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Reacting to the arrest of Dario Frigo and his wife Susanna on suspicion of drugs-related offences, and French professor Michel Audran's comments to procycling about the limitations of the International Cycling Union's anti-doping protocol, UCI medical chief Leo Schattenberg on Wednesday defended his organisation's strategy for combating the banned blood-booster EPO.
Following the Frigos' arrest and the reported discovery of 10 doses of EPO in Mrs Frigo's car, Audran today lifted the lid on a new method of EPO use which could allow riders to cheat UCI tests designed to detect the drug. By using "micro-doses" of EPO, riders can sail through tests performed as little as 24 hours after the drug has been injected, said Audran.
Speaking this afternoon, Schattenberg acknowledged the scientific basis for Audran's hypothesis, confirming that the UCI "has been aware or riders using EPO in this way." Asked, however, whether Frigo's arrest and Audran's studies on EPO offered glimpses of a new and damaging trend, Schattenberg responded with a categorical "no".
"I would point out two things," said the UCI drugs czar. "The first is that the smaller the dose of EPO, the smaller its effect. The second is that the results of our haematocrit tests are very encouraging. In fact, 20 per cent of all riders have a haematocrit of under 40. I think that that says more about the health of the peloton than what is in the boot of Mrs Frigo's car."
Schattenberg went on to clarify that the UCI's anti-EPO urine tests "are able to detect normal doses of EPO for four to five days after usage and, if it is used frequently, for 14 days."
According to the Dutchman, the effectiveness of the EPO tests themselves is reinforced by the UCI's policy of increasing the frequency of its out-of-competition controls. Whether the total number of these tests performed in 2004 is the 300 estimated by the Swiss-based organisation or the 230 stated elsewhere, Schattenberg remains adamant that they represent the UCI's most powerful weapon against doping. "Unfortunately, these tests are very expensive and that limits how many of them we can do. Since 1997, we have already increased our anti-doping budget by well over 50 per cent".
UCI president Hein Verbruggen agreed with Schattenberg, telling Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that the "UCI would like to do more out-of-competition controls but doesn't have the budget".
Contacted on Wednesday afternoon, Frans Delbeke of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)-accredited anti-doping laboratory in Gent, Belgium, also said that he had been aware of the new, minimalist approach to EPO use described by Audran for "a couple of months". Delbeke stressed that "the only way to counteract this practice is to do more out-of-competition tests."
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