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Doubts about the credibility of the urine test to detect the banned blood-booster EPO resurfaced in Madrid yesterday when the release of the results of Roberto Heras's B sample from the penultimate stage of the Tour of Spain were delayed to allow more testing to take place.
While Heras and his lawyer were telling the press that, in their view, the test was negative and the process should be halted, CSD lab director Francisco Rodriguez explained "the process has not finished, it is long and complicated and we will have to wait 48 hours more". A final result is now expected on Friday.
The delay hardly inspires confidence in a test that has been criticised for delivering 'false positive' results and has already been defended by the World Anti-Doping Agency. However, more than anything it appears that the Heras case has added to the confusion as much because of the leaking of the news of his A test positive to the press as due to unexpected delays in the testing procedure.
As winner of the Vuelta in September, which was his record fourth victory, Heras is one of the most high-profile riders in the sport and rides for one of the most high-profile teams, Liberty Seguros, although he is currently suspended by them pending the results of the test. The Spanish and international media have followed his case very closely, providing unwanted attention on a process that should normally be carried out in secret.
If Heras is cleared on Friday, it will just underline the necessity for keeping the whole testing process secret until a final and definitive result has been arrived at. Heras's repeated claims of innocence would have been vindicated, but his previously spotless reputation would be much harder to retrieve.
On the other hand, if Heras's sample is found to be positive for EPO, many will retain the impression that the urine test is still flawed and not trustworthy.
Heras and his team spent Wednesday evening building their case for rejection of the test. His lawyer, Jos Maria Buxeda, who attended the testing procedure, said: "The image of the test could not be read. So the result should be that EPO has not been detected. This provides clear evidence that the method is flawed. The director of the laboratory has decided to repeat the analysis again and in principle the result will be announced on Friday, but what guarantees will that give us?"
Meanwhile Heras, speaking at a press conference in Madrid, commented: "I expected a negative test, but what has happened is that they could not confirm anything. I've got a completely clear conscience and I insist I've never taken EPO or anything else. It is right there are controls but this method is clearly unreliable."
He added that it would have been "madness" and "incomprehensible" for him to have taken any doping products on the penultimate stage of a race that he was already leading by well over four minutes.
Late on Wednesday evening, the CSD lab put out a statement of their own, denying reports that the initial testing had been inconclusive. "The remaining quantity of the sample and the perfect method of storage are allowing the analytical process to continue, a decision that the doping control laboratory has taken in conjunction with the scientific expert from the International Cycling Union."
The lab made clear in comments to the Spanish press that it is not unusual to restart the testing procedure in cases like this in order to guarantee that the correct result in what is recognised as a complex test is achieved. WADA itself backs this strategy.
What is unusual is the degree of outside interest at this stage of the testing process, and the announcement to the press by Heras's lawyer that the test was inconclusive and was "surprisingly" set to be repeated. He has already asked the lab and the UCI to nullify the second test of the counter-analysis on the basis that it is a new test; in effect, a third test.
After all the comments and counter-comments, the only thing that is certain is that there will be another announcement on Friday.
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