available commercially so my guess is that an ELISA was designed with anti-EPO antibodies for capture and biotinylated anti-PEG antibodies for detection. Anti-EPO should detect any EPO product whereas the anti-PEG will distinguish between EPO or darbopoeitin vs. pegylated-EPO. Alternatively, one could immunoprecipate from plasma with anti-EPO or anti-PEG, then run a Western and probe with the reciprocal antibody. I don't know a lot about this area but I'd also guess that pegylated-EPO runs on a gel with reduced mobility relative to native EPO.
    Even though Micera was approved by the EU last August and in the US shortly thereafter, anti-PEG antibodies were already available. So, no surprise to me that anti-doping lab rats were well ahead of the curve on this one.
    btw, pharmaceutically-speaking, Roche is in a pissing match with EPO giant Amgen over whether Micera represents a true novel composition of matter relative to Amgen's products. This may be one case where Amgen won't win because of the precedent with other pegylated proteins (and small molecules) represent significant advances over the prior art.

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