The Tour and “Second Generation” Epo

Some things in life are entirely predictable. The sun comes up in the morning to the East; bears carry out their excretive functions in the woods; the Pope admits to being a practicing Catholic; and, one after the other, riders in the Tour de France are caught and banned from the race for doping offenses. The latest two-wheeled transgressor, Riccardo Ricco – not to be confused with Cuban band leader and husband-of-redhead Ricky Ricardo – had actually already won two of the Tour’s stages; his ejection from the competition led his entire team, Saunier Duval-Scott, to voluntary withdraw from the Tour as well. (Oh, and I’m reminded of yet another entirely predictable thing by the line in that New York Times article linked to above that reads “On Sunday, after Ricco’s second stage victory, he angrily denied allegations that he had suspect blood levels or that there was any reason for him to be targeted by French antidoping officials.”)

If you didn’t have the link, you would have to dig down a bit into the NYT’s on-line Sports section to find that article, since to American audiences the Tour has always been somewhat of an exotic taste, even back in the days when everyone actually believed that it was an authentic athletic competition. In the Netherlands, though – with its documented bike population exceeding that of the country’s human inhabitants – they take it somewhat more seriously, which explains today’s front-page, above-the-fold article in the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad (Epo is always changing its form), by Hester van Santen Maarten Scholten (whew!), that provides an excellent description of the new type of doping for which Ricco was sanctioned, which he evidently (and erroneously) thought he could get away with using.

Epo Through the Generations

Probably the most important concept to be acquainted with here is “Epo” – erythropoietin, a natural hormone that regulates – and so can enhance – human red blood cell production. Epo per se first came on the medical market twenty years ago; more interestingly, the first test to detect it in humans was devised only ten years ago, for, again, it is a natural hormone that the human body produces in naturally in certain small quantities and the challenge was to differentiate the natural Epo from the unnatural. Yes, that effort to come up with an effective test succeeded – but only for what is now known as “first generation” Epo.

The kind that Ricco was caught using, on the other hand (going under the name “Mircera,” a.k.a. “CERA”) is “second generation” and so somewhat different – different enough that the tests for detecting “first generation” were thought not to be able to detect it. It’s not like Mircera is any more effective in its red-blood-cell-enhancing role than previous versions of Epo; it’s not any more or less safe to use; it’s just that it is new, having come onto the market only last year. (Presumably after last year’s similarly scandal-plagued Tour de France – oh yes, Mircera does have another point in its favor, namely that it only needs to be administered – by injection – at most twice a month.)

Luckily, though, it seems that the anti-doping agencies managed to catch up with this “second generation” Epo just in time, at least to catch Signor Ricco and a couple others this year (so far). Actually, in her article Ms. Scholten claims that, once a laboratory is set up to look for it, Mircera is actually even easier to detect than other Epos in that urine samples will exhibit not only Mircera itself but also a certain chemical signature that also hints at its presence. No worries though: according to the World Anti-Doping Agency “third generation” Epos are well on their way, such as a so-called “Hematide” – “remember that name,” Ms. Scholten advises the reader as she closes off her article.

Oh Yes, We’ll Be Sure to Remember

“Remember that name” indeed; what she means, of course, is that Hematide (or some other third-generation hormone) will inevitably be the medicinal trademark dominating next year’s Tour de France, as “tradition” and overwhelming financial interests insist that the farce be staged again and a whole new passel of riders are caught competing unfairly. Another thing to remember is that the detection capabilities of the available chemical tests are not the only decisive variable in trying to make the competition “clean” – also important is the system the Tour uses as to whom and how often it actually applies such tests. It is on this subject that another anti-doping expert has grave doubts, namely Rasmus Damsgaard, the scientist behind the anti-doping program of the Danish cycling team CSC Saxo Banks, as expressed to Jyllandsposten (Expert: A Third of the Tour Could Be Doped). See, before Ricco was recently caught, the only other two riders expelled from the tour this year for doping were relatively small fry that no one had ever heard of: Moises Duenas Navaro and Manuel Beltran. You see, Tour officials don’t really test very extensively for doping, in Damsgaard’s view – they just test “randomly.” “I shudder to think of it,” he told Jyllandsposten, “but if the Tour authorities took an Epo-test from all riders in the morning, I would be afraid that 10, 20, maybe 30 percent of all riders would test positive.” But they never have done that.

Denmark is also a “bicycling country” par excellence which, like the Netherlands, has a proud tradition in cycling and forwards many teams to the leading competitions, but it seems even there disillusion over doping is approaching critical mass. The same Jyllandsposten recently posted an article entitled Readers: Hard to take the Tour seriously where one Gitte Anderson contributed what could be termed a modern-day cycling catechism:

What do I think when someone is just about to win a race-stage?

Answer: They must be on Epo.

What do I think when the eventual tour winner cycles to the finish line?

Answer: Why should I be glad, in four years they’ll find out that he was on Epo.

What do I think when the Tour de France is over?

Answer: I’d like to know what will be dug up afterward this time (such as the Bjarne Riis scandal, for example).

. . .

What do I think in general about the Tour de France?

Answer: This is in general a rubbish-sport, whoever wins is probably on Epo, so why look at it, it’s a pure waste of time.

Meanwhile, over on the web-pages of one of Denmark’s other main general-interest newspapers, Politiken, the sports editor feels the need to explain to readers why his outfit will continue to cover the Tour (Editor: Here’s why we will still cover the Tour). OK, why? Because cycle sports are part of reality, that Politiken is supposed to cover for its readers. Ignoring it just because some riders use doping would be like ignoring business news just because some businessmen are criminals. Our reporting can still be marked by a stance that deplores the fact that cycle sports evidently are not able to extricate themselves from this situation.

Maybe Execute Doping Offenders?

Well: there you are. But that doesn’t mean you or I have to read, watch, or listen about any cycling event. Anyway, time moves on and the Tour de France will eventually pass the spotlight on to the next doping event, which this year is a biggie – I mean, of course, the Peking Olympic Games! You can rest assured of EuroSavant coverage of the upcoming track-and-field, etc. doping scandals ready to burst upon the Peking scene, just as you can bet your bottom dollar that such scandals will be forthcoming.

Or will they? A recent article from Belgium’s Gazet van Antwerpen (Olympic Games Put a Knife to the Throat of Drugsdealers) reminds us of the Chinese government’s world-famous hard-line attitude towards drug dealers – mainly extensive use of the death penalty. Now, it’s true that the drugs mentioned in the article as being dealt are only the usual ones: mainly heroin, but also newer lab-produced drugs like methamfetamines (“ice”) and ketamine. No mention here of doping drugs – but maybe the Chinese authorities intend to include them? That could be a very interesting experiment in how to clean “doping” out of sports – stay tuned!

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