Give credit where it is due to cycling

Associated Press
Spain's Alberto Contador pedals as a supporter cheers him during the 9th stage of the Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy cycling race, from Messina to Etna, Sunday, May 15, 2011. Giro d'Italia favorite Alberto Contador showed his class to race away for his first stage win at the 2011 Giro and take the pink jersey from overnight leader Pieter Weening. The three time Tour de France winner finished the 169-kilometer (104.7-mile) stage from Messina in four hours, 54 minutes and eight seconds, with Jose Rujano second three seconds behind. (AP Photo/Franck Faugere, Lapresse)     ITALY OUT
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Pointing to a map showing the route of this year's Tour de France, the police officer whose job it is to know about and try to prevent such malfeasance predicted where riders will dope.

"When they set off here, they'll be doped up to the gills," he said, jabbing a finger at the Vendee region of western France where the Tour launches on July 2.

"But it's like a plane, they need refueling," the officer continued, explaining that doping will occur not only before the three-week race but during it, too.

Gesturing first at the Pyrenees, which the riders will scale in mid-July, and then to their next obstacle, the Alps, he added: "I think the refueling will happen here ... and here."

How depressing, I thought. More than a decade after the Festina doping scandal essentially showed that cycling's most fabulous event had largely become a fraud, here was a suggestion from someone with inside knowledge that perhaps not much has changed.

But that suggestion is wrong. The question is how wrong?

No one can say with any real certitude exactly how many riders now slogging through the Giro d'Italia are using blood transfusions or EPO to boost their endurance or how many will be at the Tour.

There is, however, evidence to suggest that their numbers have significantly declined or that cheats are blood doping to a lesser degree — in other words, that racing may be becoming more believable than it used to be.

Riders were scandalized last week when the French sports newspaper L'Equipe published a confidential list that ranked competitors at the 2010 Tour on a 10-point scale of doping "suspicion." The list was drawn up for cycling's ruling body, the UCI, so riders deemed most at risk of doping or otherwise worthy of scrutiny could be targeted for additional tests, with a ranking of 10 representing the highest priority, but not meaning the riders absolutely doped.

Nothing wrong with that. Cycling deserves credit for its expensive and pioneering monitoring program that keeps close tabs on riders' blood values. Unlike some other sports, which prefer not to dig too deep for fear of what they might find, cycling is at least trying to identify suspects whose blood values show recurrent bizarre blips and other red flags that could be caused by doping.

Targeting them for additional tests is a more intelligent and convincing use of resources than merely picking out athletes at random or the top finishers in an event and asking them for samples.

The UCI says 22 riders who were targeted for out-of-competition tests because they had suspicious blood readings were subsequently caught in 2008-2009 for EPOs or anabolic steroids — the lesson for all sports being 'seek and thou shall find.'

So instead of moaning about the targeted-testing list that leaked to L'Equipe, cyclists should hold it up as a mirror to athletes in other sports who don't search as hard and say, "That's what we're subjected to, why aren't you?"

Experts sent by the World Anti-Doping Agency to observe the testing at the 2010 Tour did single out disturbing cases where the UCI did not make the best possible use of the intelligence that its blood monitoring program provides.

In one example, a rider listed at 10 — the highest priority for testing — wasn't tested at all in the three months before the Tour, the experts said. L'Equipe said just two of the 198 competitors were listed at 10 — Carlos Barredo of Spain and Yaroslav Popovych of Ukraine, one of Lance Armstrong's RadioShack teammates.

The experts' report said their overall impression was "that the UCI could and should have executed a more targeted and aggressive testing strategy."

But they also tempered their concerns with praise, saying "the UCI should be congratulated" for its blood monitoring program and noting that "very few" other sports bother to collect such intelligence.

Knowing that their blood is being closely watched appears to be a deterrent for riders, too. Some, especially those who can afford high-priced doping witch-doctors, may still be transfusing and using EPO but in amounts small enough to stay under the radar. Experts employed by the UCI to scrutinize the readings say some riders' blood values look too good to be true, which suggests that they've found ways to work around the monitoring program.

Other riders, however, may have decided that the risks are now too great and have either stopped blood doping or, if they are younger, have not even started. That would suggest that mentalities are changing — which is also borne out by police and anti-doping authorities who say they're getting more tips and better intelligence from within the famously secretive peloton about riders and teams still suspected of doping.

Without getting bogged down in the science, the UCI also says that in the three years since it launched its monitoring program, it has seen a dramatic decline in extremely unusual readings for reticulocytes — young red blood cells which can provide telltale signs of manipulation. The UCI says: "This data suggests that the behavior of the peloton has changed in relation to the use of blood doping agents."

Changed. Not completely weaned itself off the naughty sauce, but apparently pedaling in the right direction.

Those roadside spectators at the Tour who have long delighted in yelling "all dopers!" when the peloton zooms past need to come up with more accurate jibes.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/johnleicester.

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