A conversation with Bob Stapleton

Columbia chief gives us the lowdown on team's new anti-doping programme

To say that Don Catlin was an unfamiliar name in cycling circles is to underestimate how well-informed the average bike fan now is about all matters doping, but it's certainly true to say that the Los Angeles-based expert's profile has risen considerably in recent weeks.

After Lance Armstrong's announcement earlier in the autumn that Catlin will be his personal anti-doping policeman in the 2009 season, on Monday it was the Columbia and Slipstream teams' turn to officially unveil Catlin as the man behind their new independent testing programme.

The news comes after the company that previously fulfilled the same role for both US-based teams, the Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE), ceased operations recently, citing financial reasons.

With the press release still hot on the printer, on Monday afternoon, I spoke to Columbia team boss Bob Stapleton to find out more about a programme which he believes marks another breakthrough in cycling's war on drugs.

Procycling: Bob, can you tell us a little bit about the kind of assurances you wanted from Don Catlin when you first started talking to him about running a testing programme for the Columbia riders?  

Bob Stapleton: I started talking to Don over a year ago, before we started with ACE. When you talk about anti-doping in North America, Don Catlin's pretty much the guy. He's the godfather. You only have to look at the number of times he's been the chief witness for the prosecution in cases brought by USADA (United States Antidoping Agency) and how many times they won.

I think USADA's record's something like 34-0. Don's actually the first guy I  talked to about an independent testing programme, but he wasn't in a position to take that on back then. When we sat down and started talking this time, my main questions were about whether Don and his people could handle the workload, and whether we had common goals.

It was also important to me that we didn't just start something totally new, without building on what we've already done with ACE and the biological passport. Science-wise, Don wants to do a lot of work on  different kinds of EPOs or biosimilars, plus use the profiling that's already done. What I also really like about Don is that he's not just interested in catching cheats for the sake of it – he wants to level the playing field for the guys who are competing clean. I think having him on board is great for the team and for the sport.

Procycling: So, just to confirm, he'll be using both profiling and direct detection of doping substances?

Bob Stapleton: Yes. He'll be doing the urine tests in his lab in California, which is a very high-quality facility, and has the advantage of being within easy reach of the team's offices. As I understand it, he has the capacity to detect all different kinds of EPO – all of these Mexican, or Chinese or Russian or other biosimilars we keep hearing about. Urine is a lot easier to store and handle than blood, so it's no problem for him to have the samples collected in Europe and transported back to his lab for analysis. Blood presents more logistical challenges, and there's a very strict transport protocol in place.

Don will comply with the same rules as UCI, WADA or any other testing agency on that score. It's an independent programme, so we won't dictate which labs in Europe can or can't test the blood, and how Don manages that, but I know that he's well ahead with organizing his strategy. It's up to him whether he uses the money we pay him to hire a sample collection company, as the UCI does, or whether he hires his own contractors for that job.

Procycling: You've talked about the team's riders being submitted to around 600 tests in 2009, between Catlin's test and those carried out by other agencies. Roughly what proportion will Catlin account for?

Bob Stapleton: It'll be about 50 per cent. The important thing to bear in mind is that it will use intelligent testing, based on riders' race programmes, what Don sees in the profiling and other information. It's Catlin's call, who gets tested where and when, and he's going to be smart about it.

Procycling: Bob, it still doesn't sit well with some fans that you pay an independent agency what we assume is a large sum of money to do the tests. People will say it can't be truly independent. Greg LeMond also raised this point in the now infamous Lance Armstrong press conference in Las Vegas. How do you respond?

Bob Stapleton: I think we're doing everything we can to maintain independence and build confidence in the sport. We don't have to do this, but we choose to have an independent programme because it feels right to me. I don't think you can ever do too much on anti-doping. Other people might disagree, but I really believe that this sport would be in a much better place now if people like Don Catlin could have been involved and had the kind of access we're giving him much earlier. Again, people might not like it, but it's a big part of what our team's about, to have an independent testing programme and transparency.

We're not trying to set ourselves on a pedestal – and we are not telling others what to do. We're also very positive about what the UCI's been doing over the past year or so, with the biological passport. I think we're moving towards a point where we're going to see athletes sanctioned on the basis of the biological passport very soon. We're also going to see any rider who's not adhering to the biological passport kept out of big races. In my view, those are really positive things.

Procycling: We know that, under ACE, the riders paid three percent of their salary to help fund the testing. Can you tell us whether your riders will be paying all or some of the fee for Catlin?

