Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lance Armstrong Investigation: Results of New Doping Test will be Crucial

If you've been following the Alberto Contador investigation, you've read that a new doping test has quietly been in development to catch athletes doing blood transfusions. The test is designed to look for signs of transfusions by detecting high amounts of plastic metabolites in urine and blood. Apparently, similar tests have been used for our food supply for some time but now it is being applied to look for blood doping in cyclists. The test has not been approved by WADA yet but the scientists working on it say they are close to establishing the cutoff for evidence that a blood transfusion was used.

While it is clear that Alberto's levels of plastic in his urine probably spell doom to his steak story, it may not be as clear what this test has to do with Lance Armstrong. Well, first, Floyd Landis has alleged that many in the pro peloton, including Lance, turned away from EPO as the preferred doping method in the early 2000's and, instead, reverted to transfusing their blood. The reason for this change was that an effective test for EPO came out. As such, Floyd alleges that Lance, Levi and others transfused their blood around the rest days in the Tour de France. The test for this has been to look for excess mature blood cells relative to immature cells or reticulocytes. Floyd alleges that cyclists got around this test by micro-dosing EPO at night in amounts that would were undetectable by morning. The EPO would lead to new reticulocytes and keep the blood looking normal. This plastic test is a new way to detect blood transfusions.

But, you ask, how can this affect the Lance Armstrong investigation? One very good deterrent to doping that was adopted by pro cycling in the past few years is a requirement that blood and urine samples be maintained for future testing. I recall that at some point in the past decade, cyclists had to agree to this requirement. An article from NY Daily News makes the point that hundreds of Lance Armstrong's urine and blood "specimens are in storage, where they are fair game not only to anti-doping agencies but to" Jeffrey Novitzky and his associates at the FDA who are investigating Lance for fraud. I assume that the same is true for others who Floyd alleges were taking transfusions including Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie and Dave Zabriskie.

In my opinion, this new test is great news for either Lance or Floyd and horrible news for the other party, depending on who is telling the truth. I believe this new test could be a game changer. In the past, I have said that I didn't think Lance would ever go to jail because he's been able to get the tests that showed he was doping thrown out on technicalities. I've also said that there is so much smoke around him that I don't think he's innocent. 

Assuming this new test is deemed strong evidence of doping and assuming Novitzky gets a hold of several of his specimens, I believe this evidence could resolve any remaining doubts about these allegations. From what I've read, the plastic from these blood bags should still be in the frozen urine and blood. As such, if Novitzky can show a pattern of plasticizers spiking around the rest days to show that Lance was transfusing his blood then Floyd's story will be validated.

I also believe that this evidence could change the tide of belief that he is guilty if enough specimens were tested and showed he had no unusual spikes or amounts of the plastic in his urine or blood. As such, if he is really innocent, he ought to be thrilled at this new test and begging Novitzky to test his urine and blood for these plasticizers. On the other hand, if he is guilty, he ought to be holding a press conference any day now to let the truth prevail.

In the end, this test has serious implications for all those who Floyd alleges were involved in doping. If Levi, George, Dave and others were transfusing their blood they will now want to think twice about how they answer the Grand Jury's questions. There may not be as many urine or blood specimens out there to analyze for these riders as there are for Lance but, this test could lead to time in jail for perjury if they are not telling the truth...


  1. Could this plastic test be a smoking gun that the prosecutors have had in their hip pocket for awhile now??
    Wouldn't it make the most sense to have this evidence and use it against Armstrong's teammates to get them to sing before the grand jury? Or do they want them to perjure themselves and then hit them with this "smoking gun", to get them to flip against Armstrong?

  2. Don, good questions. What do you think?

  3. I suspect that the accidental ingestion of plastics will become the new thing in the pro peloton. :-)

  4. There must be plastic in my chamois cream!

    Am I the only one who noticed the flip-flop in the Contador story today? First, the meet came from the Castile y Lyon race director as a gift, and Contador felt like he had to eat it. Today, the meat was purchased, because the french meat was bad, and not just Contador, but all four spanish cyclists on the team ate it.

    I still think it is pretty funny...."I didn't dope, but the cow did." In a nutshell, that is what Contador is saying since Clen is forbidden for livestock use. It's as if he consulted Landis for five weeks for what would the best excuse be, and he came up with 'the cow doped.'

    Still love the sport.

  5. I suspect that the plastics test has been in use for some time. Not so much as a "primary" test, but rather as a great indicator of where to REALLY look. If you run every sample through a simple plastics test, and you get a few hits, then you can "go deep" for other compounds on the samples that came-up positive for plastic.

    WADA (being a scientifically respected organization) wants to make sure that any test they develop is able to withstand scrutiny, so they're going to take their time on the plasticizer test standards. Even so, the cat's out of the bag. Now the dopers will just shift to glass bottles and non-plastic tubing.

    The plastic test will now only be useful for retroactive testing.

    Actually, Floyd has done some good. He's given them great info about how they now microdose EPO... not as a primary doping method, but as a way to boost production of new RBCs so they can have a better ratio in regards to old RBCs contained in stored bags of a rider's own blood (they can tell the ratio in tests now).