Bob Stapleton: It's about a 50/50 split again: the riders will pay about half and the other half comes from the team's budget. It's important that everybody has a financial stake in the program and is as committed as possible.

Procycling: We spoke at the Tour about Gerolsteiner and how, for all their talk about anti-doping, they hadn't gone down the route of an independent testing programme. After Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl's positive tests, I know you like the Gerolsteiner manager Hans-Michael Holczer, but do you feel vindicated.

Bob Stapleton: Again, personally I  think an independent testing programme makes sense. It certainly did in the past, when the testing just wasn't there – and it still makes sense now that testing's improved significantly and the passport is up and running. You can think of it as an insurance, as a positive pressure, as a deterrent – it works on various different levels.

Another aspect of it is that it brings the riders together and makes them feel as though they're working together on this… Again, I think that getting someone like Catlin involved in the sport, with his exemplary record, can only help cycling. The holes in the net are shrinking all the time and someone like Don will only help to make those holes even smaller.

Procycling: We understand that UCI anti-doping chief Anne Gripper visited the team at your training camp in Majorca last week. Can you tell us a bit about what she told you and the riders?

Bob Stapleton: Anne came to the camp, and the most important thing was that she was able to reassure the riders that the biological programme is continuing to progress, that the playing field is becoming more level. Anne's put a very professional face on the UCI's work on anti-doping. There's been a noticeable difference since she arrived a couple of years ago and went full-time dedicated to anti-doping. 

The UCI did something like 7,500 tests last, there are now something like 800 riders in their testing pool, and they've set up a nine-strong review committee for the biological passport. I think their next challenge is how they can sanction on the basis of the biological passport in a fair, accurate and impartial way. As I said before, though, I think we'll see some developments on that quite soon and by all the objective measures the passport is making real progress.

Procycling: Does it concern you that the French Government Anti-doping Agency (AFLD) was able to catch so many riders using "heavy-duty" doping products at last year's Tour, when it's still quite rare for the UCI to test riders positive for substances like EPO and CERA?

Bob Stapleton: I do think that the AFLD were very good at the Tour. They were easy to work with, their work was clearly high quality, plus they did some very innovative things, like come to do the tests at odd hours. They clearly had  ideal circumstances - it's much easier when you know exactly where the riders are going to be for a month and you can put your hands on them easily 24/7. The UCI doesn't have that advantage. They have to operate on a global level, which is much harder. You also have to acknowledge that the AFLD were quite fortunate in the sense that the test for CERA was ready at just the right time for them. If the AFLD and the UCI can co-operate in the future, I think that's the best solution for the sport.

Procycling: Ideally, would you get to a point at the end of the year where you thought that the UCI's testing was so good that you didn't need an independent programme?

Bob Stapleton: I think we'll see how the sport evolves this year, then make a decision. We're keeping an open mind. The great thing about providing that extra guarantee on top of the biological passport is that people can embrace these great young talents like Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tony Martin, and Mark Cavendish, and exciting riders like Kim Kirchen and have confidence in them. That's the long term benefit of doing more dope-testing now: it's tangible and it alters people's perception of the sport and its personalities. 

It sends the message to other young riders that if they take advantage of all of the legal tools on offer to them, they can compete with anybody. I think education is  important in making sure that young riders never step over that line and decide to cheat, but it's also really important that they have positive role models. It's very powerful if a kid can look at a rider like Cavendish and believe that he's competing and winning clean, just by exploiting his own talent and all of the legal tools available to him.

Procycling: Finally, I'm sure you're aware of reports which predominantly appeared in the Belgian press prior to the Worlds, according to which at least two of your riders were among those whose blood samples had been deemed "suspicious" at the Tour and were being retested for CERA. Could you tell me whether those reports were accurate and, if not whether you've found out where the misinformation came from?

Bob Stapleton: As far as I understand, the criteria for the CERA re-tests were performance-based. In other words, they tested riders who won stages or generally had a successful Tour. My belief is that  the same approach for CERA and human growth hormone was used: they tested for them based on sporting results at the Tour, then when the  blood test methods were confirmed after the Tour, they tested the samples again.

It was incorrect to say that all these athletes or their samples had been "suspicious". I think a very large number of riders' samples were re-tested – I've heard as many as 40. Having won several stages and had riders in different  jerseys, it was logical that some of our riders were among them, just as it was logical that there were some CSC riders and some Gerolsteiner riders. We don't, however, know with certainty if our riders' samples were re-tested or, if so who they were. That has never been communicated to us.

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